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These Indigenous Athletes Run for More Than Themselves

Runner’s World logo Runner’s World 7/7/2020 Taylor Dutch
a man on a rocky beach: Four men and women share how they run to represent and remember Indigenous people—and prioritize their mental health, too. © Devin Whetstone Four men and women share how they run to represent and remember Indigenous people—and prioritize their mental health, too.

In the week leading up to the 2019 Boston Marathon, Jordan Marie Brings Three White Horses Daniel searched for the names of Indigenous women who were either missing or murdered.

She read about Amanda Webster, a 26-year-old mother of three who was stabbed to death; Savanna LaFontaine-Greywind, a pregnant mother who was murdered by her neighbor; and Lucella Taitano Yazzie, who went missing in Gallup, New Mexico, on April 1, 2019 and was found safe four days later. In total, Daniel found 26 women—one to pray for during each mile of the marathon.

With a red handprint painted over her mouth to represent the voices who were silenced by violence, and the letters MMIW (missing and murdered Indigenous women) written in red paint on her legs, Daniel, 32, ran the 26.2 miles from Hopkinton to Boylston Street in a personal best of 3:02:11. With thousands of runners and spectators watching along the course, she accomplished her goal of raising awareness for an overlooked crisis.

As reported by The New York Times, 84 percent of Indigenous women have experienced physical, sexual, or psychological violence in their lifetime, according to the National Institute of Justice. Some counties have rates of murder against Indigenous women that are over 10 times the national average, Justice Department data finds.

In the year that followed Daniel’s dedication at the Boston Marathon, her story was picked up by several major news outlets, she encouraged allies to support organizations dedicated to the cause, and she helped create more educational awareness initiatives. Daniel even inspired then-high school senior Rosalie Fish to dedicate her Washington state track meet performances to MMIW.

“After that run [Boston Marathon], I felt like this was a new purpose and a new way to express myself and what I believe in,” Daniel told Runner’s World. “To help share or create something new, to help give MMIW visibility, to give them [the women] and their families visibility, and to generate conversations and educational awareness about what is happening—it was my contribution to help.”

After Boston, Daniel, a South Dakota native who now lives in Los Angeles, continued to race for the MMIW movement, dedicating each mile to a missing or murdered Indigenous woman.

a person smiling for the camera: Jordan Marie Brings Three White Horses Daniel dedicated her race at the 2019 San Jose Half Marathon to Indigenous people reported missing. © Devin Whetstone Jordan Marie Brings Three White Horses Daniel dedicated her race at the 2019 San Jose Half Marathon to Indigenous people reported missing.

Daniel is one of several Indigenous athletes who run with intention rooted in representation and remembrance of Indigenous people. But with that intention comes challenges that are specific to Indigenous experience. In interviews with Runner’s World, Daniel, Christian Gering, Ashleigh Thompson, and Lydia Jennings shared how they run for and give back to Indigenous communities, navigate the trauma that often follows, and manage their own mental health along the way.

Breaking the Cycle of Intergenerational Trauma

Ashleigh Thompson, a Ph.D. student studying anthropology at the University of Arizona, uses running as a way to cope with intergenerational trauma that exists in her own family.

A member of the Miskwaagamiiwi-zaaga’igan, also known as the Red Lake Ojibwe Nation located in northern Minnesota, Thompson experienced the effects of intergenerational trauma, which occurs when untreated trauma-related stress experienced by survivors is passed on to subsequent generations.

a person walking on the side of a river: Ashleigh Thompson © Clint Baker Ashleigh Thompson

Thompson then learned about three generations’s worth of intergenerational trauma in her own family.

“I didn’t even know what that [intergenerational trauma] was until I went to college and I started taking American Indian studies classes,” Thomspon said. “I started to understand my mom’s issues weren’t her issues—they’re much deeper than that and rooted in these traumas that had been passed down intergenerationally throughout our family.”

As a student at the University of Minnesota, Morris, talking to a counselor and running on the school’s track team helped her cope with the effects of trauma.

