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Road Races

The Boston Marathon Recognizes Indigenous Peoples Day

The Boston Marathon’s atypical autumn date this year falls on Indigenous Peoples Day and offers an opportunity to honor and uplift native runners and communities.

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This year, Marathon Monday coincides with Indigenous Peoples Day—for the first time in the race’s history. The Boston Marathon’s usual spring date moved to October 11 because of COVID-19.

The marathon and its festivities will honor Indigenous people in a few ways, including a land acknowledgment and celebrations of notable Indigenous runners from the marathon’s history.

Initially, when the marathon’s October 11 date was announced, some local Indigenous groups raised concern that it would disrupt or prevent their Indigenous Peoples Day celebrations. At first, the Boston Athletic Association (BAA) “did not consult with Indigenous people at all,” says Chali’Naru Dones, cofounder of the Indigenous Peoples Day Newton Committee. Newton is one of the cities the marathon passes through.

The Newton committee started a petition asking the BAA to change the date. The petition stated that the BAA was “perpetuating the myth that Indigenous peoples are part of the past and irrelevant. They are also maintaining the falsehood that non-Indigenous desires and ideas are more valuable than the wants and ideas of Indigenous peoples.”

But then the BAA met with the Newton committee and did something important, Dones says: They really listened, and they offered a sincere apology. “They were able to hear our voices,” she says.

The BAA also apologized publicly: “In selecting the fall date for the Boston Marathon, the Boston Athletic Association (B.A.A.) in no way wanted to take away from Indigenous Peoples’ Day or celebrations for the Indigenous and Native American Community. We extend our sincere apologies to all Indigenous people who have felt unheard or feared the importance of Indigenous Peoples’ Day would be erased. We are sorry.”

Boston, Newton, and some other communities in the area now formally recognize the second Monday in October as Indigenous Peoples Day rather than Columbus Day. Newton’s Indigenous Peoples Day celebration will be its first, and the BAA is donating to the committee to support it.

In the meantime, Indigenous runner and previous Boston marathoner Jordan Marie Daniel approached the BAA about including a land acknowledgment at the marathon. Land acknowledgments recognize the Indigenous people who were the original stewards of the land, and they are becoming more common at events.

When Daniel approached the BAA, “it was the first time that we had become aware of the concept of the land acknowledgement, and so it really has been a learning process for us,” says Suzanne Walmsley, the BAA’s director of youth and community engagement.

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The marathon passes through more than one tribe’s homelands, so the BAA has been meeting with a working group that includes representatives from the Federal and State Recognized Tribes to craft a land acknowledgment that properly honors the appropriate tribes. “It’s not just the words, it’s the actions, and then the learning and the understandings as well,” Walmsley says. “So we’ve spent several weeks in speaking with both individuals that were affiliated with the working group and also local scholars and Indigenous people to find out a little bit more.”

The land acknowledgment will be read before the race starts. “The land acknowledgement is important because it raises our awareness to ask these questions, to do the research and to find out about the places where we live,” Walmsley says.

This will be the 125th Boston Marathon, and it also marks anniversaries of some notable Indigenous runners. Forty years ago, in 1981, Patti Catalano Dillon, who is Mi’kmaq, set an American record when she ran 2:27:51. She is a three-time Boston Marathon runner-up. She will serve as an official starter for the open races, and she will participate in a panel discussion.

Dillon says she is honored to be a starter, and she’s happy that the day brings together running and her Indigenous identity, “two aspects of my life that define me and have made me who I am today.” She found out only recently that she is the fastest Indigenous woman in history, and the fifth fastest Indigenous person, she says. Learning that has prompted her to try to meet as many Indigenous people as she can. “I want them to shake my hand, look at me . . . and just think, ‘Oh my goodness, if she can do it, why can’t I do it?’” she says. “I’m here, I’m alive, I’m history . . . I’m still running.”

The marathon will also celebrate 1936 and 1939 champion Ellison Brown, a member of the Narragansett tribe, on the 85th anniversary of his first win. In that race, his move past John Kelley is what inspired the name “Heartbreak Hill” for that part of the course. And in 1939, Ellison ran a 2:28:51, which was a course record. His grandchildren will be part of the event.

Both Brown and Dillon will be featured on banners. The marathon program will recognize Tom Longboat, an Onondaga man who set a course record with 2:24:24 in 1907.

This year marks the fifth year of the Boston Marathon Pursuit Program, a partnership of Wings of America, the BAA, and Harvard University that commemorates Indigenous runners and brings Indigenous high school juniors to marathon weekend. (The program couldn’t bring any kids in this year because of COVID concerns.) The BAA is donating $10,000 to Wings of America and will honor its executive director, Dustin Martin.

“The idea of the race being run on Indigenous Peoples Day seems like an opportunity to celebrate that legacy and to elevate those histories [of native runners], because not enough people know about them,” Martin says. “Any elevation of their histories and of their accomplishments that can be achieved is important and necessary.”

Painter and muralist Yatika Starr Fields will be running the marathon in support of Wings. In the days leading up to the marathon, he is creating a piece inspired by Ellison Brown that expresses gratitude to the history of Indigenous Boston Marathon runners.

Some Indigenous women who are running the marathon are looking forward to the combination of marathon day and Indigenous Peoples Day. One is Erin Tapahe, a Navajo woman who lives in Utah. She is raising money for the American Red Cross of Massachusetts.

“Running is a form of prayer,” Tapahe says. She will run in prayer for people affected by COVID-19. And the day before the marathon, she will perform a traditional jingle dress dance at the finish line. “It’s really important for me to dance before the marathon, because it’s going to be a way to provide healing and prayer for those impacted by the COVID-19, but then also a way to pray for the safety of the runners the next day,” she says.

For many Indigenous people, running is part of their culture. Tapahe explained how running was central to the woman’s changing ceremony she had when she was 12. For four days, she ran three times a day, and the ceremony calls for the woman to run a little further each day. “The last day, after a night full of prayer and song, when the sun comes up, the woman runs as far as she can,” she says. During this part, her family—including her grandmothers—and some friends ran with her to encourage and support her.

Caroline Sekaquaptewa is a Hopi woman who also sees running as a form of prayer. She will be running her eighth Boston Marathon with her brother, and they are raising money for the Hopi Education Endowment Fund, which their children have benefited from, she says. “When we run, we always think of others that might need strength, or might need prayers for health . . . because you’re bringing strength to the world through your running,” she says.

Different tribes face various problems, but one that’s universal is the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women (MMIW) crisis, Sekaquaptewa says. “It’s shocking to me that not a lot of people know how bad it is,” and running is an opportunity to draw attention to these problems, she says.

Many Indigenous women have used their running to bring awareness to the MMIW crisis, the discovery of Indigenous children’s graves at boarding schools and the generational trauma these schools have caused, and other issues Indigenous communities face.

“Every day, we’re all learning something,” Dones says. In the case of the BAA and Indigenous Peoples Day, “the fact that they took the time to listen and hear us was huge for us. We didn’t feel disregarded. And that, personally, puts joy in my heart.”

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