Running From Alaska to Panama (Teotihuacan, Mexico)

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Wandering amongst the ancient pyramids of Teotihuacan, I had somehow found myself in the midst of Native Tribes, who were traveling on foot over 6,000 miles from Alaska to Panama. “The Run for Peace and Dignity” is a run across the entire American continents done every four years to unify and celebrate Native culture. After four months of continuous running, they finally arrived here in what was once Mesoamerica’s greatest empire. And at once, a celebration of furious drums and feathered dances erupted in the normally silent desert valleys.

Weeks later, on the anniversary of Columbus’s arrival in the Americas, I can’t think of this day as a celebration of European colonialism, but instead as a reminder that there are still countless Native tribes who will run halfway across the world only so their culture is not forgotten.

Teotihuacan is a stretch of almost 2,000 year old pyramids and other ruins still as perfectly intact as the bland, rigid buildings of nearby Mexico City. Even amongst the hordes of vendors hustling “Viva Mexico!” sombreros and plastic pyramids, you can walk in and feel the mystic energies famously said to form here. It puts me at peace as I stroll its burning sand street named “The Avenue of the Dead”.

It is a mystery as to which of Mexico’s numerous pre-Columbus people built this city, as it was centuries before the time of even the Aztecs and Mayans. Either way, this sprawling city of an estimated 125,000 people was somehow deserted by 8th century AD. The archaeological complex’s most profound structures are the religious sites of “The Sun Temple” and “The Moon Temple”. But I hesitate to climb them as they are trampled upon by frenzied lines of tourists taking selfies. Still, with all the hype, the pyramids’ massiveness amazed me, blocking even the desert sun like the gods themselves.

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How could an entire civilization just disappear? And what has become of most indigenous cultures in the Americas? I wondered this when the walls of the temples echoed with ground-shaking drums. Dozens of Native Americans, looking different both in race and dress, came into the temple dancing to a song they all shared together. Some were strong men wearing headbands of skulls or angered faces streaked with black paint. Others were pretty girls in angel white dresses, adorned with flowers. Some were shouting, others were quiet, but all came in running.

Although I too had just came from Alaska, I was there completely by chance and was unaware of this unique event. It was strange, yet beautiful as are most things we at first don’t understand. After they danced, they all bowed in unison, giving thanks to the greying sky above. Eyes closed, hearts thumping, lips praying, in a respect for Mother Earth so lost in today’s world.

After they prayed, the leader of the group got up to address the crowd and tell more about this spiritual journey. His voice was solemn yet proud and it commanded an overpowering respect as silence befell the group. The reason for “The Run for Peace and Dignity” stems from the story of Columbus’s landing in the Americas, but its told from the side that’s rarely heard. It was tragic to hear how the European’s arrival not only resulted in genocide, but how the colonists also stripped the identity of the few survivors by taking away their age-old traditions, language, and spirituality.

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Knowing that all the Native tribes needed healing, it was revealed that the Indigenous tribes of both North and South America would finally unite under “The Prophecy of Eagle and the Condor”. In 1990, this momentous meeting happened in Ecuador, where they devised the plans for the first run. Two years later, the prophecy came true as runners from both continents ran here to Teotihuacan, exactly 500 years after Columbus’s arrival. They chose running because in Pre-Columbus times information and trade was mostly done by running from tribe to tribe. The route from Alaska to South America was chosen to honor the original journey of when the first Native Americans crossed the land bridge from Russia to Alaska over 12,000 years ago.

Along the way, the runners stopped at hundreds of tribes to pray and take part in the traditions of each Indigenous group. They would bring sacred staffs with which they carried each tribe’s prayers for the entire journey. Now the run has been done every four years since 1992. This year’s run began on May 1st with one group of runners starting in Chikaloon, Alaska, another starting in New York, three more groups starting in other areas of the United States, and then a group starting in Patagonia in the south of Argentina. The final event is for all runners to unite in Panama on November 15th to  combine all the staffs and plant seeds with the local Kuna Yala people.

I looked at the runners, who mostly seemed to be of normal body type. They didn’t look like the type to endure the pain of running across continents. But as they would soon say, it is not the physical aspect that really hurts, but instead it is praying with each tribe and hearing the various demons that other Native Americans must face ever day. Runners from one route carried their staff for all the Indigenous women, who have gone missing or been murdered. With a heavy heart, they said that in every tribe they visited, there were one or more women who were murdered or gone missing.

However, if this journey shows anything it is that none of these burdens should be carried alone. Even with all the different traditions, languages, and customs of every tribe, they have become one people, finally united by the simple act of running. They all share the same dreams and the same hope that their culture shall not perish, but continue to prosper in the years to come. Less than 20 runners are running all the way from Alaska to Panama, but there are over 600 Native Americans, who have ran at least part of the journey or helped in some way.

One of the coordinator’s Vanessa Quazada said, “This is not a run or a race. It’s a prayer…It’s medicine for us and gives us the time to reflect and remember who we are and where we are going in this life.”

Read more about “The Run for Peace and Dignity” HERE.

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Article by Spencer R. Morrison

Photos by the Author and Kelly Nuzzo