“Taking a step back and understanding my history and being able to displace any blame or shame I felt about what I had experienced personally as a child really helped,” she said. “And also through that time, I was running on the cross-country and track teams. I’ve never taken any meds for my anxiety or through periods of depression because I’ve been able to handle it through running.”

Today, Thompson is contributing to Indigenous communities through her studies and in volunteer work. This summer, she will be working on her dissertation proposal, which will be a collaboration with her tribe to create a curriculum for Indigenous students to learn about the Red Lake Ojibwe history and culture. She also volunteers with Sko Run Den, a series of running meet-ups in Tucson, Arizona, aimed to encourage more Indigenous runners to enjoy the trails and connect with the local trail running community.

Running for Representation

For Gering, an ultra runner from San Felipe Pueblo—which is traditionally known as Katishtya in New Mexico—the act of running is a continuation of cultural values. When the Salomon Running-sponsored athlete trains on the trails near his home, he’s motivated by the history of his people and the miles they traveled on foot.

“Running is a staple to our culture and to our traditions,” Gering, 28, said. “It’s tied to language, it’s tied to land. I think about that when things get hard—it’s that connection to these memories of past, present, and future.”

When he runs, Gering reflects on inspirational figures like Steve Gachupin, an Indigenous runner from Jemez Pueblo—one of the 19 Pueblos in northern New Mexico—who won the Pikes Peak Marathon from 1966 to ’71. He thinks about his own grandfather who walked four miles one way from the family home to the field where he worked in order to provide for the community. Today, Gering runs the same path with the intention that his presence in elite trail running will represent his Indigenous community and inspire future generations to appreciate and take up those paths as well.

a man riding skis down a snow covered mountain: Christian Gering © Myke Hermsmeyer Christian Gering

“Whether you do it early in the morning when the sun rises or whether you’re trying to get to your next place to make sure that you can make a living for your family, you should have the intention that this [running] is not only for me, but this is for the community,” he said. “When I choose to run or when I choose to walk that far or go there by my own two feet, I’m there for strengthening myself and my community for the better.”

When Gering ran cross country and track for Fort Lewis College from 2011 to ’15, he set the intention of representation for Indigenous runners at the Division 2 NCAA level, where American Indian and Alaskan natives made up one percent of the student-athlete population in 2019, according to the NCAA’s Demographics Database.

“If I’m going to represent, then I’m going to go and put my best foot forward,” Gering thought. “That’s what drove me to train hard.”

While competing for the Skyhawks, Gering set numerous school records, competed at the NCAA Cross Country Championships three years in a row, and earned the outstanding senior male athlete award.

Today, Gering competes in ultra races with the same intention. In October 2019, he won the Javelina Jundred in 7:58:43. His most recent performance was a fourth-place finish at the Pioneer Spirit 50-Miler on March 14.

“Running is tied to so many things that you can’t just disassociate it as a sport,” Gering said. “You bring who you are to that start line.”

In addition to his running talent, Gering has contributed several awareness initiatives to help support his community. In 2016, he helped start a 5K race near the Fort Lewis campus, which promotes Indigenous artisans and features traditional native foods. Today, he works with Tewa Women United—a nonprofit dedicated to ending violence against Indigenous women—and hosts preventative programs with men in the community.

Creating Inclusive Outdoor Spaces

Lydia Jennings, a Ph.D. student studying environmental science at the University of Arizona, started Sko Run Den in 2018. As a Huichol (Wixáritari) and Pascua Yaqui (Yoeme) runner, Jennings was surprised to find that Indigenous people in the Tucson area—despite years of cultural running traditions—were not enjoying the local trails.

“Our presence and visibility in the local running community is something that isn’t really here,” Jennings said. “I thought it was weird that we don’t have as many runners, knowing how much it’s been impactful to me and my mental and physical and spiritual health.”

Jennings, 34, hosted two running events in 2019 at different trailheads in Tucson, and she hopes to do more in the future. The runs helped close a gap in knowledge that Jennings noticed within Indigenous communities where people didn’t know where to run or who to run with. Non-Indigenous runners were also brought into the fold to connect with them.

