Well-intentioned individuals, having seen the overrepresentation of American Indians in terms of morbidity and mortality, launch all sorts of wellness programs which not withstanding their impact in non-Indian populations, find little or no participation from the Indian people. Part of this lack of response has to do with the absence of cultural elements, the process by which physical activities become part of the Indian world. Mechanical, repetitious activities, even if they are to bring some personal wellbeing, are basically unappealing in Indian country.
When these cultural components are in place, we find an enthusiastic response from the community as with the case of the Tarahumara Indian runners in Mexico, and the Pit River Indians in the United States, who have made running part of their living traditions.
It is also interesting to notice that the communities themselves with no need for sponsors or governmental funding have kept these activities alive. They are Indian events, and are preserved by Indian communities. These events, grounded in a sense of Indianhood, rather than the turbulent forces of tribal politics, have become a way by which members of all ages rededicate themselves to the cause of their people and their ancestral land.
Every year, the Pit River Indians run from Mount Shasta to Mount Lassen, covering 104 miles in two days. While most of the run is done in relays, there are some strenuous runners who run all the way.
“Use Jet-Acu (Mount Shasta in Pit River language) as a model,” an elder tells us. “While it has fire within, the higher up you go, the more snow you find.” And then he adds, “You do the same as you run: keep your energy strong and your head as cold as snow.”
“Tomorrow we will run through our Ancestral Land,” the leader says. “Keep in mind that it was not always this way. Just some years ago, some of our people were arrested and harassed for participating in this event. So, tomorrow, as you run, remember that some of your ancestors have taken a stand for you, they have defended your right to be in this land.”
The night goes slowly while a cool breeze from the Mountain finds its way into the camp. One of our elders is sleeping in her car close to her oxygen machine. Others remain awake, fasting and praying for the run.
As the sky begins to clear, the howling of coyotes awakens most of the runners.
“Remember” another leader states, “this is not a race, it is a run. We do it to purify ourselves. We do it to cleanse ourselves so that we can better listen to the land, this same land that has given shelter to our ancestors, this land that has given us life.”
The staff, a stick covered with deerskin and eagle feathers is handed to one of the experienced runners. Then, with a growing group roar that echoes on the Mountain, the run begins.
The pace is fast; still, some of the runners manage to sing as they run. After awhile, their songs set the rhythm of the run and of our breathing.
We cross numerous creeks and rivers, following back-road trails. A beautiful green seems to be everywhere. Some elders pick up runners in their trucks as the relay takes place. During these pauses, the elders talk about the ancestral ways to the runners.
One of the elders says, “We come from people who never gave up. When our ancestors were sent to reservations, far away from this land, they escaped and they fought. Eventually they found their way back to our land.” There is a ring to his voice as he says these last words. The elder man then tells us, “Our health decreased in proportion to the land that was taken from us. Large electric corporations, timber industries, and ranchers came into our land. They divided us taking advantage of our lack of knowledge of their system. And even when we later understood them, and fought them with their laws they never respected their agreements. And yet, we are still here. We haven’t given up.”
The run continues and fatigue begins to set in. Still, the runners go on. As we cross small towns, people gather to see us run by. There is cheering from some of the spectators. At one point, some runners jump into a lake, while others slow down just enough to put their heads in a waterfall.
An elder nods as he sees us still running as the first stars appear in the sky. He hollers “You run with Capitan Jack!” Later, he will tell us the story of Capitan Jack, the nickname of a Modoc Indian, that lead the Modoc War of 1872, one of the most costly Indian campaigns engaged in by the United States. This rugged band of Indians numbering only 71 fighting men at their greatest strength stood off an army of 1,000 soldiers.
“And that wasn’t that long ago,” the elder man tells us with a smile.
With the light of a new day other runners joined us for the final part of the run. Some of these new runners are from the Hoopa, Modoc and Shoshone tribes.
Angel Winn, one of the runners, sings a traditional song as we are running up a steep hill. The rhythm of the song matches our steps and carries us over the hill. At one point, we see some deer running across our path. “A good sign,” Angel tells me. I remember then that Angel, aside from running, is also a Bear Dancer, which means that, tonight he is going to dance until sunrise.
Then we enter Lassen National Park. The National Park Services has worked with us and we have been able to overcome obstacles of the past. This time, the Ancestral Run finds U.S. Forest Service men and women cheering for the runners. Tourists at the National Park honked their horns while tired runners waved at them. A few minutes later I hear it for the first time. It is a distant sound of a drum. We keep running and the sound gets stronger as we run. Four miles later, we arrive at the base of the camp. Here, the sound of the drum is almost at its peak.
Twelve of the elders of the community are beating this big drum. Radley Davis, one of the organizers, indicates that we are going to run four times around the camp. Once we do that, we are to take our place in the circle. A circle of chairs has been prepared for us. We do as we are told, and then, the runner that carries the staff joins the circle of the elders, drops on one knee, and presents the staff to an elder who is sitting at the center of the circle. The elder is wearing a headdress made of eagle feathers. His right arm shakes a little as he receives the staff. There seems to be a silent dialog between the two men – a young man finishing the ancestral run and an elder in a wheelchair receiving the staff, the young and the old coming together.
We take our places and, one by one, receive the salute of the elder. He takes a large eagle feather and passes it by our head and shoulders as he says some kind words to us.
The night comes and with it the Bear Dance takes place.
The following day, as I get ready to leave, I pass by the drum, the one that was played as we arrived at camp. For a moment, as we were running, the drum set the rhythm of our steps, of all of our heartbeats. The drum became the heart of the community.
At times, when I run, that drumbeat still resonates in my mind and with it the feeling that we can become all one.
Roberto Dansie is a clinical psychologist. In 1997 he received the golden medallion from the National Indian Health Board for his contributions to health in Indian country. He lives in northern California.