Ralph Paytiamo, 81, Acoma Pueblo, New Mexico
Ralph Paytiamo is proud of his heritage. With history dating back 2,000 years, New Mexico’s Acoma Pueblo is said by many to be the longest continuously inhabited community in America. While many traditions and cultural practices have survived and there are many strong and wise members to carry their ways forward, the tribe also struggles with many challenges that have come with recent generations – poverty, low employment, alcohol and drug abuse and health issues, especially high blood pressure and diabetes.
Despite being born to a medicine man and medicine woman of the tribe, Ralph was not immune to the conditions around him. He started drinking at the age of 12, and moving to Albuquerque to live with his aunt and attend school there did not end the problem. Still, he excelled in sports and was state champion of the one-mile run.
When Ralph graduated, he was captivated by the famous recruiting slogan “Join the Navy and See the World” and decided that would be his goal. He achieved his wish, and more than he could have imagined, during a career lasting over two decades, traveling to virtually every corner of the globe on a variety of vessels from helicopter launch craft to aircraft carriers.
Halfway through his tours of duty, Ralph hit the wall with his drinking and decided to enter rehab offered by the Navy. Once sober, he became active with Alcoholics Anonymous and has continuously shared his story and counsel since, including when he returned to the Acoma Pueblo after service.
At 62, Ralph joined in the Indian Games and became a regular face at the New Mexico Senior Olympics doing several sports. He also volunteered to help with fundraising and transporting equipment for events. He competed at the 1993 National Senior Games in Norfolk, Virginia, coincidentally the city where he was based before retired from the Navy. He has transitioned from running to race walk as his featured event, and he is proud he will be able to represent the Acoma when he competes at the 2019 National Senior Games presented by Humana in Albuquerque.
Today, Ralph Paytiamo is devoted to working with youth, teaching them his peoples’ ways and values and warning them against the pitfalls around them. He advocates exercise, even if it is just walking. He leads by example with regular exercise and following a healthy lifestyle. We hope you enjoy the following conversation and the simple wisdom of a man who has learned to balance life by walking the straight path. It’s Ralph’s own version of pursuing his Personal Best, and he hopes everyone will find their own path to successful aging.
It’s a pleasure to speak with you, Ralph. Tell us about your early life.
I was born here on the Acoma Pueblo, and I had two sisters and a brother. My parents were medicine man and medicine woman, and I was mostly living with my grandma here until I was ten, and then with my aunt in Albuquerque. I live here now.
Did you play sports in school?
I went to high school at Albuquerque Indian School. I played football and ran track. I was state champion in the mile run.
I was motivated by my situation growing up. It gave me enthusiasm to do more for my physical and spiritual life. My grandparents taught me a lot of things about life. They would wake me up at 5:30 in the morning to go feed the horses. That’s why I became a runner because I got up early and would run to stay in shape.
What happened after school? Did you get married?
No, I am a bachelor. I joined the Navy and stayed with them for 20 years, from 1958 to 1979. I’ve been to 13 countries in the East like Japan, Okinawa, Philippines, Korea, Hong Kong, Taipei, Singapore. I went to the Gold Coast of Australia and around Cape Horn aboard the USS Enterprise in 1972-it was rough and cold, almost like the North Pole. I crossed the Equator twice. I also saw the United Kingdom, Normandy, Paris, Rome, Southern France and Spain. I traveled on three aircraft carriers, two squadrons and two LPH’s. I made it to Boatswain Mate First Class.
Wow. Had you been anywhere other than New Mexico before the Navy?
No. They said, “Join the Navy and see the world” and that’s what I did! [Laugh] That was my goal, and I have a big picture map showing all the place I’ve been, East and West, with the points connected by yarn. Now my goal is to be in Senior Olympics.
Thank you for your service, Ralph. You must have learned a lot going around the world.
Oh yes. I was surprised to find that people spoke Castilian in Rio de Janerio. That comes from a region of Spain, and when the Conquistadors came to New Mexico they spoke Castilian, which a lot of people who speak Spanish here have to listen very closely to understand.
It was the same for me with the native Aborigines in Australia. I thought they sounded like Texans. [Laugh] And I got to learn some Mandarin. It was pretty easy for me.
I was going to join the Merchant Marine when I got out, but I wanted to go home and returned to Acoma instead. I was only 42 when I retired so I continued to work. At first, I was cleaning electronic equipment in a small factory, but the ventilation was not good so I left to work construction, digging trenches and building swimming pools, things like that.
It sounds like you had a great adventure, but we hear you had to overcome alcoholism along the way.
