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What We Can Learn From Indigenous Runners

Speaking with Native runners about their cultural connections to running, and what we all can learn by welcoming in, listening to, and supporting Native runners.

Before Flagstaff was a haven for professional running teams, it was home to the Navajo, Hopi, Havasupai, Kaibab-Paiute, and Hualapai peoples. Before Boulder was the home of a number of elites, it was primarily the home of the Southern Arapaho tribe. Before Eugene was TrackTown, USA, it was Kalapuya Ilihi, the traditional indigenous homeland of the Kalapuya people.

This is to say, before white colonists came to what is now North America, the places we treasure as premier training and racing grounds belonged to the Indigenous people (many of whom are still here today) who first strode over these cherished landscapes, forming an intimate ancestral relationship with the land by way of running. Today, these environments are trampled over with little thought or respect given to the original occupants, sacred lands are desecrated by human pollution, and the Native people who originally called these places home continue to be disenfranchised by the U.S. government and misrepresented in American society — the running world included. 

It is long past time for all American runners to learn the deep and historic relationship many Native people have had with running, and consider what lessons we can learn from welcoming in, listening to, and supporting Indigenous runners.

The Importance of Running in Native Communities

While it’s ignorant, at worst dangerous, to make blanket statements about Native people at large — there are, in fact, 570 federally recognized tribes in the United States — Dustin Martin, Executive Director of Wings of America, points out that running often has had a special, even spiritual, role in many of those Native cultures. 

“With running I think it’s safe to say that it was and is a tool, not only to cover your landscape and know your surroundings, but also to better know yourself and cultivate a relationship with the Holy People, whatever tribal affiliation you may be,” says Martin, who is himself Dine, or Navajo. “For me, running has become a pathway to communing with a higher power or higher calling, especially when it is in places my People have had ties to for time immemorial.” 

Martin points out that many Native runners in the Southwest are sent to either run prayers or run certain ceremonial instruments or items between places of significance. This is also done to retrieve and fetch items for religious or ceremonial purposes. 

Running also played a major role in what has been referred to as the most successful Indian revolution in what is now the United States — the Pueblo Revolt of 1680. Runners, who were able to transmit messages in the form of knotted cords quickly over land, helped stage a carefully orchestrated revolt of Pueblo people who succeeded in dislodging Spanish colonizers from a large part of North America and winning Pueblo sovereignty in what is today New Mexico. 

“Running culturally has been in our communities forever, since pre-contact, since settlers came to our lands,” says Jordan Marie Brings Three White Horses Daniel, a fourth-generation runner, social activist, and a citizen of the Lower Brule Sioux Tribe, Kul Wicasa Oyate. “Especially with our Pueblo relatives down in the Southwest, running has been so integral and ingrained culturally, ceremonially, and we look to running as medicine and as healing, and running as messengers because that’s what our relatives did long, long ago.” 

Billy Mills, an Oglala Lakota former track and field star, after winning the 10,000 meter race in Olympic record time of 28:24.4. Photo: Getty Images

The relationship between Native people and running isn’t just encapsulated in the past, but part of a living present in Indigenous traditions today. Those in the Navajo culture, for example, have a tradition of waking up early in the morning to run east toward the sun.

As Diné we are taught to wake up and let the Holy People know that we are ready to take advantage of the day, that we are appreciative for our next breath, our next step, and that we won’t waste it,” explains Martin. The deeper I go into that and the more I speak with stewards of cultural knowledge, I find there are very particular reasons and prayers that one might say to show that appreciation.” This is to say that there is a long tradition of using running as a vehicle for prayer. 

Running also plays an integral role in Navajo women’s coming of age ceremonies, known as the Kinaaldá. Depending on the local customs, initiates run two to three times a day for the four days of the ceremony. The running ritual is said to make the women strong and prepare them for the adversities of life. The initiate’s running or racing abilities represent strength and fortitude, with the length of her run believed to predict the quality and longevity of her life. 

“For Navajos, many of them have run all their lives, since they were young,” says Verna Volker, a Navajo runner and founder of Native Women Running. “There’s always this connection, their dad ran or grandpa, and so it’s just been like generations of generations of running.” 

“It’s always been there, Native people have always been running for a very long time,” says Volker, who is originally from the Dzilth-Na-O-Dith-Hle area of New Mexico. Beyond competition, stories of running within Native traditions center on the health benefits of running. As for Volker, who herself has lost three siblings and a father says, it’s something like medicine. “We want to run because we might be healing from trauma, we might be healing from something that happened because we all faced this historical trauma but also trauma individually.” 

