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Touring Indian Country via footrace

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


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.

"The Hopi are very welcoming people," says Sampson Taylor, Tewanima's great-nephew and president of the committee that organizes this run. Indeed, the racers, whether they're Hopi, Navajo, Zuni or WASP, are all more warmly received than at regular WASP-dominated running events. The number-pickup the night before the race is a lively social event, with local women piling plates high with pasta, green chiles and more. The Hopi Cultural Center hotel, the only nearby lodging establishment, is fully booked; other runners set up tents.

Though it's still officially summer, a chilly light fog hangs over the mesa as 100 or so runners congregate at the starting line. A good-sized crowd of eager spectators has gathered despite the cold. Nikki Qumyintewa, this year's Miss Hopi, gives the starting order via megaphone, dressed in traditional garb and with her long hair up in two buns.

A lead pack swiftly establishes itself, moving at a blistering pace. It includes aerobic torpedoes like the pony-tailed, teen-aged Masayesva twins, built as lithely as Tewanima himself who, at 5-foot-4, is reputed to have weighed in at 115 pounds. Alvin Begay, last year's champ, is here, along with Janet Bawcom, whose gazelle-like legs made her 12th in the 2012 Olympic 10K and this year's U.S. national 10K champion.

Bawcom doesn't seem to enflame the machismo of any of the male competitors. In fact, there's a famous story, recounted by Harold Courlander in The Fourth World of the Hopis, about a race between the old villages of Payupki and Tikuvi. The fastest runner from Payupki is a young woman who can run circles around her brother and even, to his astonishment, still grind corn afterwards. Her Tikuvi rival, a boy, is transformed into a dove at one point and takes the lead. But the Payupki runner has Spider Grandmother on her side – sitting in her ear, whispering instructions. The woman wins.

To my middle-aged legs, it seems as if Bawcom, Begay and the others are also relying on magic as they float gracefully through the village. After about a half-mile, I abandon my quest to keep up and drift into a more age-appropriate rhythm. About two miles into the run, someone passes me. In his 50s, with a thin black braid laced with silver, this new nemesis runs lightly on thin calves and ankles. His posture is almost rigid, his head and shoulders not bobbing at all. To the volunteers along the way, offering water and a soft-spoken "askwali" or "kwahkway," I imagine I look like a lumbering beast, flailing behind this guy. Turns out he's Hoffman Shorty, a former champion immortalized by Edward Abbey in a story about the 1980 run. Titled Footrace in the Desert, it's anthologized in Abbey's Down The River.

Alvin Begay wins the Hopi race I'm in, with Anthony Masayesva just 13 seconds behind, nipping his brother, Brian, at the line. Trent Taylor – another relative of Tewanima – comes in fourth, with Bawcom rounding out the top five. By the time I finish, far behind, most of the village has gathered at the finish line to cheer the runners and sell them breakfast: A burrito with eggs, sausage, potatoes and, in some cases, Spam; or a yogurt and fresh fruit parfait.

As we watch the one- and two-mile racers – many of them young children, some running in skirts – a local and I start talking. The last mile of the race includes a brutally steep climb up to the mesa top, much of it on steps carved from sandstone. I ask the man if he knows about the trail, how old it is and what it's used for. The local smiles and tells me a long, wandering story about running out into the desert and hunting rabbits with throwing sticks. He bemoans the changes that have occurred – the old stone houses replaced by trailers, the power lines transecting the blue sky. He tactfully avoids my questions about the steps.

I read somewhere that the Hopi consider trails to be the veins and arteries of every village. Running on them, they say, keeps the village vital. I hope it's true. I'm happy to have done my part.

If you want to run:

• Shiprock Marathon, May 3, 2014, www.shiprockmarathon.com/

• Narbona Pass Classic, usually held in July, www.narbonapassclassic.com/

• Hopi 10K and 5K, Aug. 9, 2014, www.runhopi.com/

• The Louis Tewanima Footrace, Aug. 31, 2014: www.tewanimafootrace.org/

• Paatuwaqatsi Run, Sept. 13, 2014, www.waterisliferun.org/

• Canyon de Chelly Ultra, Oct. 11, 2014, canyondechellyultra.com/

This story is part of an April 2014 special issue of the HCN magazine devoted to travel in the West. Jonathan Thompson is an HCN senior editor based in Durango, Colo.

*Editor's Note: This post was updated on April 18, 2014, to correct an error in the text regarding Tewanima's 1912 Olympic run. He did not, as the original story stated, set an American record in that race.