Tales of the Timbisha: The First Relay Race

Death Valley from Zabriskie Point. Source:  http://parks.mapquest.com/national-parks/death-valley-national-park/
Death Valley from Zabriskie Point. Source: http://parks.mapquest.com/national-parks/death-valley-national-park/

In a previous post I mentioned that after running the Badwater Ultramarathon, I became curious about the Timbisha Shoshone Indians who had long lived in the harsh but beautiful landscape of Death Valley.  This is one of their stories, passed down from generation to generation.  I thought this one might be helpful to people running in relay races….what do you think?

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A long time ago, the animals were people. They had no fire in this part of the country.  It was cold.

Lizard was lying in the sun, trying to keep warm.  He looked up just as a particle of ash, blown by the south wind, drifted slowly to the ground.  It looked like the burned stem of a bulrush plant.  All the people came over to look.  They wondered where it had come from.

Crow thought he smelled smoke, but no-one could see anything.

Coyote walked by and pointed at the ash.

“What’s this?” he asked.  The people all shook their heads.

“You don’t know what this is?” Coyote asked, “This is ash from a fire in another country.”

They stared at him blankly.

“We need somebody to fly up in the sky,” Coyote said, “to see where it came from.”

Chickadee jumped up into the air, flapped his tiny wings, and flew a little ways up.  But he quickly tired and fell back to the ground.  Then Woodpecker and Blue Jay tried, but after a little bit they fainted and fell all the way back to earth.  Coyote put some water on their heads to wake them up.

Then Hummingbird said, “I can do this.”  As all the people watched, he soared high into the air and hovered there for quite some time, turning first to the west, then the north, then the east, and finally the south.  Coyote craned his neck and squinted, trying to see where Hummingbird was looking.  Then Hummingbird fluttered back down.

When he was on the earth again, everybody gathered around. They wanted to know what he had seen.  He told them of a big body of water far off in the south. There were many people on the shore, he said, dancing around a huge fire.

“We must go there,” Coyote said, “and get that fire.”

They all started running toward the south. They ran all day without taking any breaks until they reached a mountain peak, where they rested during the night.  The next day they ran until they reached another mountain.  On each mountain, Coyote stationed one of the people. They kept running, they did not walk, until they had crossed nine mountain peaks and sat on the tenth.  From this vantage, they could see the water that Hummingbird had first spotted and the fire burning brightly on its shore.

Evidently, the people there were having a big celebration.  They were dancing around a giant bonfire. Coyote trotted down the mountain and ripped a handful of milkweed from the ground with which he fashioned a fake beard. Then he joined the people and danced with them around the fire.  The old women eyed him suspiciously, especially the fake beard.  They weren’t stupid, they worried that he was going to steal their fire.  But their chief didn’t notice.  As Coyote danced, he moved closer and closer to the fire and then he leaned his head over the flames until the beard caught fire. As soon as it was lit, he ran off — and the fire in the camp went out.  The old women howled in dismay — and the people took off in pursuit, desperate to recover their fire.  It wasn’t hard to follow Coyote, his burning beard glowed as brightly as if he were carrying a lantern.

Coyote ran to the first person he had posted on the mountain peak closest to the lake and passed the fire to him. This person ran with it to the next one on the next mountain peak, and in this way they passed the fire along. The pursuers were close on their trail, and when they caught up to Coyote, they killed him, and then they killed everyone else who had stopped after passing the fire on.

The fire was relayed from one person to another until it was passed to Jackrabbit, who put the fire on his tail, which turned black from the soot.  Then he passed it on to Rabbit.  As Rabbit ran with the fire, the pursuers used their powers to summon dark clouds and cause hail to fall from the sky.  The hail hurt Rabbit, and he squealed in pain and fear as he ran.

Rat was living alone on the top of Lida Mountain, just north of Death Valley, in a house  surrounded by sheer cliffs.  He heard Rabbit crying and scrambled down the slope.  Rat took the fire from Rabbit and ran with it back up to his house.  The fire burned a red spot on his breast.

The pursuers gathered around Rat’s house. “Catch him,” they shouted to each other, “but don’t kill him.  We want the fire.”  But they couldn’t climb up the cliffs.

Rat took the fire and lit a large pile of brush.  Then he scattered the burning brush all over the country.

The pursuers fell down and died.

(Adapted from Anne M. Smith, Shoshone Tales, 1993 and Julian H. Steward, Some Western Shoshoni Myths, 1943, http://www.sacred-texts.com/nam/ca/wsm/)

Tales of the Timbisha: The First Relay Race

What a Runner Could Learn from a Ranger Mom

A long time ago, I was a U.S. Army Ranger.  It was just about the toughest thing I ever did.  Honestly, I wasn’t very good; my path ended up taking me to Wall Street, which was a better fit for my skills.  But I’m proud to have served my country as best I could, and I remain very impressed with the caliber of people I encountered in the Army then and today.

U.S. Army Ranger School Graduation 1987.  The author is located directly below the
U.S. Army Ranger School Graduation 1987. The author is located directly below the “N”

Violence of Action:  The Untold Stories of the 75th Ranger Regiment in the War on Terror, consists of a series of first-person accounts told by Rangers who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan.  I recently met two of the co-authors, Charlie Faint and Marty Skovlund Jr.