What follows are five lessons from Native runner’s relationship with running. These are not Native traditions themselves as they relate to running, but perspectives and lessons that the running community could do well to learn from. 

Four Lessons From Indigenous Relationships With Running

1. Be grateful for and recognize the land you run on

One of the more prominent aspects of Native people’s relationship with running, as Martin notes, is viewing it as a way of connecting and communing with the land and other-than-human. This is a way of approaching the landscape on a day-to-day basis, which can’t quite be experienced in the same way for people who don’t have ancestral connection to the land base that they run on. 

“Who wouldn’t want to commune with the landscape or with the higher powers that animate the landscape?” says Martin. “But speaking or running with a Native runner is not going to give anyone a secret to be able to do that,” he continues, noting that while he doesn’t mean to sound exclusive, it is part of what makes running so special for Indigenous peoples. “The type of strength or insight that one gains running on the land of their ancestors is a privilege and it’s very unique to Native people that can connect their identity and their personhood to those places that they’re running.”

Though non-Native runners don’t have that same deep, ancestral connection with the land in the way Indigenous runners do, Martin says that it shouldn’t discourage them from approaching a landscape with respect, learning the history of the land, and feeling gratitude for the opportunity to be there on any given day. 

One way that non-Native runner’s can do this is through something called a land acknowledgement. This is a formal statement that recognizes and honors Indigenous people as traditional stewards of the land and the perpetual, enduring relationships that exist between Native people and their homelands or territories. (More information about Indigenous land acknowledgements can be found here.

“Many times people just run,” says Volker. “I feel like people are just starting to realize [land acknowledgements are] important to Native people. It is! Just realizing the mountain that you’re running on or the trail that you’re running on is Native land and understanding whose land you are running on, studying that and realizing, ‘I really need to be thankful to the [Indigenous] people, this is their land.” 

Jordan Daniel before a race with a red handprint over her mouth to draw recognition to the Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women Crisis
Distance runner Jordan Daniel uses running and racing to raise awareness for the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women Crisis. Photo: Courtesy of Jordan Daniel

While there has been a greater push toward giving land acknowledgements over the last few years, it’s still not a mainstream practice in running and racing circles. This is a problem that Daniel is working on addressing through her Running on Native Land Initiative, which launched earlier this January. It’s a new initiative that will help introduce and implement acknowledgements at races and events that are happening on Indigenous lands. 

“It’s going to be part of this dismantling and unlearning of the true history and to start talking about and acknowledging that these lands were stolen from Indigenous peoples… Indigenous peoples are still here, they are still the caretakers of these lands and have deep rooted connections,” says Daniel. “Their communities often are still there, some have been pushed away from their original homelands in forced relocations. This is all part of a big effort to reframe how we connect with the lands, how we view them, to see the true histories of what has happened on these lands, and to help have us a better connection when we go out the door for a walk or a run or hike or whatever it is…Sometimes I see a lot of lack of care and disrespect when they come into those spaces, especially on trails, and I want to help repair that relationship and have better connection to our surroundings.” 

2. Running beyond competition

The mainstream American running culture today was born from and is often continuously defined by competition — runners race. But what can at times be a cut-throat, win-at-all-costs mindset in the running world has costs, not least of which depression and anxiety among athletes, eating disorders, and a disenchanted view on running. The running world is increasingly recognizing the need for mindful awareness and community — perspectives reflected in some Indigenous cultures. 

The ancestral connection and longstanding history that Indigenous peoples have with the land they run on, says Martin, is part of what makes it possible to take both a competitive mindset towards running while also realizing that some days running is not about becoming faster than others: “Some days, when you go out and run, even if it does serve a purpose for a goal or a race that you have coming up, you really should be listening to something other than the beep of your watch.”  

A common theme among the Native runners interviewed was a strong perspective of running that was not based solely on competing, but connecting with community, ancestry, and representation of something much larger than themselves. Martin’s organization, Wings of America, is an example of a shifting mindset from a purely competitive to more communal. The Albuquerque-based group has been around since 1988, founded on the knowledge that there are many young, talented Native runners who aren’t being given well-deserved opportunities to pursue higher levels of competition (and education) because of their backgrounds. 

