I pulled into the Warrior Challenge Relay, put on by Circles of Care at Spotted Bull Recovery Center, as relay runners were emerging from a 20-foot-wide cargo net stretched taught, inches above a sand pit dotted with small, sharp cacti. The race was on! A young woman who was behind in the first leg, a mile sprint around the pow wow grounds, had pulled ahead as she completed her first of thirteen obstacles.
At the north side of the course, two 15-foot orange extension ladders were strapped to poplar limbs pounded into the ground. There was a three foot gap between the ladders. Only a handful of runners succeeded at crossing that one. I would not have been one of them. This was one tough course!
If you failed an obstacle you did twenty burpees before moving on the to the next one. There were a lot of burpees being done. One friend did sixty burpees. She would have done more but she fell off the tight rope cross and bruised her tail bone.
A friend watched the competitors on the rope pull. “I have no idea how to do that. ”
Runners grunted by us. Two relay members dropped to do burpees. The young woman who took the lead at the beginning of the obstacles sprinted to the finish.
“We thought there were only three teams,” my friend’s husband joked. “It looks like we’ve got some stiff competition for the $500 prize money.”
Cars streamed in behind me. Tail gate spectators were everywhere.
By the end of the day, only a handful of competitors made it through without doing burpees.
A week after the dust had settled, I caught up with Donovan Archambault Jr, aka ‘Beef’, the guy who inspired the course. Intense, funny, direct, wiry and fit.
Beef was still riding high from the unexpected turnout.
Beef is the project director of Circles of Care at Spotted Bull. In addition to running parenting groups and creating programs in a community that has absolutely no recreational outlets, he’s also a stand-up comic. He’s hired across the country by colleges, veterans groups, recovery programs.
He looks at me with an intense gaze. “Humor is the best medicine, right?”
There is something about his eyes that hint at a deeper story than building the first Spartan-like obstacle course on this reservation. I ask him about his comic approach.
“What would be a joke you’d tell teen gang members?” I ask.
“Teen gang violence . . . joke . . . that’s tricky,” he said. “You have to relate to their funny side without offending them. What’s a funny line? Here it is: You still live in your grandma’s house. You can’t be a gang member and live in your grandma’s house. That’s number one.”
He got serious.
“I understand that mentality. He takes on the gestures of a teen. ‘When I do something bad that I know is bad, deep down, I’m cheered by my peers. It feels good. I have an elevated status. I have some power. I don’t get that from the broken home I come from. I don’t get that at the drug and alcohol home that I come from. But I get it here.’”
“Did you have that too?” I asked
“Absolutely. My mother drank herself all the way to the grave. She was dead by the time I was 22.”
He pauses and looks at me.
“I understand intergenerational trauma. As Natives we lead the nation in suicide, alcoholism, being single parents—all these loser categories, we are the winners. It’s passed from one generation to the next to the next; the sexual, physical, emotional abuse. We pass them on to our children because we don’t know any other way. Where does it stop?
He shifts to the reason for the course.
“We have nothing for these kids here in Poplar, or anywhere on our reservation. Nothing. No boys and girls club, nothing. If you don’t play basketball or run cross country or do one of the sports that keeps you halfway busy, you’re out of luck. I’ve wanted to create a course for years. Friends and I talked about bringing a Native Spartan Race to the rez for years. Each year we’d say, this year. The year would go by, and nothing. For four years we kept saying we’d do it, but it never got done.”
This May, Beef became the program director at Circles of Care. He decided, “I’m gonna do it. Even if it’s just me. Even if I get fired for doing it.” He laughs.
The building started at the beginning of pow wow weekend. Two days later, at 9 pm the night before the race, they were still finishing the obstacles. At 7:30am no one had shown up. He thought, “Okay, this is our first year. It okay to be small.”
At 7:45, cars started rolling in. By the time the race started, 19 teams had registered.
Three to four hundred spectators watched.
He was stunned. “To say the event had its own spirit was honestly an understatement. You could feel it, this place was alive. That’s a voice from the community saying we need this. This is something we can get behind. We need more of it!”
We talked about the woman in her 50s who was determined to finish. Just over five feet tall, she was barely able to reach to reach the rope-pull rope. When she did, she was unable to swing up. She tried to climb the pole, but failed twice. She did her twenty burpees and moved on to the next obstacle. At the six-foot hay bales she couldn’t scale the height. Two men helped her. One bent his knee for her left foot to climb.
“It utilizes teamwork,” Beef affirms. “It builds new skills.”
Now that the obstacle course was a huge success, Beef is planning to engage the community even further. Next week high schools are putting together teams and competing against each other.
He taps his head.
“You’re strengthening this. That’s a muscle up there. Working that thing out, pushing yourself physically, has a very real connection to pushing yourself mentally and vice versa. We need this to keep going in life.
Our conversation turns more somber. He finishes with this:
“People point the finger saying it’s Spotted Bull’s responsibility to cure this whole thing. Send them to treatment to cure this addiction. You’re not doing your job. People point the finger at law enforcement. You’re not doing your job. Arrest everybody. Make this a better community. You’re not going to arrest your way out of this problem. You’re not going to send your people to treatment to get out of this problem. If this is going to be fixed, it has to be a community effort.”
“We need solidarity”, Beef adds.
“I want the obstacle course to bring back historical tribal thinking. Being all connected. Being family.