Touring Indian Country via footrace

How to run in a reservation race that's both sport and cultural tradition.

  • Native American tribes of the Southwest like the Hopi have long valued running and racing. Now, Native-organized footraces from 5Ks to marathons carry on the tradition around the region. The Louis Tewanima footrace, above, has been held every Labor Day weekend for 40 years.

    Louis Tewanima Footrace
  • Hopi runner Louis Tewanima won a silver medal in the 1912 Olympics and a marathon in New York City in 1911, above. Today, the Louis Tewanima footrace is held annually in the Hopi village of Shungopavi.

    Library of Congress

I run. And I weep. My tears may come from the fact that it's dawn and I haven't had coffee and I'm trying to keep up with much faster runners. But I think they come from a much deeper place – perhaps the joy inspired by the way the rising sun lights up the ancient buildings of Old Oraibi on a mesa distant. Or the way the gravel road transforms into a narrow rain-dampened trail that, I imagine, has been used for centuries. It seems as if I've transcended time.

This is the Louis Tewanima footrace, which has been run on Labor Day weekend in the high desert of northern Arizona for 40 years. In some ways, it's a lot like the fitness-obsessed rituals that take place almost every weekend in places like Boulder, Colo., and Scottsdale, Ariz., where well-tuned athletes and weekend warriors push each other to new levels of suffering, chalking up their accomplishments on their smartphone fitness apps.

But this race is special, and not just because of the spectacular location. It is a memorial to Louis Tewanima, a Hopi who won the silver medal in the 10,000-meter run at the 1912 Olympics, becoming the only American to medal in the event until 1964, when Billy Mills, a Sioux, won gold. It's part of a long Hopi tradition of running for ceremony as well as competition, and it gives racers and spectators a chance to enter the hidden world of a famously reserved people. 

The Hopi culture is deeply embedded in the Southwest. The people are descendants of the Ancestral Puebloans, who once inhabited much of the Four Corners Region and built the pueblos of Chaco Canyon, Mesa Verde and Hovenweep. Eventually, the Puebloans packed up and left, as people sometimes do, migrating to other parts of the Southwest. This particular branch ended up settling 12 Hopi villages on and around three mesas. Here, the Hopi endured the Spanish colonists for about 80 years before casting them off in a revolt in 1680. And here, they've kept their culture and traditions alive.

One such tradition is the art of arid farming. You won't see rich, loamy Iowa soil here, or huge sprinkler systems, or even irrigation ditches. Instead, master agrarians coax emerald stalks of corn from small, sandy, beige plots, much as they have done for hundreds of years. Running is another important tradition, reports Matthew Sakiestewa Gilbert, a member of the Hopi Tribe and associate professor of American Indian Studies at the University of Illinois. "Men ran footraces to unify the villages, gain information from other clans, and prepare them for life's challenges," writes Gilbert. "The Hopi considered running a trustworthy method of transportation, and the people ran as an expression of their identity. … Most importantly, they ran to bring rain and moisture to their dry and arid fields."

Running is equally important to the Navajos, whose land surrounds the Hopi Nation. Today, both tribes' dashing tradition endures mostly in the form of organized competition. The Hopi High School cross-country team has won every state championship in its division since 1989, and the Tuba City team, with both Navajo and Hopi runners, vies with Chinle, Ariz., for dominance. The Tewanima footrace is part of a packed schedule of Indian Country events, from the Narbona Pass race held high up in the ponderosa pines on Navajo land, to a 55K amid the desert varnish-streaked walls of Canyon de Chelly. The Paatuwaqatsi run in Polacca, Ariz., includes a four-mile, a 10-mile and a 50K – the only ultra-run in Hopi.

For the uninitiated, sightseeing in Indian Country, especially here, can be a bit intimidating. Nearly every Hopi village has signs warning visitors not to take photos, make sketches, hike on trails or even get out of their cars, and some villages are off-limits to outsiders without a local guide. The running tourist, however, gets a different reception.

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