“[Non-Indigenous runners] got to see that we actually all have a range of experiences with the outdoors, with our life histories,” she said. “It’s working towards building solidarity and friendship and understanding around Indigenous issues, health issues, land sovereignty issues.”

In rotating event locations, the running events also opened up a dialogue about safety and inclusion for Indigenous runners who don’t feel comfortable in certain outdoor spaces.

“That was really eye-opening for me, but it has also led to some really important conversations in our community,” Jennings said. “What does it mean when we talk about outdoors for all? And how do we make sure that our running community is addressing systemic issues?”

For Jennings, running is a big component of her mental health. As a minority in academia, she has used running as a meditative outlet, and she wants to encourage other Indigenous runners to use it as well.

“It’s [running] a way to cope through spaces that might not feel inclusive to them,” she said.

The Weight of Raising Awareness

a person standing in a room: IMG_6563.JPG © Jordan Marie Brings Three White Horses Daniel IMG_6563.JPG

After competing in several races dedicated to raising awareness for MMIW, Daniel—who is Kul Wičasa Lakota—began to feel the effects of deep-rooted trauma from immersing herself in the movement. While she completed six dedicated runs in 2019, researching the names the week before each race left her physically and emotionally depleted. By the time she arrived at the start line, Daniel was exhausted.

“I started to hit a breaking point emotionally,” she said. “I was having insomnia, anxiety attacks, not having much of an appetite, and just really struggling to be happy because finding the names and reading the stories about them, not just the good, but the bad—reading the details of what happened to them was weighing heavy in my mind and in my heart.

“It just felt like this huge weight of darkness surrounding me, just pressing on my body. Running was getting hard. I was motivated more than ever to keep running and that’s all that I wanted. And I felt like if I wasn’t running and doing this, I wasn’t helping.”

In the fall of 2019, she developed Achilles tendinitis, which prevented her from chasing her goal of qualifying for the 2020 U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials at the California International Marathon in December. When she wasn’t running, Daniel would go for quick camping trips to escape or isolate herself at home instead of socializing with loved ones.

In counseling sessions, Daniel learned that she was experiencing compassion fatigue and she needed to create more space for herself to be vulnerable. She also learned different mental health tools—grounding techniques like breathwork exercises and setting personal boundaries, for example—which help manage her anxiety.

“I want to be able to fill the holes in a sinking boat with the things that’ll work for me so I don’t have to feel like I’m just covering this issue up,” she said.

For her last race of 2019, Daniel decided to compete at the Spartan Trail U.S. Championships in Los Olivos, California, on December 15—to help her maintain her joy for running and to relieve her Achilles’ tendon from the roads. This time, she ran for MMIW, but she didn’t research new names ahead of the race.

After Daniel finished 14th, she was greeted by an Indigenous high school cross-country coach who followed her advocacy work and asked to take a photo with her, because he said she inspired his girls team. In that moment, Daniel knew that the year-long intention of running 106 miles for 106 missing and murdered Indigenous women was worth the struggle she endured.

“All the hard work, how hard it was emotionally and physically—that [was] what I had hoped for,” Daniel said. “The awareness and how far it spread hopefully inspires others to take action, whether it’s about MMIW or not, just to be proactive about what they believe in. It was working.”

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After the Spartan race, Daniel took eight weeks off from running. In the last few months, Daniel has experienced fewer anxiety attacks, and when they do appear, she is able to pull herself out of the moment quickly. She’s been more communicative with her loved ones and is no longer internalizing her emotions.

On May 5, when she ran on National Day of Awareness for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, Daniel took a more vulnerable approach to the run.

“I didn’t want to try and put on a brave face the whole day,” she said. “If I had to cry, I let myself cry because I found that all last year I was holding on to these emotions and not knowing how to let them go.”

In 13.5 hours, she covered 27 miles and prayed for 28 Indigenous women. While running, she helped raise over $2,431 for the National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center and Seeding Sovereignty.

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