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Indigenous Woman Builds, Uplifts a Community of Runners

Verna Volker got sick of not seeing her fellow native women in the running community, so she created space for them.

Photo: Verna Volker

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Verna Volker remembers being in a bookstore a couple of years ago, leafing through a running magazine and a trail running magazine. Every woman pictured looked similar—white, thin, often blond, and with flawless skin, Volker says. Scrolling through the running community on Instagram, she saw the same thing.

It’s not that Indigenous trail runners are rare—Volker knows that many of them exist, especially in certain areas of the country. “A lot of these trail running and ultra races happen on our people’s land,” she said. For some Indigenous people, running is part of their history.

Verna Volker is a Navajo ultra and trail runner based in Minneapolis. “I’m often the only brown face at these races,” she says.

“You look at these runners that are shown all over social media and the running industry, and when you compare yourself to that, it makes you feel like, ‘I can’t look like that. I don’t have the six-pack abs. I had four children,’” she says. So in 2018, she decided to create an online community, Native Women Running, to highlight and encourage native women runners.

By then, Volker had been a runner for 10 years and she had connected with some native women runners on Instagram. She asked a few if they would be interested in a page dedicated to native women runners and they said yes. Now the Instagram page has grown to more than 11,500 followers, and 5,600 followers on Facebook. On these platforms, women connect with each other and share their stories.

Many of them use running to fight the health problems common in their communities and to heal from trauma they have experienced. Murder is the third leading cause of death for native women, and native women face disproportionately high rates of violence and murder.

Sometimes, on long runs, Volker finds herself “in tears because of tragedy that I’ve experienced, losing a lot of loved ones in my life.” she says. “Maybe I’m still grieving for that. Maybe I’m still healing from that. And that story is pretty common in Native Women Running—people running for their son or their husband who passed, or running for their aunt or someone who was missing or murdered.”

For the past two years, Volker has organized a virtual run for the National Day of Awareness for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women (MMIW), and she advocates for MMIW.

Runner safety is important to Volker. She recently partnered with Roar Training to offer a virtual workshop on running safety for Native Women Running members. She’s also worked with the company Go Guarded, which makes self-defense products, to offer a discount for members.

Leaning into Community

Native Women Running features women from around the country, living on and off reservations, of different ages, and with various levels of running experience and ability. “The whole goal was just to bring more visibility, positivity, and motivation among native women,” Volker said. “All of us are runners, no matter what body type, whether we are slow or fast.”

“We consider each other sisters, even if we are from different tribes or nations,” Volker says.

One member of the Native Women Running community is Rhiannon Velazquez, an emergency room nurse in Rapid City, South Dakota, who is Oglala Lakota. “Working as an ER nurse, you see stuff that’s really hard to process, and running is good stress release,” she says. “I like that feeling of having my mind, body, and soul reset.” She also spent a few years boxing, and now she helps teach martial arts and is a black belt.

The stories shared on Native Women Running help encourage other Indigenous women and youth, Velazquez says. “It helps, especially seeing other native women running, being healthy, being active out there—it really helps just to actually see it.”

Ardis Smith is a member of the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs in Oregon. She grew up on the Warm Springs Indian Reservation, left for college, and then returned after she got her master’s degree to raise her own children there. She works as a teacher on the reservation and recently received her license to become an administrator. Among the children, “there’s a lot of historical trauma,” says Smith. “Working towards change in our system is really difficult. So I use running to help cope with the stress of work, the stress of family, and the stress of knowing what I know about some of our children here.”

Smith has three children of her own. “They need me to be strong, both mentally and physically,” she says. “Native Women Running, to me, represents strength, resiliency, hope, and just having a community of people” living in similar situations across the country, either on reservations or in urban areas.

“We’ve Been Forgotten”

Volker is also an ambassador for Native Women’s Wilderness and for Red Earth Running Company. Earlier this year, she joined the board of the Minnesota Distance Running Association. Outside of running, she works as a special education para and coaches basketball as well.

Volker hopes that drawing attention to Indigenous runners can help combat negative stereotypes. In sports, she explained, mascots and costumes affect how nonnative people perceive native people—as mascots but not real people.

“Historically, we’ve been misrepresented,” Smith says. “If you type ‘Native Americans’ into a Google search, you’ll see historical pictures, black-and-white pictures—you’ll see nothing that’s really current,” except maybe a couple of pictures, she explains. “When you type in ‘Hispanic American,’ you’ll see everyday pictures of Hispanic or Latino people. When you type in ‘African American,’ you’ll see modern-day pictures. We’ve been forgotten.”

The highest-profile Native American woman runner might be Patti Catalano Dillon, who graced the cover of Runner’s World in July 1981, after becoming the first American woman to break 2:30 in the marathon in 1980. Sometimes she would tell reporters she was Mi’kmaq, but that wouldn’t make it into the stories, she recalls.

She appreciates Native Women Running and the women in it because “we have a shared history,” she says. And running is part of that history. “I run because it’s in me to run—and I didn’t even know it was there,” she says. One of her dreams is to have an Olympic team of all-native women runners.

Volker wants the running community to be more inclusive of other underrepresented groups as well. She, runner and advocate Alison Désir, and outdoor activist Teresa Baker have met with representatives of Brooks Running, HOKA ONE ONE, the Running Industry Association, Playmakers, Gazelle Sports, and Fleet Feet, and they recently formed the Running Industry Diversity Coalition.

The coalition will encourage running organizations and companies to address systemic racism, beyond empty declarations of support. Pushing for this kind of change is difficult, Volker says. “I’m thankful for the group of women that I’m working with now and for these organizations that are trying to take this further.”

“The thing that I keep going back to is: Why do people of color have to work so hard to even be noticed?” Volker says. “It shouldn’t be that hard, but it is. And I think people are coming to terms with how uncomfortable this conversation is.”

In the meantime, Native Women Running is a bright spot for its members and followers. “In a world and a system where we most often are invisible, you will see love and light” in Native Women Running, Smith says. “We see each other in all our beauty.”

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