On Saturday, March 12, close to 100 people set up tents at the campground at Pole 7 along the Verde River, located at Red Mountain, where the 16th Annual Unity Run was set to begin the following morning. As runners, drivers and supporters of the Unity Run arrived, they were treated to a dinner cooked by women of the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community. Final preparations were underway as they prepared to make the journey from S’vegium Tho’ag (Red Mountain) on the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community south through the Gila River Indian Community and the Tohono O’odham Nation, ending at Chethagi Waihia (Pozo Verde) in Sonora, Mexico, to honor their O’odham ancestors and the O’odham people though a week-long relay-style run.
As youth runners arrived at the campsite, they began setting up their tents and encountering wildlife, such as rattlesnakes and hawks flying high above searching for their prey. With the warm desert heat, the teens took advantage of the nearby Verde River. A group of girls, Christina Escalona, Clarissa Valencia, Claudell Valencia and Shady Suniga, came back to the camp cold as the sun began to set; they arrived just in time for a warm meal.
Runners Share Their Experience
The girls reminisced about their experience at last year’s Unity Run. All but one was returning for the second year.
“Last year it was pretty amazing and spiritual. I thought it was going to be hard running, but it was easy and it wasn’t that hot, either. You kind of stop focusing on how hot it is; but we get pretty dark too,” said Clarissa Valencia.
“Running is in our blood,” explained Valencia’s sister, Claudell Valencia. “Not only does it clear your head, but when you go to each community and the people shake your hand and some of them cry, it’s pretty emotional. It’s good just to feel appreciated, like we’re doing something important. All our hard work pays off once we get to Mexico and you know you’re done and you didn’t complain or get hurt—[although] your feet hurt, your calves hurt and you’re tired hungry, sweaty and dark.
“The Unity Run is really fun, because once you finish and say your prayer and give your offering, you leave and you feel like you’ve done something that can’t be explained. It’s more of a mental and spiritual thing and you feel totally rejuvenated. That’s why we came back ,” Claudell Valencia added.
Seeking More Community Support
In last year’s Unity Run, close to 200 runners and supporters made the journey to Mexico. This year there were about 100 participants who left from Red Mountain, running through Salt River on the first day.
“I think it would be great to have more Community support for the runners of the Unity Run,” said Salt River Community member Serena Juste. “Even if they have signs to encourage runners; we come down Camelback from the canal all the way to Longmore Road and down to the Community Building. That would be a perfect way to encourage runners.”
This year the runners were able to visit more villages on the Tohono O’odham Nation and visit sacred places, such as the Casa Grande Ruins, Hole in the Rock and burial grounds.
This is the first year for Community member Lloyd Lewis to participate in the Unity Run. He explained that he was a little nervous, but was glad to be doing something for spring break that would help him stay in shape in the process. After returning, Lewis was happy he made the journey to Mexico.
“It was a good experience. I got to learn about my O’odham culture and visit different sacred places,” he said. “I had a chance to meet new people as the group built up each day. I hope to be part of the Unity Run again next year.”
Marcella Valadez was excited to experience the Unity Run again after missing it last year.
“The first year I participated I had the opportunity to meet a bunch of new friends from our sister tribes,” said Valadez. “That encouraged me to return for a second year. But last year I was unable to attend because I was a part of the Salt River royalty [and had other engagements]. I wanted to make up for that, so I came back this year.
“I think youth from the Community should try it out; it’s something new and exciting, and it’s better than staying home for a week with nothing to do.”
Unity Run Background
The Unity Run was founded in 1995 by a small group of grassroots Tohono O’odham and Akimel O’odham people. The group’s main goal is to bring awareness to youth and adults of the legacy that their ancestors gave them centuries ago. For more than 150 years, the O’odham Nations have dealt with separation by the U.S.-Mexico border. O’odham people do not acknowledge that separation within the O’odham culture and encourage the unity to continue.
“The whole idea of the run is that we bring our people together—not just the people here in Salt River, but all the people in Ak-Chin, Tohono O’odham, Gila River and the O’odham in Mexico,” said Jonah Ray, Unity Run supporter.
“Because we are all the same people, so in tradition that’s how we are and who we are. We work together as O’odham—like in the village, we all do things together, like how we help feed and look after each other. Even when we discipline ourselves, it takes everybody to do that.”
The Akimel O’odham, Hia-Ced O’odham and Tohono O’odham have long been known for their expertise in long-distance running in the desert regions of the southwestern United States and Mexico. The Unity Run is a way to preserve their culture through the traditions of running and spirituality.
“We’re trying to get [participants] to understand that as O’odham that we are unique people. We have never been displaced from our ancestral lands—we have always been here. We also try to get the young people to understand that if it wasn’t for our ancestors holding on to this land, we would probably be melted into the dominant society,” said Ray. “We show them who they are as O’odham and teach them respect; they have to be an O’odham first in respect of our ancestors. All these young people are going to be the ones carrying our traditions, culture and the knowledge.”
The Unity Run is open to all O’odham adults, youth and children. Preparation for the run is required, physically and emotionally, Ray said.