Running For Justice
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The Hollywood Hills were uncharacteristically calm. The growing threat of coronavirus had prohibited access to public spaces, including nearby Griffith Park, and millions of Los Angelenos had been told to remain inside to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
But beneath the gaze of the Hollywood sign, in a quiet neighborhood, on an empty street, between shuttered homes, one garage door remained open.
Inside, the shadow of a woman bobbed in the grey mix of sunshine and shadow, dark hair braided down her back, eyes fixated on splashes of light in the street, feet spinning rhythmically beneath her slight frame. Behind her, banners proclaimed: “The First Peoples” “Defend the Sacred” “No More Stolen Sisters” In a “normal” year, on May 5th, Jordan Marie Brings Three White Horses Daniel—a citizen of Kul Wicasa Oyate, federally known as the Lower Brule Sioux Tribe—would have been in Griffith Park. Like the year prior, she would have brought people together to run trails, eat Indian tacos, acknowledge Tongva land and share words and prayers to honor Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women for MMIW Awareness Day.
Instead, she was on a treadmill.
Technically, she was running alone. But Daniel had a phone and 26 prayers. It was enough for her to continue doing the work to which she’s dedicated her life: running for justice.
You might have seen Daniel’s picture re-posted somewhere on social media last year. In April of 2019, she ran the Boston Marathon with “MMIW” painted down her legs and a red handprint pressed over her mouth to represent the way in which Indigenous women have been silenced in America. Almost immediately after her finish—in 3:02, at what she called a “comfortable” pace—photographs of her hand-printed face went viral, news outlets picked up her story and Daniel became a Global Run Ambassador for Lululemon. To be seen in such a big way was a recognition she had fought hard to achieve, though not just for herself.
“I feel like I have a gift and a platform [with running], and this is the least I can do to give back and help raise awareness,” she says of her advocacy for MMIW. “Hopefully it leads to solutions, ending this epidemic and this heartache.”
According to a report from the Urban Indian Health Institute, 5,712 cases of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls were reported in 2016, though only 116 were logged in the Department of Justice database.
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Daniel uses this discrepancy to show that Indigenous women and girls are missing in not one, but three ways: in their physical disappearance, in the data and in the media.
Daniel advocates for the Indigenous community while maintaining a full-time job, working toward a masters degree and running upwards of 50 miles a week. If all goes according to plan, she will also be training for the chance to compete at the 2024 Olympic Games.
“I don’t think she could stop even if she wanted to,” says Ariel Richer, Daniel’s close friend with whom she worked as a community organizer in Washington D.C. Back then, both Richer and Daniel worked full-time at the Administration for Native Americans and spent nights and weekends organizing demonstrations. Looking back, Richer is amazed Daniel found time to run.
“It’s been beautiful to watch her merge these two things,” she says of Daniel’s passion for both running and advocacy. “These two identities cannot be separated anymore; it’s the full embodiment of who she is.”
If given a choice, Daniel prefers to be outside. “Jordan is the most relaxed when she’s out in nature,” says Devin Whetstone, Daniel’s partner.
Since her first trail race in 2018— Limestone Canyon 12K in Irvine, which she won, while setting a course record— Daniel has been drawn to trails. She runs through Griffith Park and Will Rogers State Park in Los Angeles (Tongva land); and whenever their work schedules allow, she and Whetstone travel to the Eastern Sierras (Pamidu Toiyabe).
But on May 5, 2020, running trails wasn’t an option.
While stuck inside her garage, Daniel planned to run from sun-up to sun-down, completing two miles each hour, on the hour, for 26.2 miles total. She would dedicate each mile to an Indigenous person who died at the hands of injustice, whether it be a hate crime or sub-standard access to medical treatment in the wake of COVID-19.
At 6 a.m., she ran two miles in prayer for Brittany Sue Madplume and RoyLynn Rideshorse.
At 7 a.m. she ran two more for Antonio Renova and Jermain Charlo.
Daniel ran because even though much of the country had shut down, the local trails were no longer accessible, and being out in the world seemed tenuous at best, she couldn’t stop running for justice. In a way, she doesn’t know how. Running and justice are in her blood.
