The Prince of Acoma
This essay is the third entry into Issue 3 of Omakase Magazine: “Story,” which will be running during October and November. To learn more about this issue, check out our Letter from the Editor.
When living over a mile above sea level, it’s easy to lose your breath. But during the summer of 2009, it wasn’t a Rocky Mountain run that left me aching for air outside of my Colorado Springs home. Instead, my oxygen deprivation stemmed from a letter that I received from the University of Kansas Department of Student Housing. Before reading its contents, I knew that the letter provided information about my college roommate. As August was drawing closer, I was feeling anxious and excited about the adventure that I was about to embark on. I knew that my roommate would be an important piece of my experience and for better or for worse, he would have an impact on me.
As I stood in front of my mailbox, I opened up the letter and carefully read its text. In bold, the letter said that I was living with “Dakota Chino from Pueblo Acoma, New Mexico.” I rushed inside and searched for “Dakota Chino” on Facebook and found no results. I then logged onto my Myspace account and found Dakota on the first page of my search. I clicked on his profile, sent him a message and impatiently waited for him to reply. After a few minutes, Dakota answered and said, “That’s awesome that we’re going to be roommates. I can’t wait to meet you, man.” In that moment I was informally introduced to my college roommate.
I had no idea then that he was going to change my life.
Dakota and I spoke on the phone a few times that summer and after each phone conversation I was given more pieces of his story.
Dakota grew up three hundred miles away from Colorado Springs on the Pueblo Acoma Indian Reservation. Although we weren’t that far away from each other geographically, the two areas couldn’t be further away from each other demographically. Colorado Springs was rife with spacious houses with large windows that offered picturesque views of the panoramic Rocky Mountain setting. The Acoma reservation was located on a mesa that was sprinkled with small Pueblo-style homes that offered views of the New Mexico countryside. Colorado Springs was predominantly white and Acoma was nearly 100% Native. The students at my high-performing high school attended universities all over the country. Only the top students at Dakota’s school attended college, mostly at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque. Attending college out of state was a rarity for them—a feat accomplished by only a few students per year.
Dakota Chino was one of those rarities.
Dakota was a well-rounded superstar at his high school and on the reservation. He was an honors student, a varsity athlete and a consummate volunteer. He was beloved by his peers and was respected by his community. He was the “chosen one,” he was their prince. He loved the spiritual aspects of the reservation’s culture and embraced the long runs that he went on—runs where he could go miles and miles without seeing anyone so he could disappear into the New Mexico sunset. The open spaces of Acoma were an ideal training ground for a rising track and cross country athlete. Dakota was one of the best runners in his state and had a top five finish in the 3,200 meter race at the state track meet. Despite his considerable success in New Mexico and his love for the reservation, Dakota felt a desire to leave the area and see other parts of the country. Dakota’s family, however, needed significant assistance for Dakota to attend college. If he were to leave Acoma, he needed to get a scholarship that was going to cover the costs and Dakota decided to apply for one of the best.
For years, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation have fostered an endowed grant that they call the “Gates Millennium Scholarship.” The Gates Millennium Scholarship is a four-year full-ride merit scholarship that is given to the highest achieving low-income students in America. The scholarship can be used at any university that their recipients choose to attend. Dakota did some research and decided to give the scholarship a chance. Over 21,000 people applied for the 1,000 scholarships available in his application cycle. The application process was intense, but Dakota’s confidence grew as he advanced through the first three eliminations rounds. On a fateful spring day, Dakota and his mother were pleased to find a thick envelope in the mail. Dakota was awarded the Gates Millennium Scholarship and he was now able to attend any college that he wanted. Dakota considered the University of Colorado-Boulder, thought about Dartmouth College, but ultimately decided on the University of Kansas. He wanted to be a Jayhawk and attend the alma mater of his boyhood idol, Native-American runner and legend Billy Mills.
The Prince of Acoma was leaving the reservation.
Dakota was a self-proclaimed “momma’s boy” and had a difficult time leaving his mother on move-in day. Dakota had never gone four days without seeing his mother and he was now saying goodbye to her for four months. It was time for them to part so Dakota could begin pursuing his goal—a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering from the University of Kansas.