Most of the stories were about combat operations, but the story that caught my attention was that of Scoti Springfield Domeji, the mother of Sergeant First Class Kristoffer Domeji, a highly regarded member of the 2nd Ranger Battalion.

Scoti’s account is the story of a Ranger Mom.  As a priest and general once told her, “You raised a warrior. Not everyone can raise a warrior.”

Reading this, I immediately recalled the Spartans of Ancient Greece, especially the Spartan mother who told her son, “Come back with your shield, or on it..”

Growing up, Spartan girls ran, wrestled, and trained, just like the boys.  As mothers, they expected their sons to fight and win.  If they died in battle, that was a cause for celebration, not sorrow, because that was the purpose for which they had been raised.  The injured or defeated were not welcomed home.

Spartans are a minority in modern America.  Like me, Scoti grew up during the 1970s, a time when soldiers returning from the Vietnam War were treated poorly.  We both remember the feelings of tension and divisiveness.

Raising two sons as a single mother, Scoti had to be tough.  She recounts how young Kristoffer once got into a fight.  The other boy’s father marched up to her, demanding  “Who’s this boy’s dad?”

“I am!” she replied.

The fight occurred because she had given Kristoffer permission to “handle” bullies.  The rule was, “Do not throw the first punch, but make sure you end it.”

That wasn’t the only rule she enforced.  “Start anything you want. If you hate it, don’t whine to quit. Mom’s not negotiable; you will finish your commitment.”

In her story, she explains a little more of her philosophy:

I wanted my sons to learn that failure is success in disguise. I never allowed two sayings in my home: “I don’t know how” and “I can’t.”  I taught the boys to say, “I’ll try.” I didn’t care if they failed, but I expected them to try.

When Kristoffer asked permission to enlist, she was reluctant to sign the paperwork.  She acknowledges that deep down, she was thinking, “If you’re killed, I’ll feel guilty.”  But she did sign, and he enlisted in the Army and volunteered for the Rangers.

Like any mom, she worried.  She may have been a “lioness single mom,” as her friends called her.  But she recognized that her “cub” had grown into a “full-fledged lion.”  Even so, she instinctively yearned to take care of him.

On October 21st at 11: 30 pm, she received unexpected visitors.

“Who’s knocking on my door?” I spoke aloud. My surprise at the sudden banging on my front door near midnight gave way to annoyance. “Probably someone with car trouble. If I ignore the knocking they’ll go away.” The insistent pounding on my door continued for fifteen minutes. I finally walked down my stairs and opened the door. Two tall men in military uniforms stood on my front steps.

He had been killed by an improvised explosive device.  There were funerals, ceremonies, and memorials.  During these events, Scoti would remind herself, “Be strong. Hold yourself together. My son, a Ranger, would not want me to embarrass him.”  Passing three rows of Rangers standing at attention, she told them, “You are all my sons now.”

Ranger Mom or not, she missed her son.  “At first, some days I could barely manage breathing. My mind raced, consumed with thoughts of Kristoffer. I wanted my son back to hug, to touch.”

It didn’t help when her three year-old granddaughter asked, “Is Daddy better now?”

Even as time went by, Scoti continued to feel the loss of her son sharply.

I still fly blind trying to navigate turbulent ups-and-downs of mourning. Unpredictable emotional loops, rolls, and spirals send me crashing. I burn with longing for my son to still be alive. I’ve lost all power to reclaim before-my-son-died “normal” or to control after-death’s sting.

The loss did provide her some perspective on life.  She stopped worrying about the “shoulds.”  She no longer had the energy “to swim against the flow of the unimportant.”  She looked around her and wondered why so many people pursue goals that seem to lack significance, why so many spend their lives “running away from difficulties or trying to sprint past them as fast as possible.”  She remembers her son as someone who “bolted toward challenging, dangerous situations,” and she continues to believe that “challenges aren’t to be wished away.”

To help manage the physical toll of her grief, Scoti took up CrossFit. “Some days just putting one foot in front of the other feels like I will shatter to pieces,” she admits.  “But I soldier on, pushing my limits.”

Sometimes, the emotional pain overwhelms my physical strength. With immense effort, I urge myself forward. Just take one step, one more step.

What could a runner learn from Scoti?  Something about the spirit that keeps you moving forward, one step after another, no matter how bad you feel, whether it’s the last quarter mile of a 5k, the last five miles of a 350-mile ultra-marathon, or some challenge or loss in the real world.

Theodore Roosevelt once said, “Black care rarely sits behind a rider whose pace is fast enough.”  In other words, keep moving.

I wonder how those Spartan moms really felt.

Thank you for sharing your story, Scoti.

SFC Kristoffer Domeji http://freedomremembered.com/index.php/sgt-1st-class-kristoffer-b-domeij/
SFC Kristoffer Domeji “Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13) http://freedomremembered.com/index.php/sgt-1st-class-kristoffer-b-domeij/
What a Runner Could Learn from a Ranger Mom