Daniel was born into a running family on the Lower Brule Sioux Reservation in South Dakota. Her great grandfather was a sprinter. Her grandfather was a middle-distance runner. And her mother, Terra Daniel, was a high-school sprinter who had been training for the 1988 Olympic Trials when she found out she was pregnant with Daniel. Terra Daniel immediately shifted her focus away from the track in order to put herself through college and nursing school while raising a young daughter.
Daniel’s Mom shies away from taking credit for her daughter’s talents on the track. Instead, she says, “Jordan picked that up from her grandpa.”
Nyal Brings Three White Horses, known as Nyal Brings, grew up on the Rosebud Sioux Reservation in South Dakota. At the age of nine, he was taken away from his family and put in an Indian Boarding School, where he was prohibited from practicing Native traditions and speaking his Native language—the only language he’d ever known.
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It was in this environment that Brings discovered a sense of freedom and empowerment through running. He ran throughout high school and received a full scholarship to the University of South Dakota, where he was eventually inducted into the Hall of Fame.
He even beat local legend Billy Mills at a college track meet. Mills would go on to win a gold medal in the 10,000-meter distance at the 1964 Olympic Games. He remains the only person from the Western Hemisphere to have ever done so.
Brings and Mills were both Lakota men who grew up on neighboring reservations and found, in running, a source of strength and pride. They became close friends.
Brings had had his own Olympic dreams. But as he was training for the 1960 Olympic Trials, he suffered injuries that left him unable to compete. Instead, he returned to the reservation and became a teacher, a coach and the Tribal Health Director of the Lower Brule Sioux Tribe.
“He was such an advocate for our Native youth,” Daniel says, especially when it came to running and sports. In fact, it was Daniel’s grandfather who introduced her to running at the age of 10.
Though he wasn’t able to see Daniel’s prayer run at Boston in 2019, he knew about her first marathon (Boston 2016), which she ran for Running Strong for American Indian Youth, an organization co-founded by Mills.
When her grandfather passed, Daniel grew closer to Mills, whom she now refers to as “my other grandfather.”In Daniel, Mills sees someone for whom running isn’t simply athletic. Ironically, this is often the case with notable athletic feats.
“I did not run to win a gold medal at the Olympic Games,” says Mills. Prior to arriving in Tokyo, he had been struggling with depression and suicidal thoughts, brought on in part, he says, by the racism he experienced in America.
(The Civil Rights Act was signed into legislation three months before Mills won gold.)
“I ran to heal a broken soul,” he said.
In a way, he sees parts of his journey in Daniel’s story.
“For many Native American runners, the basic purpose of running is to draw strength from Mother Earth to help us [with] the challenges we would face later on in life,” says Mills. “Running for running’s sake, in many ways, is meaningless. But, to run for a purpose is spiritual.”
When Daniel runs in prayer, she says she sets ego aside. She channels her family. She draws strength from the Earth. She connects to communities beyond herself. Because running is not just about running. It’s about Hanna Harris, Matthew Grant, Zachary Bear Heels and Loreal Tsingine.
Daniel transformed her garage into an atmosphere from which she could draw strength. She covered the walls with banners and speckled her treadmill with photos of friends and family, as well as pieces of red paper cut into the silhouettes of women with bell-shaped skirts, a symbol of MMIW.
Most importantly, she had a list of 26 names.
“I keep their names in my mind and I say them out loud—”
John Williams… Jason Pero… Allison HighWolf… Selena Not Afraid…
“—I also pray to Creator, asking to look out for the families, for the communities, for them, that they have justice and healing,’ she says. ‘I pray for a better and safer future for our next generations, and even for us, currently, so that we don’t have to continue experiencing this violence.”
According to The Center for Disease Control and Prevention, murder is the third-leading cause of death among Native American women, and rates of violence on reservations can be up to 10 times higher than the national average.
Each time she runs in prayer, Daniel’s physical training is coupled with intense research.
She reads cases and talks to family members, both gleaning stories about people’s lives and internalizing their pain. People like Nicole Smith, Dione Rae Thomas and Aleyah Toscano, a singer, a dancer and a straight-A student who was killed at the age of 16; people like Dulce Maria Alavez, who went missing at the age of five.