Today, however, Wings has expanded its program offerings so that more than just the fastest runners feel deserving of the opportunities running has to offer. The organization believes that even those that never wish to compete should be equipped with the knowledge and confidence needed to test their stride safely. This includes teaching participants about the rich history — competitive and non-competitive — of Native running.  

Wings of America runners in blue uniforms at a race.
The Wings National Team Members at the USATF XC Champs, 2020. Photo: Dustin Martin courtesy of Wings of America

Daniel, who was introduced to running by her grandfather — famed runner Nyal Leroy (Brings Three White Horses) Brings — when she was 10 years old, has used running as a way to raise awareness about the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women Crisis and uplift Indigenous voices through her organization Rising Hearts. Later this year she will be launching a film series called “Running with Purpose,” which centers on amplifying Indigenous, Black, Two Spirit, and LGBTQ voices about how they have used running as a means of advocacy and impacting social change, and are motivated by something larger than themselves. Her interviews with Indigenous people, she says, have highlighted for her how ingrained running has been within Native cultures. 

“It’s been so neat to learn this history of running, that it’s not just about trying to run fast or hit these goals — that’s all part of it — but we have running built into our DNA into our blood and so seeing that representation and being part of that representation to help bring us to these platforms to help pave a road forward so that Native people can see themselves in these spaces and hopefully help bring in the next generation of Native athletes is all part of this work that I get to do,” says Daniel. 

While non-Native runners don’t have this history, it does offer an important lesson about the social impact a person can make through the sport beyond running fast times, and how running has significance beyond major events by helping a person to connect more deeply with and support one’s community. 

3. Running can’t, and shouldn’t, always be quantified

In conjunction with the tendency to view running primarily through a competitive lens comes the tendency to break our running and our bodies down into quantifiable, tweakable parts in order to optimize performance. 

Because of Native runner’s tradition with the sport, some view it as something far deeper than what can be dissected and measured. 

“There are people that believe that certain ways of ‘Native running’, whether they be ceremonial or simply in prayer, are incompatible with ‘modern ways’, fixated on quantifying everything about our runs and cataloguing them,” says Martin. “I haven’t drawn a hardline on the subject, but I can appreciate the argument that if you are distracted by the device logging your run, then the prayer and the sentiment that you’re putting into the activity is in some way tarnished.” 

While non-Native runners don’t have the same spiritual traditions that connect some tribes to running in the specific way that Martin describes, a view on running that reaches beyond what can be snipped apart, analyzed by a Garmin, and posted on Strava could benefit all runners psychologically and physically. Whether that’s feeling deep gratitude for the body’s ability to powerfully rip around oval tracks, being mindful of the air we breathe in giving it life, acknowledging the histories and stories in the landscapes we run on, or being aware and appreciative of the multispecies narratives we encounter on our runs. 

4. Welcome in, listen to, and support Native runners

One of the biggest lessons that can be learned from Native runners, according to Daniel, is that they are here now as active members of the running community and much more than the harmful stereotypes and storylines that have characterized indigenous people as “romanticized figures that don’t exist after 1900 or rely on…hyper-sexualized or racist movies created that are not accurate.”  

“We’re more than those stereotypes,” says Daniel. “We’re runners, we’re advocates, we’re lawyers, we’re teachers, we’re volunteers, we’re so many of these things.”

Runner Melissa Buffalo is part of the Meshwaki Nation and a member of the Native Women Running online community. Photo: Courtesy of Native Women Running

Volker’s organization, Native Women Running, is an online community that aims to enhance the visibility and positive representation of Native women runners online and on social media. She emphasizes the importance of giving Native runners a seat at the table, inviting them to be part of running spaces and communities, and forming genuine friendships and alliances with them. 

“I think oftentimes people want us to do the work, and we can’t do all the work,” explains Volker.  “Just simply inviting us to a running group and becoming our friends is really key…Get to know us, partner with us, invite Native Women Running as part of something.” 

These are invaluable perspectives non-Native runners can better learn and appreciate by running alongside Indigenous runners, supporting their communities, and welcoming them into an increasingly diverse running community united through passion for the sport.

How to Support Native Running Communities 

Here are a few ways that you can support Native runners and communities.

Learn More and Donate

Participate in Events

  • Participate in Rising Hearts events, which Daniel emphasizes are not just for Native people to participate in, they are for everyone as part of her desire to build a collective and diverse community.
  • Participate in Native Women Running’s virtual races and runner safety events, which are open to anyone to participate in. On May 5 the organization will host a virtual run for Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women. NWR encourages its followers to use their “Run the Land” slogan.

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