Indian running: the remarkable history and achievements of Native American long-distance runners

A Review of Peter Nabokov,  Indian Running, Native American History & Tradition.  Santa Fe: Ancient City Press, 1981.

For better or worse, Chris McDougall’s Born To Run has ensured that the Tarahumara will never again enjoy the status of a “secret” tribe of running prodigies hidden in the canyons of Mexico.   Some twenty-five years before McDougall’s bestseller, Peter Nabokov also wrote about the Tarahumara’s running prowess. He presents them not as freakish extremes, but as part of a continuum, one expression of a long tradition of Indian running that extended across two continents.

Nabokov invites us to imagine North and South America before the arrival of Europeans as a New World of runners.  From the Arctic to what is now Argentina, the landscape is networked by countless thousands of trails, paths, and roads.  The network extends through the deciduous forests of the Northeast, across the great plains of North America, through the mountains and deserts of the Southwest, through the jungles of Central America and Brazil, and up and down the Pacific coasts of both continents.  Travelling over this landscape, sometimes for journeys of days and many hundreds of miles, are not horses, but light-stepping, supremely fit human runners.   They run as couriers, connecting tribes separated by vast distances, facilitating trade or carrying vital intelligence in times of war.  They run to hunt, tracking deer or antelope for hours until the exhausted animal can be smothered by bare hands.  Men run, women run, children and the old all run.  They run at set times during the year, to mark the movement of seasons, to celebrate and give thanks.  They run for competition and sport, to ensure a good hunt or a good harvest,  to ensure good health, to access altered states of consciousness, to be connected with the sources of power in nature--sun, moon, gods, animals, wind, river, sky.    

What we know of these traditions has for the most part survived only in fragments, reports, stories. Hernan Cortes wrote that within 24 hours of his landfall, a coordinated system of runners had relayed the news to Montezuma, 260 miles away.  In 1690, a mysterious millenarian leader named Po’pay organized a group of runners to fan out from the Taos Pueblo to villages across what is now New Mexico and Arizona. Carrying knotted cords to mark time, the runners triggered a simultaneous uprising across hundreds of miles, banishing the Spanish, temporarily, from the region.  In 1903, 60 runners approached the Zuni Pueblo carrying bundles of sacred reads and holding live tortoises; they had reportedly been involved in this ritual run for four days and for some 120 miles. Surviving into the twentieth century were running competitions such as the kick-stick races of the Southwest, the “world around” races of Plains Indians, and the astonishing log-carrying races in the Brazilian jungle.  

Nabokov is interested not so much in times and distances, the outward manifestations of running, as he is in the inner experience it represents, the “record of human consciousness.”  He quotes the advice of a blind elder: “Keep your gaze fixed on that mountain, and you will feel the miles melt beneath your feet.  Do this, and in time you will feel as if you can leap over bushes, trees, and even the river.”  He describes the work of anthropologist Thomas Buckley with the Yurok of northern California.   Among the Yurok, select groups of runners would live in a sort of monk-like retreat, where they learned esoteric techniques for gaining power over themselves and nature.  Yurok runners followed a specialized diet, and underwent grueling training, for example carrying the equivalent of “small boulders” up 3000 foot ascents.  

Mental training for Yurok runners was, if anything, even more challenging.  A runner would learn to “cultivate an extra sensory relationship with the trail, through singing to it, addressing it.  He was taught to make room for it, to receive the trail as a being, letting it dictate the run.  It was as though the trail was running out behind him and under him by itself.” To reach this state, he would practice running with closed eyes, letting the trail guide him.  (I tried this morning to emulate the exercise during my run on a flat straight asphalt trail--and panicked after about 5 seconds of running with closed eyes.  To do this on a rocky or woodland trail is unimaginable.)

A fascinating yet melancholy coda to Nabokov’s book is provided by a final chapter about Indian participation in the world of white athletics.   There is the account of Tom Longboat, an Onondaga Indian who on an unseasonably cold day won--and smashed the record--at the 1907 Boston Marathon.   There is the story of Louis Tewanima, a Hopi, who won a “half-marathon” in 1911 in New York City, as well as the 1925 Bunion Derby.  Longboat and Tewanina did not flourish in their lives after running, and this sad decline seemed to be a pattern for many of the athletes described in this chapter.  

A persistent theme throughout the final chapter and the book as a whole is the mismatch between Indian reasons for running and the narrower imperatives of Western-style competition. “Observers are surprised when the Tarahumara who wins a two-day race for his team walks away virtually ignored” (83).  A race is a sort of banquet.  All participate, and no special award goes to the person who happens to eat the most.  Explanations are “almost beside the point.”  It makes one deeply skeptical about the supposedly “universal” values of the International Olympiad.

For all the fascination of its contents, this is not a compulsively page-turning book.  There are times when Nabokov’s almost willful refusal to offer analysis or explanation, or to construct a narrative, can be utterly maddening.  He provides a very loose narrative scaffolding around an account of the 375 mile Tricentennial Run held by the Pueblos of New Mexico in August, 1980, to celebrate Po’pay’s 1680 uprising.  But this story is told inconsistently and in fragments.  A welter of details--sometimes introduced utterly without any sort of transition--overwhelms any sense of narrative progression.  Nor is this book, Nabokov asserts, meant to be scholarly treatise.  Sensitive to a history of Western impositions of meaning on Indian culture, he shies away from pursuing any thesis about why and how North and South America became continents of runners.   

Readers hoping for anything like McDougall’s entertaining hyperbole and chummy brand of gonzo journalism will probably be disappointed by Nabokov’s account (confession: I’ve read Born to Run twice).   But Indian Running in the end provides something far more substantial, lasting and deeply satisfying.  Among my favorite passages is an explanation of why people run offered by a young Pueblo girl.  We run, she says, because we are inspired by the wind, grass, and trees.  “We like to run toward the hills, and sit down near the grass and the bushes; the wind excites them; they sing, and so do we.”

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  1. Wow, Matthew - another deeply inspirational article! I was honoured to meet and be part of the hosting team for the Sacred Runners of Jornadas de Paz y Dignidad last year here in Vilcabamba. (You may already know of them - if not, there's loads online & several FB pages.) They were running from Tierra del Fuego to Panama to meet Native Runners from Alaska. We hosted them and experienced several ceremonies with them over 2 days and finally 4 of us ran 4km with their sacred batons to see them off. I hadn't run in many years and decided to run with them on the spur of the moment-in rubber sandals, on no breakfast! What kept me going were the words of one Runner, Geronimo the night before, when I asked how long they had trained - he told me no training, it was 'espiritual'. (PS I previously commented on Lung-Gom-Pa. Green Bohemian is obsolete. is current but your page won't accept it?))


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