Dakota and I had an immediate connection. Although we came from different backgrounds, our personalities meshed well and we had a great deal in common. We were both easy-going “nerd-jocks” who loved meeting new people, and had a great time exploring our college town of Lawrence, Kansas. There was that time we got lost in haunted cornfield for two hours on the night before Halloween. There was that day that we filmed a video parodying MTV Cribs. We had many late nights that turned into early mornings. Some of my favorite memories were our marathon brunch sessions where we would talk and laugh until closing time in our dining hall about irreverent topics. Our best conversations, however, happened after midnight when we laid on our beds—me on the top bunk and Dakota on the bottom bunk—and talked about love, relationships, our futures, and the things that mattered to us most. I appreciated how honest Dakota was with me and that he shared the vulnerable side of himself that others on our floor were unable to see. In a residence hall that was filled with hundreds of people, we always had each other. As I closed my eyes after a particularly powerful conversation that we had, I thought to myself how this is what I imagined college being like—leaving home to meet and learn from fascinating people from all walks of life. Dakota Chino quickly became one of my closest friends.
It was May of 2010 and Dakota and I were heading back into our room after a late night out. It was our last night of fun before we needed to start studying for finals. We had a blast that evening and we settled into our beds and began reminiscing about all that had happened. After a few minutes of joking, the tone of the conversation switched. Dakota just decided to drop his civil engineering major to pursue a business degree. Although we both finished up the year in good academic standing by the university’s standards, I was doing much better in my classes and adjusting better socially. Dakota had barely avoided academic probation and although he knew a lot of people, he felt like he had a small number of “real” friends on campus. We were both in our beds and looking upwards—he at my bunk and me at the ceiling, Dakota said something that struck an intense emotional chord. He said, “People don’t know what it’s like for me. People don’t know what it’s like coming from a reservation to school out here. No one understands.” I listened to Dakota and told him that I’d always be there for him.
Sophomore year came and Dakota and I were reunited. I missed seeing Dakota over the summer since he was in New Mexico and I spent the summer in Kansas. Dakota decided to get a single room in a renovated residential hall and I remained where we lived last year. I was busy during that fall—I had moved up the depth chart and made the travel squad for the football team. Although I had a full schedule and we weren’t seeing each other every night, Dakota and I still met up for one-on-one meals, a casual night on the town, and basketball games together. When I made my first appearance in a college football game—late in the third quarter of a Thursday night blowout against our in-state rival Kansas State, Dakota stayed to watch me—even though most of the student section had left.
Once the football season ended, I told Dakota that I was thinking about applying to be an orientation assistant. I knew that it would be a great way to be involved at the university and I asked him if he had considered getting involved with a club or finding a part-time job. I mentioned that the multi-cultural resource center provided support services for multi-cultural and first-generation students. Dakota said he simply wanted to focus on class and didn’t want to get involved in anything. I decided to push back a little bit and told him that it’d be a great way to meet people and that involvement would even help him with his studies. Dakota didn’t want to get involved.
Junior year came and I began to grow really concerned about Dakota. He was barely running anymore and was isolating himself from his peers. I would visit him periodically and he would stop by my apartment on occasion to catch up. It was tough seeing the smile gone from his face. He had switched his major again and was now studying economics.
During winter break of that year we were messaging each other over and I asked him when he would be heading back to campus. He waited for a few minutes before replying, “I’m not going back this year. I’m going to take next semester off and work at the reservation.” I told him that he was one of my best friends and that if something was going on I’d love to support him through it. He replied and said, “I’m okay. Just need to figure out some stuff. I’ll be back in the fall. I’m going to go back and graduate.”
It was the spring of 2013 and Dakota still hadn’t come back to Kansas. One semester turned into two semesters and two semesters turned into three. I was in my final semester in school and before I graduated there was one more thing I wanted to do. After studying Native-American literature in my English classes and after my experiences with Dakota, I decided that I wanted to experience life on a reservation for myself. I was selected to be a site-leader for an alternative spring break trip and helped organize a service trip called the “Cheyenne River Youth Project” to the Cheyenne River Reservation in Eagle Butte, South Dakota. Although I could never understand what life was like for Dakota, I wanted to do my best to have a better understanding.
My group and I met a handful of times before our trip to educate ourselves on service and the needs of the Cheyenne River Reservation. We weren’t going there to change anything—just to support their youth center in any way they wanted us to. We left in a rental van during the early hours of a Kansas morning and our multi-cultural group looked like the personification of a college brochure as we traveled up the interstate. As I drove the van along the outline of Nebraska and Iowa and the rest of our group drifted to sleep, I wondered what Dakota was doing at this moment. Although we still texted and sent each other funny Facebook videos, it wasn’t the same as face-to-face contact and our late night conversations.
