Running may have enjoyed a surge in popularity in recent years but it is by no means a new trend for Native Americans. Historically, Native American tribes used running for their survival, enjoyment and religion. As Hopi folklore would have it, ancestors and animals showed Indian men and women how to run. For the Hopi tribe from the arid highlands of northeastern Arizona, running is much more than a sport. Just like the Indigenous Raramuri who live further south in the canyons of the Sierra Madres, long-distance running was an important method of transportation that linked clans and villages together. They ran to hunt prey, deliver messages and strengthen their body. They also ran in ceremonial events to please their Gods and bring rain to cultivate their crops.

The Navajo, once a rival tribe of the Hopi, also relied on running for hunting and other kinds of food gathering. They believe running keeps them healthy and spiritually-connected, increases energy and drives away negative feelings. They run to the east before sunrise as part of dagha, a Navajo tradition of running in the dark to greet the Sun. In this time of meditation and reflection, they honor the earth, the sky and everything sacred. Young men would train every evening in the hope that they would be selected to represent their clan in events such as “stone kicking” races. For many young Navajo used to a sedentary way of life on reservations, this morning ritual has become a way to combat drug and alcohol abuse, gangs, school dropouts outs and unemployment.

One young Navajo determined to keep the running tradition alive is Shaun Martin from Chinle in Arizona. He coaches cross-country running at high-school level to help youngsters fulfil their dreams, develop their potential and open up a world of opportunities. He has transformed his team into state champions and is considered a role model and hero by many appreciative youngsters. Shaun teaches his athletes that running is a celebration of life and a healing process, telling them: “You don’t run to win a race – you run to improve yourself”. For the Raramuri, Hopi and Navajo people, running creates pride and builds cultural unity and self-esteem whilst promoting a healthy lifestyle.
Feb 5, 2016
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