“The hard part about it is she really, sincerely cares about this,” says Daniel’s dad, David Daniel. “She wants the family to feel relief, she wants the person to be found, she wants their soul to be at rest … she’s taking on a burden, too.”
Running had been a solace for Daniel in middle school, when she first felt the sting of racism in small-town Maine. It had been a motivating force for her in high school, when her competitive spirit took over and she punished her body to achieve PRs. It became a source of empowerment in college, when she stopped focusing on stop- clocks and scales, and started appreciating what her body could do.
But throughout 2019, she was running herself into the ground. Daniel completed a 28K trail race one month after Boston (finishing second), then three weeks later ran the Mammoth Half-Marathon.“If I wasn’t running or preparing for a race, then I felt like I wasn’t doing my job to help elevate [MMIW] and raise awareness,” she says.But after a couple of months, Daniel began to suffer from insomnia, small panic and anxiety attacks, digestive issues and general burn-out.
“I wondered why running was getting so awful for me,” she says. “Even though I knew deep down it was because I was running for such heavy reasons.”
Daniel continues to find the complexity of her experience difficult to put into words, and she’s not sure anyone else can truly understand it—except maybe Rosalie Fish.
Fish, from the Muckleshoot and Cowlit Tribes, was a high-school senior when she learned about Daniel’s first prayer run.
“As a high school Native girl and an athlete, I felt empowered just seeing how confident and how brave she looked,” she says.
With Daniel’s support, Fish decided to wear a red handprint on her face during her state championship races.
“Putting on the paint felt like putting a target on myself. I knew that I was going to be stared at, that I was going to be misunderstood, that I was going to be judged for what I was doing,” Fish says. “That was when I realized that running with the paint was more than I had anticipated it would be. It was something that absolutely changed how I viewed running. I felt a lot less invincible than I had before coming into the meet.”
Fish ended up winning the 3200-, the 1600- and the 800-meter events, and placing second in the 400. She dedicated each of her medals to the women she kept in her prayers: Alice Looney, Jackie Salyers, Renee Davis and Misty Upham— two of whom were shot and killed by police, while pregnant. Fish dedicated her Sportsmanship Award to Davis’s unborn son, Massi Molina.
“When I was younger, my goal was to make it out of high school and try running in college. But, my goal is so much more than that now,” says Fish, who currently attends Iowa Central Community College. “Now, I need to get better, because when I get better I represent Indigenous women on higher platforms, at bigger meets, with bigger audiences.”
As the afternoon sun baked the garage, Daniel stepped onto her treadmill again and again, praying for Larissa Lone Hill, Ruby Bruguier, Valentina Blackhorse and Andrea Circle Bear.
In between miles, she tried to eat but found it difficult to get calories down. In addition to running, Daniel was joining panel discussions for MMIW, then hopping on her laptop to join conference calls and answer work emails. May 5th was a Friday, and, although she was running in prayer, Jordan was also technically “at work.”
“I ran from sunrise to sunset because I wanted that time to be for them,” Daniel says. “Sometimes, to understand and fully invest in being a voice and an advocate, you need to make sacrifices in your life, or your day.”
As the light outside transitioned from steamy yellows to syrupy golds, she prayed for Karen Ketcher, Merle Dry, Clyde Day and Emily BlueBird.
By 7 p.m., after running intermittently for the past 13 hours, Daniel prayed for the last two people on her list: Darlene D. Little and Fred Martinez.
But before the sun disappeared completely, she realized she had time for one more mile. She asked those on Instagram Live to send the names of loved ones to whom she could dedicate her last steps. Emotionally, physically and mentally exhausted, Daniel ran one last mile while praying for Natasha Montgomery and LaVerda Sorrell.
Then she stopped.
All-day, she had been checking-in, sharing stories, connecting with dozens of people, some of whom ran or prayed alongside her— some of whom were family members of the deceased.By the time her feet slowed and the treadmill stopped completely, she was in tears.