The drive took about ten hours. The reservation was isolated—it was near the Wyoming-South Dakota border and about an hour’s drive away from the nearest town. It was also a food desert and its only two restaurants were a Dairy Queen and a Taco John. Dogs wondered around without leashes and we were told not to pet them since they carried diseases.
We worked with the kids at the youth center by day and slept on the youth center’s floor by night. We deep cleaned the facilities, planned and executed games and enrichment activities and even cooked for them. The kids at the reservation were really intrigued by me and some of my other group members since they said they had never met any black people before. They didn’t have much, but they were so thankful for what they did have. They treated each other well, like they were one large family.
I had some powerful conversations with one particular student at the reservation. He was a high school junior and a member of his high school’s basketball team. He told me that students from the “white” schools often mocked his basketball team when they played at their schools for away games. He said they didn’t respect their culture and that it made him really angry. After a few minutes, a girl from my group came by to ask me a question. After she left, he paused and asked, “Hey, why does that girl in your group talk so funny?” I looked at him and said, “She’s from England and has an English accent.” He told me that he’d never learned about England before and that was his first time hearing an English accent.
During lunch one day, an elder at the reservation came and shared some poignant words with us when he talked about colonization and his own personal experience with it. He then finished by emphasizing, “The white Europeans took everything. They took everything we had and called it their own.” He then collected himself and said, “Most of us never leave the reservation. Those who do leave usually end up coming back. The white world isn’t very friendly to us.”
I learned a great deal during my week at the reservation. And for the first time since meeting Dakota I finally knew what I would never understand.
In May of 2013, I graduated from the University of Kansas with my bachelor’s degree. As I celebrated that wonderful moment with friends and family, I took some time to think about the people who didn’t make it make it to graduation day.
I took some time to think about Dakota.
On December 31st, 2013, I was on vacation in Southern California with my family when I opened up my phone to a series of text messages. Although my phone had been off for a couple of days, I was surprised by the sudden outburst. The texts were from a couple of my college friends and said things like, “Ryan, are you doing okay? I know you guys were close.” And, “I can’t believe he’s gone.” My heart began to sink when I finally read, “Ryan, we lost Dakota.”
I didn’t say anything to my family and sat silently for a few minutes. I didn’t want to put stress on anyone during our vacation. Later that day, I got a hold of Dakota’s uncle and learned that Dakota was a passenger in a fatal car accident.
The Prince of Acoma was dead.
When I was finally away from my family and into the vast terminals of the Los Angeles International Airport, I felt heavy and heartbroken and burst into tears as I slouched against a wall. As strangers tiptoed around me to reach their destinations, I realized that how I felt then was how Dakota sometimes felt—sad and confused in a big place full of strangers who have no idea what you’re going through.
When Dakota Chino died, the Pueblo Acoma Reservation lost their prince and I lost one of my closest friends. Dakota’s death was particularly challenging because he passed away before achieving his dream of earning a bachelor’s degree. Maybe if Dakota didn’t take time off he would have graduated in May of 2013. Maybe he would’ve been better off in a different setting. Maybe if he had one group, one place outside of our room where he felt like he belonged, things would’ve been different. But maybes don’t mean anything right now—maybe is simply a word that is used to buffer the caprice of reality.
A few weeks after Dakota death, I received a beautiful letter from his mother. I wrote her my deepest condolences and she wrote me a letter back. Before I opened it, I remembered that just a few short years ago I received a letter that brought Dakota into my life. Now I was receiving this one.
In her letter she said, “Thanks so much for your words, Ryan. I have a photo of you and Dakota in our living room. Your friendship meant a lot to him and I’m glad that you guys had each other. The only thing that I can ask from you in the future is to remember Dakota as you continue to live your life. Remember his smile, remember his joy and remember his courage.” I reminisced as I read her letter. I could never forget him.
In addition to remembering Dakota, I will always remember my good fortune and how small and precious moments can change the course of our own lives and those around us.
I like to imagine Dakota when he was really happy—late at night when we would talk, and we would let each other into our worlds. Eventually, we both would fall asleep. As he closed his eyes, I’m sure Dakota would imagine himself at his favorite place—the Acoma reservation where he was their prince. At the reservation, Dakota would run for miles and miles across the vast expanse of Acoma’s countryside. Dakota Chino would run until he’d slide away like a silhouette into the shimmering light of a New Mexico sunset.