From Gangland to AIHEC Champion Archer: The Odyssey of Richard Martinez

Volume 27, No. 3 - Spring 2016
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Richard Martinez, AIHEC archery champion. Photo by Jaime Aguilar

At last year’s American Indian Higher Education Consortium (AIHEC) student conference in Albuquerque, New Mexico, Richard Martinez of Aaniiih Nakoda College (ANC) hit his mark when he won first place in the men’s archery contest. ANC president Carole Falcon- Chandler recognized Martinez not just for his skill with the bow, but for his character: “The college is very proud of this young man, who has had challenges in his life but has persevered with honor and integrity.” Martinez’s story is one of redemption. There are consequences with each choice we make— and Martinez understands all about consequences.

Growing up in metropolitan California, Martinez was one of four siblings. His mother worked three jobs and, now in her 80s, still works 13-hour days. Alone at home with his youngest sister, Martinez was a “latch-key kid,” who learned to take care of himself until his mom came home from work. Living in neighborhoods where gangs ruled the streets, the lure of the gang and the sense of family it offered drew him in.

He remembers a world of violence, protection, retribution, and “learning the ropes” on how to survive in that world. He spent time locked up in seven different correctional facilities. But Martinez committed to taking all that he learned from his past and turning it around. Gang life is hard. But improving oneself can be even harder. Stepping up the ladder requires leadership skills, critical thinking, and the ability to get the job done.

In search of a new life, Martinez relocated to Montana and met his future wife, LeeAnn First Smoke (Assiniboine). One day, the two were listening to an infomercial on the radio about the Developing Montana and North Dakota (DeMaND) workforce program that offered training in welding, construction, and other trades. Although he doubted that he would be accepted, assuming that a GED wasn’t enough to get into a college program, Martinez applied anyway. To his surprise he was accepted and would go on to graduate from the welding program. But he wasn’t finished. He completed another certificate program in construction and is now working toward his degree in business administration at ANC. All the while he has maintained a high grade point average that landed him in the Phi Theta Kappa honor society. Even in his role as honor student, Martinez has taken the initiative. He participates in fundraising projects that have helped Phi Theta Kappa raise money for breast cancer awareness and Veteran’s Day activities.

Just as he was finding success academically at ANC, Martinez also discovered archery. In 2014, he attended the AIHEC conference in Billings, Montana, where he competed in the traditional bow archery competition. Martinez’s wife and two children had travelled there with him and shortly after their arrival LeeAnn went into labor. Martinez wanted to stay by his wife’s side, but she told him no, that he was there to compete for ANC. That day, LeeAnn gave birth to their son Ezekiel.


Richard and LeeAnn Martinez with their three children. Photo by Jaime Aguilar.

The birth of his son and his wife’s faith in him was a turning point for Martinez. LeeAnn had stood by him, giving him love and support during difficult times. She believed strongly in him and in his educational endeavors. LeeAnn wanted him to represent ANC because she felt that the college had given him so much over the past few years—his education, pride in his accomplishments, and achievable goals. Martinez didn’t want to let her or ANC down for giving him so much support. He promised LeeAnn and his three children that the life he once led was gone forever.

Anyone who has attended an AIHEC conference knows that the student archery contest is intensely competitive and that often archers win by the slimmest of margins. At the 2014 conference in Billings, Martinez placed third, just 10 points off first place. At the 2015 conference in Albuquerque, however, he towered above the rest. With a final overall score of 201, with 30 arrows on a 40-centimeter target, he took first place in the men’s individual competition. Navajo Technical University, an archery powerhouse, came in second and third with scores of 144 and 142.

“Before my competitions, I humbly prayed that the best archers would win and that I would be able to shoot my best,” Martinez recalls. When he learned that he had won, “I got goosebumps, because I worked so hard to get to that point,” he says. “I think of it like a way to make clean shots when I hunt. . . If the animal is going to give me its spirit, I should make the passing less painful.”

In victory, Martinez recognized AIHEC and ANC, crediting tribal colleges for giving students opportunities at success that cannot be found anywhere else. “I want to thank AIHEC for giving me the opportunity to shoot against other Native archers from all over the United States, and to meet new people and make new friends who are passionate about this traditional form of archery,” he says. “I am also grateful that I can participate in some of these programs that Aaniiih Nakoda College is offering. So many other students would not be competing or even getting an education without tribal colleges.”

“Everyone has a right to a second chance.”

Today, Martinez no longer has to watch his back 24/7. He loves learning new things and although the stigma of being a felon will follow him for a time, he feels that life is behind him now. He doesn’t apologize for his past; it was a form of survival in a world with hard and fast rules. Now he enjoys bow hunting with his friend and ANC coach James Flansburg, despite never completely adjusting to the Montana winters. “It’s cold and hard, but I figure if the old ones did it so could I,” he says.

Upon completing his business degree at ANC, Martinez hopes to open a pro archery shop in Harlem, Montana. “I would like to say that I am most grateful for two groups—firstly, to my wife and children as they are my biggest supporters; and secondly, Aaniiih Nakoda College for not judging me, allowing me to be a part of the college, and for believing that everyone has a right to a second chance,” he says. “I have a good future in front of me. I have friends, family and an educational community that only wants to see me make good on a promise I made to my family, to provide for a better life.”

Rebecca Bishop-Goss (Gros Ventre) is the public relations director at Aaniiih Nakoda College, where she also works as an adjunct instructor.

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