On the surface it kind of looked like a particular sort of marathon, longer than most at 322K (200 mile) and with mostly Indian participants, but it was oh so much more. "The run is of historical, cultural and spiritual significance," said Red Lake Spiritual Elder Larry Stillday.
The annual Run for Health, Healing, and Sobriety usually begins at the Red Lake Chemical Health Programs on Wednesday, (July 31) and finishes at the Mashkawizin powwow grounds at Fon du Lac the following Saturday.
But this year, it started two days earlier. "Actually this is day three that we are starting because we ran through all Red Lake communities for the past two days," said Red Lake Chairman Floyd Jourdain, Jr.
The first day, runners started from the "point" and ran through the community of Ponemah and finished by running through Redby that evening. The next day's start was from the Chemical Health programs. Runners ran through Red Lake community and on out to Little Rock and back. The third morning was the start for Mashkawizin.
In a brief ceremony before the run to Leech Lake, Jourdain told the story behind the two Eagle Staffs the runners would carry, the Sobriety Staff and the Suicide Awareness Staff. (The staffs would play a role in the lives of two young people later in the run.) "These staffs have been many places representing important issues for Indian country," Jourdain explained. "Please be careful with the staffs, if it…or a feather falls, call on one of the organizers." The eagle feather, highly symbolic and a sacred item, must be treated in a sacred manner if it touches the ground.
According to Tom Barrett, Director of Red Lake Chemical Health programs, the Sobriety Staff has been on every run. "It's kept at Washkawisen (Fond du Lac), we go pick it up before the run, and then leave it there at the end. The Suicide Awareness Staff has been many places around the five state area. It has come from Minneapolis and was left here after the "tragedy" by a spiritual elder."
"The number one killer of Indians is alcohol, but this is not just for Indians, this is for everyone, it's a prayer," said Jourdain to the participants. "Many suffer, especially families. While you're running, please say a prayer for those who suffer, for families, and for those that are healing."
"I've been out there doing invocations for the runners," added Stillday. "I concur, the run is a prayer. The first day we ran for those suffering, the second day we ran for gratefulness…for positive things."
"A message was carried from Ponemah families and on to Red Lake," said Stillday. "The run has adopted this principle, it's more than about alcohol and drugs, it's about wellness and health in the broadest sense. When the run sends its energy into the inter-connective web, it is spiritually significant, we are dealing with the web of life. People who are in the city will feel it…they will feel it, and in the same manner you will feel humility. This is the teaching; Elders say the spirit is constantly in motion, the person running activates emotion, which goes into the rhythm of life. That's how connected we are, connected to all people, and all living things."
"Running sends a message. That's our history as well as many other cultures," added Barrett. "We used to send runners to deliver a message to other communities. This is the same, the message is sobriety. But it is more it's about health and it's about healing. So many suffer from alcohol and diabetes."
"And it's also a bit about suffering," Barrett went on. "It's not easy to run 200 miles or more over several days, some people get sore backs, or legs or feet. But there is a camaraderie. The runners and support staff give of themselves to help others. It's emotional and spiritual in addition to the physical. People have been running or walking for centuries for a cause, sometimes greater distances. A First Nations group ran from Canada to Mexico."
"You are running for your family and yourselves," said Gary Charwood, Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe Cultural Coordinator for Tribal Courts before the start of the run. "Put energy into your asemaa (tobacco). Asemaa gives us energy and support." Although Charwood is a Leech Lake member, his mother was from Red Lake, in fact he was born and raised in Obaashiing.
"Carry the message," Charwood added. "It's not about us personally, it's not about glory, it's about sending a message. We're not supposed to suffer!"
"Being a part of it, one could feel the positive energy, and power of the eagle staff," said Charwood. "Stories were shared, it was a Spiritual Event. That's the reward, when my heart saddens, the group is like family, we have each other's back, there is suddenly no room for negativity. We shut the world out for a time, and we come to the end…after six days of bonding…celebration is on the up."
"People give us support all along the run, it puts tears in your eyes seeing the pride and hope," said Charwood proudly. "Keeping sober is our thinking in the fullest definition, not only alcohol but drugs, but sobriety also means combatting all the negatives."
