'Always Home': Martial Arts Teacher Helps Rebuild Pride In Oklahoma Town

Jan 18, 2017
Originally published on January 18, 2017 6:33 pm

When Donald Trump won the presidential election, he made a pledge to every citizen: that he would be president for all Americans. In the weeks before Trump's inauguration, we're going to hear about some of the communities that make up this nation, from the people who know them best, in our series Finding America.

Holdenville, Okla., is home to about 5,800 people. It has a small downtown with banks, restaurants and a few shops, though some are closed down.

Brownie Harjo runs a martial arts studio, or dojo, in the oldest building in town. It's up a flight of creaky wooden stairs that opens into an area with blue mats, punching bags and other equipment.

Every Thursday night, a group of kids climbs those stairs for taekwondo class with Harjo.

"We're not just here just to punch and kick," Harjo says. "We're here to improve ourselves."

Even though Holdenville has seen better days, Harjo says he believes there's potential in his small town.

"I don't know if Holdenville was ever great, but Holdenville is always home," he says. "The pride has kind of went away lately. There's good people in Holdenville. Some of the best people I've ever met are here, and a lot of them are right here in my dojo."

Use the audio link above to hear the full story.

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KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

In our series Finding America, we've been visiting some of the communities that make up the country Donald Trump will soon lead. Today, we go to Holdenville, Okla., home to about 5,800 people. It has a small downtown - banks, restaurants and a few shops. Some are closed.

BROWNIE HARJO: G.W. McShan founded this town October 10, 1895, and named it Holdenville. This is the first location - my building.

MCEVERS: That's Brownie Harjo reading the historical plaque outside the entrance to his martial arts studio, his dojo. It's up a flight a creaky wooden stairs - a big, open area with blue mats, punching bags and other equipment. And every Thursday night, a group of kids climbs those stairs for a taekwondo class with Harjo.

HARJO: On your feet. Let's go. Enough chit-chat. We're going work now. (Unintelligible). Feet together, out - jumping jacks. Go.

I've lived in Holdenville for over 50 years. I've taught martial arts for over 30 years. Hoy, hoy, hoy, hoy, hoy, hoy (ph).

I've been here at this current location, which is the old Chestnut Hardware Store, for about five years. Actually, my grandpa used to work here when it was a hardware store. Sam Coleman (ph) - Salesman Sam, they called him - and they stored caskets up here.

One.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: One.

HARJO: Two.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: Two.

HARJO: Three.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: Three.

HARJO: Four.

It's not an industrial town. It's not a rich town. It's a poor town. There's a lot of empty buildings and houses here that just - are just falling in. And we have the same problem as the United States has, as far as greedy people. They'd rather see a building of theirs fall in than to let somebody get some use out of it, you know.

On your feet. (Unintelligible).

I don't know if Holdenville was ever great, but Holdenville is always home. The pride just kind of went away lately. There's good people at Holdenville. Some of the best people I've ever met are here, and a lot of them are right here in my dojo, you know.

No, other way.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: Like this, Brownie?

HARJO: Let me see. Yeah.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: Like this? Like this? Like this? Like this?

HARJO: We're not just here just to punch and kick. We're here to improve ourselves.

UNIDENTIFIED BOY: Yeah, 'cause it'll be more faster.

HARJO: We all have between 10 to 20 kids, ages 12 and under.

Say tae.

UNIDENTIFIED BOY: Taekwondo.

HARJO: Kwon.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: Kwon.

HARJO: Do.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: Do.

HARJO: Good. Close your eyes. Forget about whatever you've been thinking about.

They all do baseball, football, soccer, basketball where they compete. And sometimes you need to kind of keep in perspective that it's a game, that you're competing and there's going to be a lot of animosity developed during then between you and other kids and you and parents. The parents want every kid to be superstars, and not every kid is a superstar, as opposed to what I want here - is every kid is as good a superstar as they can be.

Who's your toughest opponent? Jocelyn (ph), who's your toughest opponent?

JOCELYN: Me.

HARJO: You are. That's right. You are your toughest opponent.

I think everyone needs to have pride in something. If you don't have pride in something, you lose hope.

Good job. Jimmy, don't attack me.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: (Unintelligible).

HARJO: There's good here in Holdenville.

One.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: Hyah (ph).

HARJO: Two.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: Hyah (ph).

HARJO: This building - this is the oldest building in town.

Three.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: Hyah (ph).

HARJO: It's cold in the winter, it's cold in here. When it's hot in the summer, it's hot in here. It's still standing, so this building's has got a lot of character. It's got a lot of stories probably, so I guess we're just adding to the legacy of it.

Four.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: Hyah (ph).

MCEVERS: That was Brownie Harjo at his martial arts studio in Holdenville, Okla. His story was produced by Alison Herrera, with help from Emily Wendler. It comes to us from Localore: Finding America, a national production of AIR, the Association of Independents in Radio. You can find more stories at NPR and at Finding America. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.