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The Importance of Running in Native American Culture

For generations, Native Americans have been running this country’s mountains, mesas, and plains—often with women leading the way.

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For generations, Native Americans have been running this country’s mountains, mesas and plains, often with women leading the way. Here, women from three different tribes share insights into their cultures’ rich running histories—and what inspires them to run today.

The First Runners

When a teacher asked Jordanna Saunders to join the junior high cross-country team in seventh grade, she never doubted her ability to hold her own at races. Her backyard was full of mesas and canyons that she regularly tore through while playing with her four younger brothers. “We didn’t have cable television or even a phone much of my childhood,” she remembers. “So if you didn’t play outside, there wasn’t much to do inside.” So she knew she was tough. 

Saunders, now 39 years old, had grown up on the Crownpoint Navajo reservation in New Mexico. “Women in our culture are raised very differently. We’re raised to know we are strong. That was never questioned,” she says. In fact, she likes to point to a moment in college when she first learned about feminism and was baffled. “I thought, Wait, aren’t the women already in charge?

Her first year on the cross-country team was rough, though. “I remember going home looking kind of crumpled after really hard workouts. It really was all-terrain,” she says. But it was also illuminating. Beyond getting fitter and faster, she gained something else totally unexpected: a new connection to her culture. “I didn’t know that running was such an important part of our culture and ceremony, that it was this sacred space, until I joined the team,” Saunders says.

Running has been an integral part of many Native American cultures for millennia. “Very practically, running is in our blood and in our DNA,” says Dustin Martin, the executive director of Wings of America, a group that organizes running programs for native youth. “We’ve been running longer than most other societies. It was not until 1680 that horses were available to the cultures of the Colorado Plateau, so for generations, traveling on foot was how we got around.”

Over those millennia, human-powered transit became more than just an exercise in getting from point A to point B. “The act of covering distances on foot is very important. It gives us a deep understanding of the landscape, the seasons,” Martin says, adding that for many Native Americans, running is as much a spiritual exercise as a physical one. And, because some Native American tribes are matrilineal, there are certain ceremonies and prayer rituals where women lead the way.

Today, Native American runners—particularly in the Southwest—are nurturing this living tradition, one footfall at a time. And they’re doing it in diverse ways that reflect the range of traditions within the native community. On any given Thursday morning, Native American women who live in big cities, like Saunders, meet up for laps around the local lake. While on reservations, groups gather for “awareness runs,” where they pray and discuss a pressing issue as they run. Somewhere else, a small group of Native American runners is traveling on foot down a U.S. highway, using their breath and their bodies and their presence to drag a pressing issue into the national spotlight.

Photo by Nils Nilsen.

Running to Have a Voice

Trisha Etringer, a member of the Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska and a photographer and videographer for Women’s Indigenous Media, insists she’s not an athlete. Sure, she ran track for a few years in junior high and high school, but she mostly focused on short events, maxing out at the 400 meters. And in recent years, although the 30-year-old has been trying to get fit again, she hasn’t done a lot of running.

However, when a friend approached her about a 100-mile run he was coordinating on behalf of missing and murdered indigenous women, Etringer didn’t even think twice. “He just asked if I wanted to participate in it, and I was like, ‘Oh hell yeah.’” She only had days to prepare, so she spent her time offering up prayers and priming her mind to embrace the uncomfortable, all so she could help bring a spotlight to an issue that deserves more attention.

Native American women face more sexual violence than any other group in America. Statistics showing that these women are raped and assaulted will turn your stomach. For example, according to data from the U.S. Department of Justice, Native American women are 2.5 times more likely to be sexually assaulted or raped than women of other ethnicities. One in three will be raped, versus one in five—which is the national average. 

Beyond this, Native American women are murdered, abducted and trafficked at rates above any other population. In some areas of the country, the murder rate for native women is 10 times the national average. And according to reporting done by the National Crime Information Center, as of 2016, there have been nearly 6,000 reported cases of missing Native American women, and 633 cases remained open at the end of 2017.

Unraveling what’s causing native women to be targeted is complex. Part of it is the violent history of colonialism, and that rape has been used to terrorize Native Americans for centuries. Today, in a majority of cases, the perpetrators of this violence against women are non-native men. That’s unusual, since interracial domestic violence is rare for other races. Another indicator of colonialism’s brutal legacy is that trafficking is especially bad in border towns, meaning towns abutting local reservations.

Addiction and high poverty rates are problematic too. Twenty-six percent of Native Americans live in poverty, compared to 10 percent of white folks. Finally, there’s the issue of jurisdiction. If a crime happens off reservation lands, the tribe cannot prosecute it. Too often, these crimes don’t get properly investigated and tried. “We come from poverty-stricken lands where nobody cares about us. No one sees us as individuals,” says Etringer, summing up why she feels rates of violence against native women are so high. Running 100 miles over two days and ending at the Nebraska State Capitol forced people to see Etringer and her colleagues.

