Indian Running

By Barefoot Ken

Civilized man does not know his powers

— Georges Comte De Buffon, 1749

I recently read Peter Nabokov’s 1981 book, Indian Running:  Native American History and Tradition.  The book chronicles the 1980 Tricentennial Run, a 375-mile relay race across Arizona and New Mexico undertaken by teams of Pueblo Indians as a celebration of a 17th century rebellion against Spanish rule.  An anthropologist by profession, Nabokov weaves into the book a broader discussion of Native American running, including how they ran to communicate, fight, and hunt, as well as to enact myths and to create a bridge between themselves and the forces of the universe.

indian running

I read the book with great curiosity, wondering if people whose culture predated the spread of modern technology and sedentary lifestyle were indeed natural runners and if so, how their capabilities would compare to the those of modern runners.

My grandfather told me that Talking God comes around in the morning, knocks on the door, and says, “Get up, my grandchildren, it’s time to run, run for health and wealth.”

— Rex Lee Jim, Navajo Runner

Nabokov opens with a discussion of Indian messenger runners.  Indeed, the 17th century revolt that inspired the Tricentennial Run would not have been possible without messengers of extraordinary endurance and reliability.  The instigator was a Pueblo Indian named Po’pay, who lived in northern New Mexico.  In late spring 1680, bridling under Spanish persecution, he dispatched messengers to some seventy villages, including Hopi communities as far as 300 miles away, with instructions for a coordinated rebellion.  Later that summer, the messengers were dispatched again, this time with knotted cords and instructions for the villagers to untie one knot each day, until the last was gone, and then to attack.  In the ensuing fight, Spanish priests and soldiers were driven out of Pueblo territories, and it would be years before they returned.

Messengers played important roles in many tribes.  In the 1860s, a Fox (or Mesquakie) runner in his mid-50’s ran 400 miles from Wisconsin to the Missouri River to warn Sauk Indians of an impending attack.  Fox messengers were selected as youths for this special calling, and they were believed to be blessed by hummingbirds who imparted to them the spirit of willingness and tranquil braveness and the mystic powers of speed and invisibility.

Nabokov recounts a number of impressive running feats undertaken by Indian messengers.  Among central California Nomlaki, for example, messengers were known to carry messages sixty miles at night behind enemy lines.  In 1886, a Panta-cha messenger was reported to have taken less than twenty-four hours to cover nearly 200-miles from Fort Mohave to the Mohave reservation and back.  In the east, the Iroquois Confederacy used teams of messengers along the 240-mile Iroquois Trail, and in 1794 a colonist documented an Iroquois runner covering ninety hilly miles from Canadaigua to Niagra between sunrise and sunset.  In 1903, a Hopi runner was hired to take a message from Oraibi to Keam’s Canyon, a distance of seventy-two miles; he returned with a reply in thirty-six hours.  Another Hopi runner covered sixty-file miles at night over unfamiliar ground.

Be racing.
With joyful words
Be racing.
The abdomen, the back.
Be racing

— Hopi song

Indians also ran to hunt.  Nabokov tells of a Hunkpapa Sioux artist named Running Antelope who earned his name after he spent five hours running down an adult antelope and killing it with his hands.  Piman Indians living along the Colorado river would run down deer.  Indians in the Great Basin hunted antelope communally, surrounding them out on the desert plains and then driving them into V-shaped corrals or long fiber nets stretched across narrow canyons.  Even after they acquired horses, the buffalo-hunting Omaha of the central plains retained buffalo runners called wado’be (meaning “those who look”).  These runners would canvass the countryside on foot, scanning the sky for crows, a sure sign of nearby herds, and then run back to camp to alert the hunters.

Running was part of Indian mythology, and in certain fables, the gods used races to settle difficult questions.  According to a Cheyenne myth, split-hooved animals challenged men to a race from Devil’s Tower in North Dakota to the Grand Tetons in Wyoming.  When men won, it established their dominance as hunters of the buffalo.  In a previous post, I shared a Shoshone story in which their god Coyote suffers the consequences of racing pridefully.

Feast day foot race, Taos Pueblo, New Mexico, ca. 1884-1892, by Dana B. Chase. Palace of the Governors Photo Archives
Feast day foot race, Taos Pueblo, New Mexico, ca. 1884-1892, by Dana B. Chase. Palace of the Governors Photo Archives

As Nabokov tells it, Indians were inveterate racers, running for competition, training, and ceremonial reasons, in all sorts of different formats, ranging from 300-yard and three mile racetracks to “around the world” races of fifteen or twenty miles through the mountains.  Some involved kicking sticks or balls; in eastern Brazil, teams would take turn carrying logs.  Races might be held as inter-tribal competitions, or used by chiefs to keep their warriors trim, or serve as opportunities for high-stakes betting.  In some tribes, the winners were revered, in others, ignored.  In springtime, Hopi dressed as rain-spirit Kachinas would challenge their peers to “overtaking races” and if they caught them cut off their hair, stuff hot chilis in their mouths, or otherwise humiliate them.  If the Kachinas were left behind, then it was thought to bring rain.

