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You Cannot Erase Us: Letter From An Indigenous Runner

An Indigenous runner reflects on her relationship to land, language and running.

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This essay responds to an article published in our 2021 edition of DIRT. You can see our apology and additional context here

If you are reading this, then you’re probably a runner. Trail, road, sidewalk, track, or beach, if you lay your feet to the ground in a repetitive, meditative, and swift motion, then you understand the relationship that develops between you and the ground beneath you.

My feet have carried me thousands of miles across this Native land for as long as I can remember. I was born in San Francisco (Ohlone territory), began running on the streets of Tucson (Tohono O’Odham and Yoeme/Yaqui lands) and into the mountains of Santa Fe (Pueblo, Jicarilla Apache lands), back home to Ohlone territory, and today on the trails of Washington, D.C. (Piscataway and Anacostan lands). Throughout my youth I was surrounded by Indigenous landscapes, I lived among Indigenous people, and I participated in my tribal ceremonies in places whose Indigenous names were mostly lost to history. 

READ: What We Can Learn From Indigenous Runners

My family moved to northern New Mexico when I was ten years old, and that’s when I noticed the lack of Native names. Instead, the Indigenous landscape, cities, towns, rivers, and mountains were named for Spanish colonists, or white environmentalists and landowners. I found it odd that my schoolbooks claimed that Indians were people of the past and that we were all but extinct. I immediately thought of dinosaurs and then I realized that they were talking about me, about Native Americans. There were naïve little drawings in the side margins of the schoolbooks showing Indian mothers and children squatting while cooking, in museum dioramas but almost never depicted as living, breathing, actualized human beings in the present day. These depictions made me feel ashamed and primitive, even non-human. It was the first time in my life that I saw the visible manifestation of Indigenous erasure. It was a kind of racism that subtly embedded itself into everything around me, successfully indoctrinating you with the belief that my culture, languages and landscapes were not relevant, worth preserving, or even naming. 

 This is erasure. 

Over the years and through thousands of miles of running, I have thought about the words that marked the beginning of colonialism on the land and the end of Indigenous sovereignty. Some of the most dangerous terms have also become the most common place in contemporary parlance, again hinting at the power and subtly of white supremacy. First, dominate, discover, colonize, conquer, own, bought, occupy, property, borders, founded and possess to name a few. Indigenous sovereignty on the other hand is expressed through a relationship of reciprocity with the land, waters, human and non-human relatives reflected in our caretaking, ceremonies, languages, social, legal, and political structures. The colonial language has always been one of domination defined by ownership, borders, and capitalism, whereas Indigenous languages draw from the ecosystems that surround them, with the understanding that the natural world shall never have a monetary value. For example, in many Native languages the name of the tribe is also the word used for the people, which in turn describes the landscapes they inhabit, thereby declaring the immeasurable inseparability of the people to their environments. This is not the case with settler language. The assumption has always been that man exists solely to conquer the land, own it, and reap the profits from it.

Indigenous sovereignty is expressed through a relationship of reciprocity with the land

It was this same patronizing language that claimed and centered a white man as the” first trail runner” in North America in the Trail Runner article Steaks, Boots and Sneakers. Words are powerful, especially if they have been used for centuries to define a hierarchical relationship that positions the white race above all others, including Mother Nature.

 For Native Americans, much of our existence in the media has been reduced as either the savage or the seer, and our relationship to the natural world has been oversimplified and romanticized. Indigenous people have been running the land for centuries, for transportation, hunting, prayer, as messengers, for rites of passage and of course as athletes. Our relationship to the natural world is embedded in our individual cosmologies but we also have contemporary ways of interacting with the land that are often overlooked. 

FIND OUT WHO’S LAND YOU’RE RUNNING ON HERE

Some of the most decorated runners in U.S. history have been Native, and many of them were survivors of the boarding school era. Tsökahovi (Louis) Tewanima was a Hopi student at the Carlisle Indian Boarding School and a two-time Olympian representing the United States at the 1908 Summer Olympic Games in London. Before arriving at Carlisle, Tewanima had used running for transportation but more importantly in his Hopi spiritual practices. Jim Thorpe (“Wa-Tho-Huk” or Bright Path) of the Sac and Fox and Potawatami tribes, is probably one of the most well-known athletes in Native country. Thorpe attended Carlisle from 1904-1913, where he was a multi-sport athlete renowned in football, baseball, track and lacrosse, and also competed in hockey, tennis, handball, boxing and ballroom dancing. Thorpe went on to win gold medals in the pentathlon and decathlon in the 1912 Summer Olympics.  Billy Mills (Tamakoce Te’Hila), Oglala Lakota, won the gold medal in the 10,000-meter run at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. Mills, also a boarding school survivor, competed in marathons and was an NCAA All-American cross-country runner. More recently, Native runners have begun to grace the covers of athletic magazines, are brand ambassadors, and more importantly are using running as a form of activism to raise awareness for various issue impacting Native people. Runners like Jordan Marie Brings Three White Horses Daniel, Kul Wicasa Lakota, and Rosalie Fish, Cowlitz Tribe, have competed with the red handprint painted over their mouths, acknowledging the epidemic of the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls. Verna Volker, Navajo, founder of Native Women Running created the first and only online running community for Native women. Organizations like Wings of America have used running to teach Native youth about the benefits of the sports while connecting to their ancestral traditions. Billy Mills’ own foundation, Running Strong for American Indian Youth, provides immediate relief to families on the Pine Ridge and Cheyenne River Indian Reservations in South Dakota. 

Native people have been running the land since time immemorial. Our reasons for running and connection to our lands go far beyond the sport, running has real material value in our communities. When our existence on the land is denied, then colonialism has won, which is why it is so important to elevate this land as Indigenous land, to reclaim the Indigenous names in the landscape, and to combat white supremacy and Indigenous erasure in the outdoors. 

RELATED: The Case For Re-Naming Public Lands

While the “sport of trail running” may not have been conceived yet by white runners in 1958 on the ancestral lands of the Abenaki and Wabanaki (White Mountains of New Hampshire), we have been here all along. 

You cannot erase us. We ran at the beginning, and we keep running still. 

Portrait by Hanad Ali. 

Guarina Lopez is a member of the Pascua Yaqui Tribe of Tucson, Arizona and currently resides in the ancestral lands of the Piscataway and Anacostan tribes in Washington, DC. Guarina is a visual artist, storyteller, trail runner and mother to a 12-year-old skateboarder. She is an environmental activist and Indigenous rights advocate whose life’s work is dedicated to sharing stories of the Native people and the land throughout Turtle Island. Her work can be found on Instagram at This Native Land (https://www.instagram.com/this_native_land/) and Guarina Paloma Lopez (https://www.instagram.com/guarinapalomalopez/)