“Jordan is demanding of herself, but she’s not trying to beat everybody else, she’s trying to live up to an internal standard, and sometimes if you don’t articulate that internal standard, it never feels like you hit it,” Daniel’s father says. “With MMIW… you can never help enough.”Fish knows this all too well.“When I went into that State Championship meet, it was all about the glory,” she says. “But after the first race, I realized I could care less about being a state champion. Because whatever I did wouldn’t bring the women I was running for back.”Running in prayer isn’t easy or satisfying. But grappling with an epidemic of missing and murdered Indigenous people in America shouldn’t be— reversing systems of oppression and racial injustice never is.The day after Daniel’s prayer run, news outlets published footage of the murder of Ahmaud Arbery, a Black man who left his home in Georgia to go for a run and was killed by two white men.
Daniel’s legs were tired and her emotions zapped from her prayer run; but on Friday, May 8 she tied her laces and ran with the nation for Ahmaud.
A few weeks later, when George Floyd was murdered at the hands of white police officers in Minnesota, Daniel ran in prayer, again, while wearing a white T-shirt on which she wrote: “Indigenous for Black Lives.”
I spoke with Daniel several times between March and June 2020. In that time, Daniel’s local trails had gone from therapeutic, to prohibited, to back open but dangerous. The rate of infection from COVID-19 was spiking; and the murders of black men and women in America were finally making the unjust treatment of Black and Indigenous people of color (BIPOC) a global conversation.
Toward the end of our interviews, I could tell Daniel was tired.
She was kind and generous, as always; but she began to speak in a rapid monotone about MMIW and systemic racism. I wondered how many times she had repeated this information over the past week, over the last several years.
She told me she had been working until 10 p.m. most nights throughout June, posting on social media, joining panel discussions and doing podcasts about racial injustice in America.
In June, she organized a virtual 5K to raise money for an initiative she created called Mitákuye Oyás’iŋ (“we are all related” in Lakota) to donate masks and medical supplies to Indigenous communities.
“Now that I’ve been trying to raise awareness for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, I’m learning all of the things that potentially happen when a person does go missing,” she says. “I really need to be extra careful. And not just me, but any person of color, and especially women—all women.”
At different points in her life, Daniel has felt the grip of fear when she runs. It’s exacerbated by reading stories of Indigenous women who have been abducted, and people of color who have been killed. But she tries not to give in to fear. She runs with caution, but she moves through the world with hope.
Back in December, before COVID-19, Daniel was gearing up for the Olympic Trials in Atlanta when her year of exhaustion and burn-out finally caught up with her; she suffered an Achilles injury that left her unable to run for two months.“I think we have a curse on us for the Olympic Trials,” Daniel’s Mom jokes. Daniel’s injury seems to perpetuate that myth, putting Daniel in the same boat as her grandfather and her mother. Daniel, however, is determined to break the trend.“I’ve had this dream ever since I was little that someone from the Brings Three White Horses family should make it to the Olympic Trials, just to say that we actually made it,” she says.Of course, getting to the Olympic Games is not just about gold and glory. Should Daniel earn the chance to represent the United States of America in 2024, she’ll be running with a red handprint over her mouth—with the entire world watching.When Billy Mills won Olympic gold in 1964, he knew that moment was a gift.But it was laced with a feeling that Mills, an Indigenous man in a segregated America, had been struggling with his entire life.
“I stood on the victory stand and heard our national anthem being played,” Mills says. “It was powerful, it was beautiful, but there was a sadness [to it], because I felt I did not belong.”
In the Lakota way, Mills says, running—whether on mountain trails or a high-school track—is a way of tapping into a universal experience. The so-called “runner’s high” is a feeling any runner can access regardless of geography, culture or race. That feeling is connection, and connection is what creates global unity.
“I see Jordan putting down her footprints on Mother Earth in such a powerful way,” he continues. “And she’s being joined by many young men and women of a variety of ethnic backgrounds and religious backgrounds in America. I just wish I’d live long enough to see the incredible America they can build.”
With plenty of time before the Olympic Trials in 2024, Daniel plans to focus on trail running for the next couple of years. She might even attempt her first 50K. But what she knows for sure is that wherever she is, whatever the distance, Daniel will be running with a red handprint over her mouth.
“I plan on doing it until I don’t have to anymore,” she says. “As long as I am competitively running, I plan on running for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Relatives.”
Claire Walla is a Contributing Editor for Trail Runner.