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Rodeo is a common passion on the Navajo Nation—a reservation the size of West Virginia that stretches across New Mexico, Utah, and Arizona—and a couple of years ago, when he was thirteen, Nigel James was an up-and-coming calf roper. But then his horse got pregnant and he couldn’t ride her, so he turned to his bike and started building downhill trails and ramps around his parents’ place. Soon he was riding his bike the way a roper rides a horse: in brief bursts of speed that give way to daredevil maneuvers. This school of cycling is called enduro, and Nigel had a gift for it.

The summer before, Nigel joined a long bike ride on the reservation called the Tour de Sih Hasin—three hundred miles over seven days, much of it on rough dirt roads and hills, in the punishing July heat. On the second-to-last day, he wanted to quit. His mother said that was O.K. But the next day he pressed on, becoming the youngest rider ever to finish the tour.


Before Nigel took up cycling, his sport was rodeo, and he rides his bike with the daredevil elegance that calf ropers exhibit on horseback.


Nigel wasn’t the only rider for whom the long days pushing over the severe landscape served as an inspiring test of endurance. Claudia Jackson, who leads the annual ride, organized the Tour de Sih Hasin as a suicide-awareness event. There was only one psychiatrist on the reservation, she told me, and, “In our five communities we had seven suicides in three months.” “Sih Hasin” means “hope” in Navajo, and several riders have told Jackson that overcoming the arduous physical challenge of the tour made them feel they had a reason to live.


“If we did a bike ride, that sort of brings us together. We talk about things, we might not talk about that issue, but we get people to talk.”


On the Rez, people live far-flung, in isolation, with limited opportunities, and many succumb to alcoholism and drug abuse.


Canyon de Chelly cuts through the heart of the Rez—spectacular to behold and heavy with history. The Navajo made their last stand against the U.S. Army there, in 1864, before they were driven out on a three-hundred-mile forced march known as the Long Walk. Many died along the way and on the return trek, after Navajo leaders signed the treaty that established the reservation. Even so, “This is not our land,” Vincent Salabye, another cyclist on the Rez, said. The treaty only gave the Navajo the right to live on the surface, while Washington kept the soil and the riches that lay beneath. And, for more than a century, reservation children, including Salabye, were taken from their families and sent to boarding schools to be Anglicized, Christianized, and otherwise deracinated—perhaps above all by being forbidden to speak their language. This was the original trauma of the modern Navajo experience, and a century and a half later it haunts collective memory on the Rez, where existence is defined as much by the stark and stony magnificence of the landscape as by the struggle to overcome the contradictions of being both a sovereign and a subjugated people.

Canyon de Chelly carves through the heart of the Navajo Nation, on the high desert plateau of northeastern Arizona. “My backyard,” Vincent Salabye, a rider on the Rez, says.

Nigel likes to be airborne, and has built ramps to practice jumps all around his parents’ house.

The Extreme Bikers of the Navajo Nation

Illustration by Golden Cosmos

Philip Gourevitch reports on Navajo athletes who practice an extreme form of downhill bike racing as a way to connect with their harsh landscape and to survive the legacy of trauma in their culture.

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