The Ongoing Revival Of Native American Running Traditions

by Shaun on March 2, 2011

“Running has its roots in the spiritual tradition.”

So said William E. Channing, president of Wings of America, a youth organization founded in 1988 to help reach youth through unique outreach programs that encouraged a resurgence of native running traditions.

In the 1998 New York Times article “Indians Proudly Revive a Tradition of Running,” Channing continued by saying that “running increases pride, self-esteem, cultural-identity. It brings people together in a healthy life style.”

For thousands of years, American Indians kept alive a strong running tradition, one rooted not only in the practical matters of life before instantaneous communication and rapid travel (i.e. trade and communication), but also the deeper concerns of spiritual connectedness with the earth, the sky, and the sacred. This link to the past was evident even in the actions of world-class Native American athletes like Jim Thorpe, of the Sac and Fox tribe, who won several gold medals during the 1912 Olympics.

Yet, many things changed. Life among native peoples of every tribe was affected by the tide of poverty, poor education, and lack of opportunities that still remains the norm on reservations today. Much like the Tendai Marathon Monks, they have found spiritual solace in running.

This is where Channing’s vision and his organization Wings Of America sought to make a different and reacquaint the American Indian youth not only with their rich running heritage but to encourage them to embrace new opportunities to enhance their lives, and the lives of their people.

The non-profit organization has sponsored numerous athletic endeavors by American Indian runners over the last twenty-three years.  Not only have they fostered new opportunities for a marginalized (and often forgotten people), Wings of America has played a vital role the ongoing revival of Native American running traditions.

Running is about living in harmony with the world and with the sacred spirits that inhabit these connected tribal cultures. The American Indians have endured so much loss, and they continue to face hardships that the rest of U.S. relegates to the poorest nations of the Third World. Yet, even in this adverse environment, something amazing has been happening. Great athletes have been forged. Cultural connections have been made or repaired. Many younger Native Americans have found an alternative to the drug-addled, violent, and directionless circumstances that capture so many.

Wings of America has given them back their health through running, through competition, and education.

The mission of this organization in its own words:

“Wing’s mission is to enhance the quality of life of American Indian youth. In partnership with Native communities, Wings uses running as a catalyst to empower American Indian and Alaskan Native youth to take pride in themselves and they cultural identity, leading to increased self-esteem, health and wellness, leadership and hope, balance and harmony.

Most of us understand how valuable running can be to our health.  In the great traditions of American’s native peoples, you see it elevated to a level of spiritual importance.

Kelly Upshaw, a young Navajo woman mentioned in the same 1998 Times article put it this way, “when the sun comes up, the gods comes up, so we run to greet the gods in the morning.”

She added, “That is how my parents taught me.”

Written by Shaun Kilgore

Photo Credit: Medicinehorse7 on Flickr


{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Thomas March 4, 2011 at 4:37 pm

Superbly written. I have always wondered about the running traditions of Native Americans. My great grandparents were of the Black Foot tribe and I always wondered where they got that name. I think it was from the ash that would stain the bottom of their bare feet; they ran most often in Moccasins, however. I love these sort of historical articles that combine passion, sport, and culture. Well done : )

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