In 1922, English novelist D. H. Lawrence witnessed an Indian race in Taos:

Naked and daubed with clay to hide the nakedness, and to take the anointment of the earth; stuck over with bits of fluff of eagle’s down, to be anointed with the power of the air, the youths and men whirl down the racing track in relays.  They are not racing to win a race.  They are not racing for a prize.  They are not racing to show their prowess.   They are putting forth all their might, all their strength, in a tension that is half anguish, half ecstasy, in the effort to gather into their souls more and more of the creative fire, the creative energy which will carry their tribe through the years, through the vicissitudes of the months.

— D. H. Lawrence, Indians and Entertainment

The Navajo made a practice of running at dawn, and in the winter they’d start by rolling in the snow.  This was thought to stave off laziness, make the eyes clear, and the body strong.  They believed Talking God would travel on rainbows and sunbeams, sing songs of the mountain lion, antelope, and deer, and encourage people to run and in so doing develop the Navajo ideals of enterprise, courage, and quickness of mind.  Running was also part of the Navajo girl’s puberty ceremony known as Kinaalda.

The Turquoise Girl, — they run out shouting —
From below the West, — they run out shouting —
Behind her, the wind blows the plants, — they run out shouting —
Before her, the wind blows the trees, — they run out shouting —

— Navajo Kinaalda ceremony running song

For the Apache, running was survival training for war.  Fathers began working with their youngsters when character and physique were still malleable.  “Be up before daylight and run up the mountain and be back before daylight,” a young boy might be commanded.  To toughen them, youngsters were dunked in icy creeks and made to punch tree limbs.  The finale to this boot camp-style training was a two-day run without food or breaks.  For Apache warriors, running was the foundation for moving swiftly over land, conducting raids in enemy territory, and then exfiltrating in small groups.  Indeed, in 1886, the warrior Geronimo led a band of Apaches in what would become a famous but ultimately futile bid to escape capture by US and Mexican soldiers, during which they covered 70-80 miles per day on foot.

My son, you know no one will help you in this world… You must run to that mountain and come back.  That will make you strong.

— Apache father

Among the Yurok of northern California, running was a part of meditation and spiritual quests, according to anthropologist Thomas Buckley who studied them in the 1970s and whom Nabokov quotes at length.  Young men and sometimes women submitted to a training technique called hohkep with the goal of interacting with the unseen forces of the world.  “True running, as far as I can gather,” Buckley commented, “was looked upon as a kind of effortless gliding and a way to participate in the ‘power’ or natural flow of the world’s pure energies.  The aspiring runner was taught to establish an extrasensory relationship with the trail…he was taught to make room for it, to receive the trail as a being…it was as though the trail was running out behind him and under him by itself.”  The student’s objective was to learn that the actual energy used in running is the world’s, rather than one’s own.  “Gradually you put more and more trust in the earth, and move into a light trance state when you’re no longer interfering in the running.”

Nabokov ends the book with an account of the Tarahumara, who would be chronicled some thirty years later in Chris McDougal’s bestseller Born to Run.  Suffice it to say, the Tarahumara have been impressing people with their running prowess for a long time.  Nabokov describes kick ball races that would last for days; the runners would continue at night carrying torches.  Witnesses to their feats were amazed.  In 1957,  one commented, “nobody ever seemed tired.”  A traveler in the 1880s discovered Tarahumara running 170 miles without stopping, or covering 500 miles of unpaved roads with forty pounds of mail and  provisions.  A visitor in 1924 encountered a postman who routinely covered 70 miles a day, seven days a week.

In the introduction, Nabokov described himself as a recreational runner, but after observing and studying Indian runners, he said he began to “run differently.”  The accounts in the book made an impression on me, too.  They conveyed a sense of vigor, endurance, vibrancy, fitness, and connectedness that sometimes seem lacking in our high-tech, sedentary world.  Reading the book was sort of like hearing the call of a distant mountain range:  there’s a feeling that there’s something magical and powerful out there…something we might be missing in the crush of day-to-day priorities, the preoccupation with luxury goods, the immersion in digital media.  Perhaps this feeling is merely the stirring of ancestral memories, which aren’t really relevant to contemporary life.

But maybe they are.  Maybe running is still a path, for some of us, to the “creative fire” that D.H. Lawrence thought he saw.  I was out running the other day and thought I noticed a spark.  How about you?

Please share your thoughts by commenting below!

The mountain, I become part of it…
The herbs, the fir tree,
I become part of it.
The morning mists,
The clouds, the gathering waters,
I become part of it.
The sun that sweeps across the earth,
I become part of it.
The wilderness, the dew drops, the pollen…
I become part of it.

— Navajo chant

Running the Long Path is now available on Amazon! (Click on the image to check it out)


Indian Running

4 thoughts on “Indian Running

  1. My goal is to enjoy running as much while actually running as I do during the post-running endorphin fueled high. There are definitely moments of enjoyment while running, especially when trail running, but the post run period is usually when I think, ‘maybe I’ll run an ultra’. I usually don’t have that thought while actually running. I know that a transcendent level is possible to achieve as I have experienced it. The challenge is in maintaining it over distance. Another well written essay.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I might be the wrong guy to comment on “enjoying” running…..sure, sometimes I have a blast, but sometimes it’s painful, and it’s pretty much always a lot of work! What gets me really moving is the goals I’ve set, and for me, that started (you guessed it) with ultras….although now it is spreading in other directions such as 1-mile races and 5ks, running barefoot, etc.


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