This essay appears in the Spring 2022 issue of Trail Runner. Join today.
Recent years have brought more attention than ever to issues of racial and social justice and intensified interest in climate action. But, what can the environmental movement learn from other social justice movements?
ReNew Earth Running, or RER, was conceived at the height of racial unrest in Minneapolis during the summer of 2020. George Floyd, whose name has been etched into the American psyche and whose murder was caught on camera, was the catalyst for marches and protests across Turtle Island (North America). Demands for police reform and racial justice blossomed into calls to action in other historically marginalized communities.
One of the strongest rallying cries was for LandBack, a movement that seeks to restore Indigenous lands to their original stewards. LandBack has been the basis of Indigenous struggle since first contact with settlers, who for hundreds of years have structured political and legal systems to disenfranchise Native people and dispossess them of their lands.
Minneapolis, Bdeóta Othúŋwe in Dakhóta, translates to City/Village of Many Lakes, and Gakaabikaang in Anishinaabemowin, or At the Waterfalls, is the ancestral lands of the Dakota and Ojibwe (Anishinaabe). Minneapolis is also home to one of the most diverse urban Native populations in the U.S., the largest tribal affiliation being the Dakota.
Minneapolis became home to such a diverse array of Native nations as a result of the Indian Relocation Act of 1956, which made it immensely difficult for Indigenous people to remain on their land. The Act dissolved tribal recognition for many and ending federal funding for reservation schools, healthcare and basic needs. In 1968, Minneapolis became home to the civil rights group the American Indian Movement, which fought for restoring tribal recognition and sovereignty. While the ideas that underpin LandBack are as old as colonialist conflict, this concentration of Indigenous cultural and political power gave a new spark to what later coalesced into a movement.
“Running for Landback means the alignment of my body and spirit. When I run for LandBack, I know that my connection to the land serves as a bridge between my ancestors and the next 7 generations who will also run through our ancestral lands one day.” —Mia Hammersley
We were once named for the land. Then we were named for the people who stole the land. #landback is not just about reclaiming our peoplehood, medicines, ceremonies, languages and our futures. It’s about restoring right relations.
In the summer of 2020, trail runner Michael Harralson found himself at a tipping point in American history and in his own life. Harralson, who is non-Native, moved to Minnesota in 2002 to pursue a career in Native American Law and wanted to do more. He had taken up running in 2013, and quickly connected the sport with social justice issues that he was passionate about like homelessness, mental health and environmentalism. He began running for causes like Mile in My Shoes, an organization based in homeless shelters devoted to supporting re-entry programs.
Already integrated in the running community, Harralson began reaching out to the local Native population to connect with the land on a more meaningful level. He wanted to go beyond land acknowledgements and put practice into action to return the land. He noticed that the runners he followed on social media looked a lot like him, and recognized that as a problem. As he began to diversify his feed he learned about Rising Hearts, the organization founded by Lakota runner Jordan Marie Brings Three White Horses Daniel.
Daniel has seamlessly integrated running, activism and education into her work as an advocate of Indigenous resistance and survival. She notes that, ‘a lot of people turned to running during the pandemic’, and she saw this as ‘an opportunity to bring in more allies committed to learning about the land they run on.’ This led to conversations about land theft, Indigenous stewardship and how Indigenous knowledge can address the climate crisis.
ReNew Earth Running was created in December 2020 with the goal of returning land to Native people using the power of running. RER’s belief system is a reflection of the majority Indigenous presence on the board, with members from the Lac Courte Oreilles Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Indians, Lake Manitoba First Nation (Ojibwe), Spokane Tribe in Eastern Washington and band of Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc in British Columbia, Tsuut’ina Nation, the Cowlitz and Muckleshoot tribes, and Daniel, who is a citizen of Kul Wicasa Oyate (Lower Brule Sioux Tribe).
RER now sponsors a running team of more than 20 Native and non-Native athletes. Those athletes and the 9 board members have each committed to fundraising and creating awareness of LandBack. The funds raised go to Tribal Nations and other Indigenous organizations to promote environmental protection and healing efforts within communities. RER currently works with local Native-led organizations that meet their mission but hopes to expand its impact nationally.
“As an Ojibwe woman, my people have always been on this land. This is where our spirit is home, the only home we’ve ever known,” says Angie Hirsch, a member of the Lake Manitoba First Nation and a RER Founding Board Member.
Runner and board member Danny Joe Brigman, who is from the Spokane Tribe, lives and works on his reservation in Eastern Washington. Brigman witnessed firsthand how climate change has affected his community’s logging practice. Decades of poor forest management led to wildfires, affecting the tribe’s timber industry. Using sustainable logging practices, the tribe was able to reverse some of the damage. As the original stewards of the land, their approach has been to work with and use the lands that have sustained them for generations, rather than through a purely extractive relationship.
As an RER runner, Brigman says his environmental advocacy ‘creates conversations with others outside of the reservation.’ He uses social media to raise awareness of issues directly impacting his community.
Running can be inherently solitary, but the power of RER’s mission lies in the concept of community. For the RER team, running is a way to educate allies on the importance and significance of LandBack while working toward its fruition. As with climate change, land theft and racial injustice, we cannot undo decades of damage on our own. RER team member Mia Montoya Hammersley, who is a Piro Manso Tiwa Tribal member and of Yaqui descent, says, “Running for Landback means the alignment of my body and spirit. When I run for LandBack, I know that my connection to the land serves as a bridge between my ancestors and the next 7 generations who will also run through our ancestral lands one day”.
While less than a year old, RER has already fulfilled its commitment to the Wakan Tipi Center of the Lower Phalen Creek Project in St. Paul. The Center is a cultural and environmental development center located within the Bruce Vento Nature Sanctuary. Wakáŋ Tipi means Dwelling Place of the Sacred in the Dakota language. Today, the Dakota have worked tirelessly to restore Wakan Tipi, which was nearly destroyed by land developers and railroads. The inaugural event, the Haulin’ Pollen 5K, was both an in-person and virtual run that raised $5000 to support work protecting nature and the site itself.
Cultural Programs Coordinator Mishaila Bowman (Sisseton Wahpeton Dakota) recounted the experience of ‘prayer and ceremony’ as she witnessed Native people running through the sacred sites.
The philosophy of LandBack is ever-changing as Native people and Nations decide how they want to move forward decolonizing their communities. One way to save the planet is to give the land back to Indigneous people to steward and protect from resource extraction.
As trail runners, environmentalists and humans, we have a unique opportunity to truly engage with the landscapes we run on. So, begin to question whose land you occupy and why. Ask yourself why you have access to trails that others do not. And don’t stop there.
In the words of the Nishnaabeg writer Leanne Betasamosake Simpson…If we want to create a different future, we need to live a different present.
Guarina Lopez, Pascua Yaqui Tribe, is a photographer and writer based in Piscataway and Nacotchtank territory (Washington, DC). She is also a mother, podcast addict, coffee lover, avid trail runner and cyclist.
From Spring 2022