Charwood added that he is very determined to learn his language, Ojibwemowin. "I've lost many of my relatives from Obaashiing to alcohol and diabetes. It's important to realize their lives could have been different. On this run, peoples lives get turned around. Not only those running, but it impacts those who are watching and even those listening."
The Run: On the Surface
On the third day, after a brief ceremony, prayer and smudging, more than a dozen runners, including several youth began their run down Highway 89. It was a warm August Day with the temperature approaching the low 80’s. The runners were accompanied by a near equal number of support staff, who would use five or six vehicles to shuttle runners, provide water, and any other service the runners might need.
"We'll be doing what we call a 'crow hop' relay," explained Jourdain before the run. Each team or individual runner would run 3/10 of a mile, then be shuttled ahead of the four or five other teams, allowing time to rest while awaiting your turn to run again.
Reaching Roosevelt Road (SE Bemidji), the runners then headed east to destination Leech Lake powwow grounds via Highway 2, where they camped for the night leaving this writer behind.
On day four, the runners left Leech Lake and ran to the Itasca County Fairgrounds at Grand Rapids for another night of camping. Day three took the runners to Floodwood and then a shuttle back to Grand Rapids for the night.
Upon arrival at Grand Rapids, eight or nine tents are set up as the sun sets. "They must have been hungry," said Charwood. "Kevin (Hart of Red Lake) does the food, but one isn't worried about food somehow, there's a fasting piece to this. I even fast one day prior to the run to prepare."
A shuttle back to Floodwood begins Day five where teams from Fond du Lac join the runners and the last leg of the run to Mashkawizin, near Sawyer, just south of Cloquet. "We had pretty good timing," said Barrett. "Grand entry was at 7:30 PM, and we arrived at 7:45 for the start of the 35th Annual Celebration of Sobriety. Fifty runners were celebrating having run for nearly a week."
"It's fun, it's challenging, it's bonding," Barrett went on. "Some go home, some camp, some do a short runs, some take a break and rejoin later, some go the whole run. When we stop to camp, we have a meal of soup and sandwiches prepared by Kevin Hart." (Director of Red Lake Traditional Foods Program)
All runners were welcome to participate in any and all of the run…no matter what nation, and several did joining up for short sprints, some longer. Still others cheered the runners on or honked horns of encouragement.
"Finding a Purpose: A Young Man's Story" as told by Tom Barrett
Barrett noted that more and more kids are joining the run and they are getting younger. "I have a story," said Barrett. "A story of a young man whose father insisted that his 14 year-old son participate (with his dad) in the sobriety run. The son, as many his age might, set about complaining and was opposed. He could think of many better ways to spend four days in August."
"But the first time the young man ran with the eagle staff, the young man's Dad told me, something changed," said Barrett. "It was gradual, but over the four days, the young man got more and more into it. He was a strong runner, and and embraced the symbolism of the run, the camaraderie. The kid was just so proud of what he was doing by the time we got to the end of the run."
"And I could see it too and I was moved. Now, I normally am the person who runs into the arena with the eagle staff when we arrive at Mashkawisin," said Barrett, "but at the end, coincidently, the young man was carrying the eagle staff, and I told him to go ahead and run it on in. With pride the young man held the eagle staff high leading 30-40 runners into the arena shoulder to shoulder. It was something I'll never forget, this is why we do these things."
"Finding a Purpose: A Young Woman's Story" as told by Gary Charwood
"My story is about a young lady, about 13, and she's has been injured in her life," said Charwood. "This run increased her self-esteem, many noticed. In just the first 3/10 mile relay, also her first time carrying the staff, you could see it, this change, and on top of it and she was a natural runner. She stuck it out to the end, and the event changed her. She felt the sacredness of the run, and wanted to experience it all. She touched on every component of the run."
"This young woman understood that she was running for her family, running for those that can't, for those that are struggling….it's hard to talk about, I can't….I get all emotional," said a struggling Charwood. "She took ownership of her life and this beautiful culture – this was done in the past, and I know her ancestors are proud."
The run was sponsored by the Red Lake Chemical Health Programs and Traditional Foods Program: "Old Ways for Today's Health." (Kevin Hart)