Hundreds of runners participating in the Unity Run entered the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community to end their weeklong journey at Red Mountain on the afternoon of March 16. The Unity Run is an annual prayer run, which is done relay-style from Tohono O’odham Nation in southern Arizona to the Salt River Pima Maricopa Indian Community. Runners camp out overnight as they make their way along the course. Every year members from the SRPMIC and other sister tribes get together and participate in the Unity Run, which is meant to encourage unity among the O’odham.
The kickoff for the 17th annual Unity Run took place during the 30th annual Tohono O’odham Nation Wa:k San Xavier District Pow-Wow, on Saturday and Sunday, March 10 and 11. During the powwow, they had a big feast and a blanket dance was held for the runners to help raise money for gas for their support vehicles. For this part of the relay, the runners started from Black Mountain, which is in San Xavier District, Tohono O’odham Nation on Saturday, then on Sunday, March 11, the runners started on their journey of prayer running.
Once they arrived at the Archie Hendricks Senior Skilled Nursing Facility in Sells, 90 runners coming up from Pozo Verde, Sonora joined the others to make their way north to Salt River which totaled 150 runners and 120 plus supporters which added at S’vegium Tho’ag (Red Mountain).
For years, the run had started in the south at Chethagi Waihia (Pozo Verde) Sonora, Mexico, north to the Tohono O’odham Nation through the Gila River Indian Community, and ended in S’vegium Tho’ag (Red Mountain) on the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community. Then for the next four years, the course is reversed and the runners head north to south.
“It’s a gathering of the grassroots, which is the prayer that goes from the south to the north for four years, and then we rotate north to south. It’s all prayer,” said Serena Padilla, one of the organizers of the Unity Run. This year’s benefit concert held before the run raised $1,078 to support the event.
At the end of the run at Red Mountain, about 300 runners, family members and friends participated in a gathering, camping out and going swimming. A variety of Community members and groups, including the SRPMIC Domestic Violence Program, helped set up for the gathering at Red Mountain.
This year there were more female runners than males, and many youth said that they would recruit more runners for next year’s gathering. “All in all I think [this year’s Unity Run] opened the eyes of other Community members, because a lot of the younger people were saying they want to go next year but they want their family to go next year and [be] involved with them,” said Padilla.
Padilla would like to thank the SRPMIC Tribal Council for their support, Youth Council for singing for the runners; also thanks to the co-founders; Jonah Ray and Meldon Fulwilder and other co-coordinators of the Unity run, John Roanhorse, Esther Moyah, Stacey Gubser, SRPMIC Public Works, Walter Holloway of the Salt River Police Department, Community members who drove the vans for the runners and to everyone else for their support. “And a big thanks Casino Arizona for helping out with the water bottles—every single bottle was used during the run,” Padilla said.
Next year Padilla said they want to purchase sleeping bags for the youth participants who might not be able to purchase one of their own. In addition to prayer and building a stronger connection to cultural traditions, one of the values of the Unity Run is teaching responsibility and encouraging youth to take care of their belongings that they bring with them, such as the sleeping bags and camping gear.
“I’m hoping next year to get T-shirts made for all the participants,” she added.
Padilla would like to let everyone know that anyone can join the Unity Run or help out wherever they can. “A lot of our people are getting caught up in the non-Native society, and we are starting to lose touch. This year the Tohono O’odham did an eagle ceremony for the runners; these are the things we don’t continue anymore that we got from [participating in the Unity Run],” she said.
The Unity Run was founded in 1995 by a small group of Onk-Akimel O’odham, Akimel O’odham, Tohono O’odham and Hei-ed O’odham (people) from both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border who do not recognize this political dividing line separating their shared culture. The group’s main goal is to bring awareness to youth and adults of the legacy that our ancestors gave to us centuries ago.