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A young Unity runner prepares to hand off a staff to Salt River Pima Maricopa Indian Community President Diane Enos. Photo by Angela Willeford

Running to Unite the People

By Angela Willeford
Au-Authm Action News

In the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community at the base of Red Mountain, approximately 100 O’odham runners prepared to endure a trek across four Native communities and two countries, the United States and Mexico.

The night before the 15th Annual Unity Run, campers set up for the night at Red Mountain and enjoyed music from traditional O’odham singers the whole night, all the way to sunrise.

At sunrise on March 14, the fire burned and runners were blessed, fed and then on their way to start the run.

The purpose of the annual Unity Run is to renew the spirit and culture of the O’odham people, who are physically but not spiritually separated by the border between the United States and Mexico. It is a time for prayer and cultural strengthening for all O’odham people.

The first leg of the relay race began at the foot of Red Mountain, and moved along the Arizona Canal to the Salt River Community Building. Leaving Salt River, runners proceeded down Alma School Road into the Gila River Indian Community, and from there they continued on to the Ak-Chin Indian Community and the Tohono O’odham Nation. The runners completed their approximately 170-mile relay journey to Sonora, Mexico on March 21, after running for seven days.

Unity Experiences
O’odham runner Clayton Antone from Newfield, Arizona, located five miles from the Mexico border, has participated in the Unity Run for five years.

Antone said he looked at his thermometer at 1 a.m. on the night before the run began at Red Mountain camp and it read 42 degrees.

Although the fire burned all night, 15-year-old Community member Shainia Osif, who was one of the runners, said, “I didn’t sleep, it was so cold.”

This is the third time 12-year-old Garrett Williams from Sacaton on the Gila River Indian Community has participated in the Unity Run. He said the reason he runs is so that he can pray for his family. Williams said that his dad, Gregory Williams, encourages him and runs alongside him.

Garrett explained his feelings about running when he gets to Mexico by saying, “It’s quiet; there are no distractions, and it feels good.”

Everyone feels differently when they reach the Unity Run’s final destination of Chehthagi Wawhia, Sonora, Mexico. Osif said she runs because it makes her feel good and she is happy when she finally gets to Mexico. “I went for our families that need help; I did it for them.”

History of the Unity Run
The O’odham people are known for being distance runners; they have been running for more than 150 years. The Unity Run helps the different O’odham groups unite in their culture for one week and encourages unity among all O’odham people.

The Unity Run was founded in 1995 by a small group of people from the Tohono O’odham and Akimel O’odham. Their purpose was to bring awareness to the legacy of their ancestors, who were runners.

The Unity Run is a drug-free, alcohol-free and electronics-free event.

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