I’ve been sober 49 years now. I guess I was about 12 years old when I started drinking. There was a bar right outside the reservation that the Indians went to. You’re not supposed to be in a bar at 12.
When you joined the Navy you already had a serious drinking problem?
Yes. I finally sobered up in 1971. I was thinking about my life and my health and I said to myself, “This is kind of a stupid thing you did,” So I surrendered myself to go to rehab in Long Beach, California.
When did you go back to running again?
I picked it back up when I joined the New Mexico Senior Olympics in 1998. I was 62. I’ve been doing a lot of things ever since, like softball throw, soccer kick, frisbee distance, track and race walk.
But in 2001 I found out I had prostate cancer, and they think it was caused by Agent Orange. I stopped running and Senior Olympics for four years and just did walking while I was being treated with radiation.
We’re happy you got through it and got back into the game, Ralph.
That wasn’t all. From the ultrasound they used during my treatment they found I had an aortic aneurysm. I had surgery for that in 2005. Since then I have done the race walk instead of running. I’ll do the 5K at the National Games. You know, I’m a native and don’t have long legs. I look like a penguin when I walk. [Laugh]
I’ve been to one National Senior Games, in 1993 in Norfolk. That the city where I retired from the Navy!
Do you exercise on a regular basis?
Yes, I exercise three times a day. Stretching, walking, meditation and weight lifting. I go to the pueblo senior center. We don’t have any instructors, so we do things mostly on our own. I try to set my own example for young people and to other elders.
It’s interesting that you mention meditation as part of your daily exercise routine to be mentally as well as physically healthy.
It gives me a good standard for my well being spiritually. It keeps me in touch with my inner self. It gives me inner strength so I can keep going.
Do you think when you were drinking that it kept you from your inner self?
Is it the same as prayer for you?
It depends on how you do it. I don’t make any sound, just thinking when I meditate. I let my body relax. Now, I go to church too, but I don’t have no halo over my head. [Laugh]
That’s funny, but people around you think you’re an angel for the examples you set.
I am involved with a lot of young people around here. I have been involved in Alcoholics Anonymous since I went sober. I’ve talked to men on my ship, and I’ve been to national AA conventions. I have talked to youth on the reservation over the years and still do. I also talk to others about Senior Olympics.
I don’t think many of our youth understand our traditional ways. We try to motivate them, even just to do walking for their physical health. I try to do it by example of what I do as I saw in my own family. My grandpas lived to be 108 and 110 years old. I’m proud to be doing what I do to show people how to live, and that they can do it too.
In your culture, older people are revered and honored, are they not?
The elders are at the center of tribal life, and we need to teach this to the youth. It’s very important to think about traditions.
I also wrote a little poem that I share with the youth about diabetes:
I walk endlessly for the child to see the natural is less diabetes.
I walk with straight mind for children to see natural is strong in body and spirit.
It’s a problem with the youth getting overweight and diabetic when they’re 18, you know. One experience I had was when I ate a whole bag of popcorn and a couple days later my feet swelled up. I don’t use that much salt or butter, so it hit me hard. You have to be careful what you eat and how much. [Pause] I don’t eat that popcorn anymore. [Laugh]
Ralph, it’s great that New Mexico has had games for 40 years, and we are impressed that there are local games available for every pueblo and reservation in the state. Your founder, the late Ernesto Ramos, made sure of that. His influence reached beyond your state, and he was once chairman of the NSGA Board of Directors.
Yes. He motivated many. Maybe if not for him, we would not have the Indian Games today.
Your state’s Opening Ceremonies are so colorful and inspiring, because the athletes from the Indian Games march in with their traditional dress.
I’ve done that. It makes me feel pride for my own tribe. When I’m doing my walking at the Games, or whenever I do these things, I think about the tribe.
Yes. When I walk, I think about my tribe. I think about the youth.
What to you tell others about staying active and going to The Games?
You don’t have to do anything really hard. Why don’t you try frisbee throw or soccer kick? Just do something you enjoy. And you get to know other people and be friendly with them.
You have to exercise. You have to motivate yourself. If I don’t do it, I can’t bend down to tie my shoestrings. That’s why I exercise.
I feel great about myself. My inner self is good, and I am motivated. I have better sense and I’m standing tall. You know, when you go to the doctor they ask the last time you had a fall. I haven’t had a fall. I think my exercise, doing tai chi and meditation has helped bring balance to my life.
You need balance in your life. You need balance both ways, physically and mentally. You can’t just stay home and watch TV.
I am proud to have a strong, healthy body and for the influences and guidance I’ve gained, and for the continuation of Senior Olympics.