Out on the road, running in shifts with eight others the first day and four on the second, Etringer felt short of breath. Her legs, which hadn’t done anything like this ever before, were not amused. “I am by no means a runner or a trained athlete,” she says, “so this was something coming from within.”

As she ran, she prayed, asking both for an end to the violence and for the safe return of all the missing women. The act of running helped bring additional clarity to her prayers. “When you have no one to help you and no other option to help you, that’s how the [missing] girls feel. It puts it in another perspective. Like I couldn’t catch my breath, I was struggling. But some of these women don’t have the option to take a break, they have to continue.” And so she continued too.

Last March, the 29-year-old Martin completed a similar run, traveling nearly 785 miles on foot to protest President Trump’s shrinking of Bears Ears National Monument, an area with as many as 1,000 archeological sites. He also recently ran 300 miles from Great Basin to Lake Mead. “We ran to bring awareness to a proposed project that would pump groundwater from five basins in eastern Nevada down to the Mojave to facilitate the continued growth of Las Vegas,” he explains.

Regarding why running is an ideal forum for activism, Martin says: “It’s direct, nonviolent action. More than anything, the activity of running relay-style builds accountability and community. And when done in prayer, it creates a unique warrior ethos informed by the lessons of our ancestors.” 

That’s how Etringer felt, too, like she was one piece of a movement, pushing awareness for the cause forward one footfall at at time.

Running to be Thankful 

When a family in the Hopi community was facing a childhood cancer diagnosis and insurmountable medical bills, the community did what it’s been doing for generations: It went for a run.

Wendi Lewis has been organizing “awareness runs” for her community for several years. Her organization, called We Run Strong, is currently in a bit of flux, but when this family came to her asking for help, she couldn’t say no. “Wendi is known for if there’s some type of need, people come to her,” says Caroline Sekaquaptewa, 44, a friend of Lewis’ and a fellow Hopi runner and Ironman triathlete. The family organized registration and sold T-shirts to raise money, and Lewis took care of everything else. On the day of the awareness run, the family spoke about their child’s cancer. People contributed money, and everyone ran and prayed.

“In our culture, running is always connected to prayers. Or they tell you you’re running for someone because you give them strength when you run,” explains Sekaquaptewa. Sekaquaptewa grew up on the Hopi reservation but now lives in Tempe. She’s been running as long as she can remember: to the bus stop as a kid, to her grandmother’s house as a toddler, everywhere. “In third grade, I started organized running. Our high school is known for running. Now we even have kindergarten teams,” she says.

When running is an integral part of your culture, it never feels like a drag. “Growing up, it was just everywhere,” Sekaquaptewa says. “There’s a dance the women in the family do, and running is part of that dance. And it’s not like you get up and have to run, you just get up and run. It’s something that you get to do.” Best of all, it’s something that the next generation wants to do, too. Sekaquaptewa’s daughters are runners, and at many of the local running events, her family has 8–10 members on the course.

Doing Something Beautiful

A story like this one (especially one written by a white girl) cannot be told without a few caveats. The first is, perhaps, obvious: Running is not a panacea for the problems facing Native American communities, like high rates of diabetes, substance abuse and poverty. In fact, Wings doesn’t even bring up these issues with its young runners. “Wings has always been founded on this concept of positive youth development,” Martin says. “Everyone wants to come at us with these statistics about how we’re disadvantaged. But we would prefer to talk about our history as some of the greatest endurance athletes ever. By doing so you empower youth, in a way that you don’t when you tell them, ‘Hey, you’re 2.5 times more likely to commit suicide.’ Let’s not tell native youth how they’re deficient.”

It’s working. Wings always brings a talented team of high school athletes to the annual national cross-country championships, and many of its runners go on to compete successfully in college.

And women are often leading that charge. Martin says that while both men and women participate in the Wings program regularly, the organization has seen young women and their mothers embrace its programs most vigorously.

Also, not every Native American runner finds every run to be a profoundly spiritual experience; there’s tons of variation in the community. “I wish I could say that every run was prayerful, but sometimes I’m just out running because I want to run,” Saunders says. “And sometimes I’m running because otherwise, I’ll be grumpy. And sometimes I just want to run with my girlfriends and eat gravy.”

But for all Native Americans—just like for all runners across the globe—running is always about doing something beautiful. Sometimes that beauty is in building a better community. Sometimes it’s in spending an hour reflecting on the glory of nature. Sometimes the beauty is the pure banality of banging out 5 after-work miles. Sometimes it’s knowing that your voice and your feet and your breath were heard.

That was the most beautiful thing for Etringer as she closed out her run to the Nebraska State Capitol. “Once I could see the capitol in view, it still felt so far away. My legs were so heavy. We were all so tired,” she says. “But I did feel like I was heard. It was like, ‘Hey, we’re still here. We’ve been here.’”

Photo by Nils Nilsen.