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Know the West

The Hopi man who runs to protect his tribe's water


What do you think about when you run? This is my favorite question to ask long-distance runners in the Arizona desert.

When I asked Hopi runner and farmer Bucky Preston this question, he thought about the thousands of miles he has run to protect and honor his people's water. "When I run, I meditate and pray, and see where the running takes me," he said. "But I always come back to water."

In 2003, Preston started the annual Paatuwaqatsi Trail Run. Paatuwaqatsi means "water is life," and since its inception, the run has been a celebration of the sanctity of water. It includes a 50-mile ultra-marathon as well as a 10 and 4-mile run.

Preston has used the concept of running to draw attention to unacceptable water uses. Peabody Energy, for example, runs coal slurries with tribal water and diverts water for coal mining, and the Arizona Snowbowl ski resort uses reclaimed municipal wastewater on the San Francisco Peaks to make snow. Then there's the tragic legacy of uranium mining, which has irreversibly contaminated drinking water.

"I run to raise awareness to those issues," he said. "Lately, I've been thinking about the Animas spill (in Colorado), and even our water (on Hopi lands), which contains high levels of arsenic."

Preston was born and raised in Walpi, Arizona, a village on top of First Mesa, about 300 feet above the canyon below. His earliest memories are of running. "We ran everywhere; there are foot paths connecting the villages from all directions." When asked what prompted him to start an organized run, he recalled the time when he left the reservation to learn a few trades and returned to find many of the trails missing.

"I knew where they were, because I spent my life running on them," he said. Fearing that they would be lost, he started rebuilding and maintaining the trails.

Minutes before the sun rose on Sept. 12, 68 ultra long-distance runners gathered around Preston, the sky clear and purple behind them. "These trails are like the blood vessels of our body — spread out -- but all connected; they bring energy through our bodies," he told them. "When you put the footprints on the land, that's calling the rain, and it's calling the Kachina and the Cloud People. We're here, and we're asking for your help."

Unlike other ultra marathons, Paatuwaqatsi is not truly a race, nor does it turn a profit. Initially, Preston didn't even want to have a clock around, but he has since warmed up to the idea.

"The runners have kept it going; every year, it essentially pays for itself and is completely volunteer-run," said Flagstaff resident Andy Bessler. In his previous position with the Sierra Club, Bessler helped Preston start the run by finding ways to fund its first year. "Bucky wanted to start it, because this was when Peabody Coal was pumping their aquifer for slurry water, so we were really trying to help him draw attention to its impact on the springs."

Over the years, Bessler has helped Preston with trail maintenance along every section. "It's amazing to be working on these trails that are thousands of years old," he said. "You're securing loose rock steps and thinking about Ancestral Puebloans setting these stones here."

The largely white outdoor recreational culture of the Southwest does not always have an amicable relationship with the area's Native communities. There's the controversial use of reclaimed wastewater to accommodate skiers and snowboarders on the San Francisco Peaks, the ATVers who flock to Sand Mountain in Nevada -- ignoring objections from the Paiute-Shoshone -- and the rock climbers who climb monoliths on the Navajo Nation, despite a ban on such activities since 1971.

Paatuwaqatsi, however, is different, something Bessler and Preston see as mutually beneficial and respectful. "It's kind of creating a new tradition that incorporates bahana culture and Hopi culture," Bessler said. "It's really acceptable for Hopi people — and the Anglos feel very humbled and honored to be there."

"Kwakwhay!" yell the men. "Askwali!" yell the women. Both phrases are gender-specific ways of saying the same thing: Thank you. The communities thank the runners because they help ensure the success of their crops, said Preston, who lets the runners go right through his cornfield. Preston is also glad that more local people, including young Hopis, have started running.

"That's what I wanted to see for our people, to get them back to long-distance running, because that's who we are." As for the runners who come back year after year, Preston added: "They run for life, a long healthy life for all of mankind, and all living things out there."

Kyle Boggs is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a column service of High Country News He is a Ph.D. candidate in the University of Arizona's program in Rhetoric, Composition, and the Teaching of English, and teaches at Northern Arizona University.