Naomi Lang and Peter Tchernyshev compete in the dance free skate during the Olympic Winter Games Salt Lake City on Feb. 18, 2002 in Salt Lake City.
This weekend, Naomi Lang is finally returning to the center of the world.
It’s been four decades since the 41-year-old former ice dancer, the first Native American woman to compete at an Olympic Winter Games, set foot on the Karuk territory of her ancestors, Indigenous people of California. On the eve of her trip — which also comes during National Native American Heritage Month — Lang, a mom of five who now coaches ice dance in Gilbert, Arizona, is almost giddy about the prospect.
“The last time I was there I was 1,” she said. During that visit, her father Jason and mom Leslie took a photo of the little family standing under Katimin, the mountain Karuks refer to as the “center of the world,” near the nexus of the Salmon and Klamath rivers.
Jason Lang, a Karuk elder, passed away on Oct. 17, and though Lang feels his loss acutely, she is looking forward to connecting with members of her tribe, “my cousins and all the people I haven’t been able to be with over the past 30 years because of training and things that I was trying to accomplish,” she said. “I’m really excited to meet everybody rather than just hearing names. That’s something that’s been lacking in my life, per se.”
The journey will be long: a six-hour drive north from Arcata-Eureka Airport, heading deep into the woodsy Pacific Northwest near the Oregon-California border. But maybe the time commitment is fitting, because Lang’s journey back has been long as well.
‘It Was The Coolest Feeling’
Lang grew up in Michigan, where dance classes were a central feature of her early life. But the real revelation came when she was 8 and attended an Ice Capades show when the tour swung through Kalamazoo. Performers, including a fairy princess character, twirled across the ice in bright, oversize costumes; Lang was enchanted.
Toward the end of the show, she was among the children selected from the audience to ride around the rink in a sleigh. “It was the coolest feeling, gliding, having the wind in your hair,” she recalled, awe and wonder still present in her voice more than 30 years later. “That was it.” She started skating classes the next week, and eventually found her calling as an ice dancer, a natural fit after her years in ballet.
As a teenager paired with John Lee, Lang shared the U.S. novice title in 1995 and won silver at the U.S. Junior Championships the next year. But it wasn’t until she partnered with Peter
Tchernyshev that her career really took off. Tchernyshev, the grandson of a Soviet figure skating champion, and Lang were a striking pair. Well-matched and ambitious, they captured five U.S. titles together, as well as Four Continents gold in 2000 and 2002.
A standout moment came at the 2002 Olympic Winter Games in Salt Lake City, only a few hundred miles from Karuk territory. Lang was chosen as one of five athletes who presented gifts to leaders of the five native Utah tribes — Dine’ (Navajo), Goshute, Paiute, Shoshone and Ute — during the Opening Ceremony after the Native Americans entered the Olympic stadium on horseback, trailed by tribal entourage in full ceremonial regalia.
In one of the most poignant moments of the Opening Ceremony, each tribal leader spoke words of welcome and goodwill in their native language. Standing before them, Lang drank it all in with an enormous smile on her face.
“That moment in time will always be frozen,” she said.
Melting The Barriers To Skating
Most elite athletes sacrifice something at the altar of their Olympic dreams. For Lang, it was time discovering and understanding her heritage. Initially Leslie took her daughter to powwows in Michigan “and tried to explain things to me,” Lang recalled. Although she stopped going to powwows once she began crisscrossing the U.S. and later the globe with Tchernyshev, native values had been firmly rooted within her.
“I was raised around those things, those values of what Indigenous people believe in, and so I grew up very proud,” she remarked. “I wouldn’t give up. Because that’s how natives are. They’re very proud people. They don’t give up — they don’t give up on their land, they don’t give up on their dreams and their futures.”
The future is partly why Lang is so excited to visit the Karuk land now. She’ll go to her father’s house, where he proudly hung a certificate from the tribe recognizing his daughter’s accomplishments on a wall. She’ll visit the Blue Lake Casino, where her photo hangs in a place of honor, and see the tribal center where the family she knows so little gathered to watch and cheer her and Tchernyshev as they skated at the Games in Salt Lake.
She doesn’t know them, but they know her.
“I’d get letters in the mail, like little kids writing me letters, saying how much they looked up to what I was doing,” Lang said. “So in that way, I felt like the Karuk nation really supported me. They’ve funded me through some things, so that helped me a lot. They’ve always been 100 percent behind my successes.”
For the tribe that supported her dream, Lang now dreams of giving something back — and she knows exactly what she’d like the gift to be.
For native children, the barriers to entry to a sport like figure skating are nearly insurmountable.
“For me it was OK, because we weren’t living on a reservation,” Lang said.
That didn’t mean there weren’t hardships: a good portion of the salary her mother earned as a registered nurse was poured into Lang’s lessons, skates and travel to competitions.
“I don’t know how my mom did it,” Lang said. “It’s so expensive.”
But it would not have been possible at all, she acknowledges, if she had been living on native land. Which led her to consider: what about the talented kids who are?
“That’s kind of what I want to get for them: opportunity to get to a skating rink, to experience physical activity and maybe learn to love the sport, to get funds available to those native youth,” she said.
It’s a gift she hopes to give back to the Karuk in the form of a foundation that supports native skaters.
“It’s something I’ve always wanted to do since my Olympic experience,” she said. “I achieved, I made it through, because I feel like my heritage, and the power of the native in me, really helped me, honestly. We’re really strong people and I need to get that message out to other tribes. I want to be that person that they can look up to.”