Cover Story

On Saturday, March 21, the 2015 Unity Runners reached the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community and made their way across McDowell Road to a gathering place next to the Salt River Community Building where they were greeted by many tribal members, family, friends, and tribal officials.

2015 Unity Run Marks Its 20th Year – An O’odham Tradition

By June Shorthair
Au-Authm Action News

The 2015 Unity Run began on March 15 at Scuk Do’ag (Black Mountain), located within the San Xavier Village of the Tohono O’odham Nation, then traveled through other villages of the Tohono O’odham Nation, the Ak-Chin Indian Community and the Gila River Indian Community, ending at S’vegium Do’ag (Red Mountain) on the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community on March 21.

The Unity Run, an annual event that began in 1995, takes place primarily among the O’odham tribes and was a creation and collaborative effort of SRPMIC members Meldon Fulwilder and Jonah Ray and the late Felix Antone of the Tohono O’odham Nation, as well as others who were involved in the early years.

Fulwilder stated, “I was involved in a lot [of things] that brought attention to Native American issues. Some years [prior to 1995] I was asked to meet with some Tohono O’odham people to discuss issues [they] had concerning the O’odham Tash Days that took place in Casa Grande. It was from meetings like this that the thought of bringing all O’odham people together came about and the idea of a unity run began.”

The art of running has been embedded within many Native American tribal cultures. For generations, the O’odham people have relied on the experience of running to make a journey, both physical and spiritual in nature. Running may have been done to gather precious salt from the Pacific waters, to disseminate messages to various villages and communities, or as a vehicle to pray for oneself or for one’s community. Running encompasses many ceremonies, rituals and spiritual aspects.

What Does Unity Mean?

People who took part in the Unity Run and other O’odham people were asked to share their understanding of the word “unity.” They said they understood it as a way to bring together the purpose and meaning of their Himdag for their people or to strengthen the spiritual ties and forces that bind a Community, while other O’odham expressed that to them unity means the creation of balance among the different influences that impact O’odham people, the environment and the universe as a whole.

The Journey

Some participants in this year’s Unity Run said they concentrated on their breathing and overall body movements, while other runners concentrated on song (O’odham and others). Many runners prayed on their journeys. Eighteen-year-old Community member runner Trevor Hicks said, “When we started out [in San Xavier], it was beautiful, [especially] outside at night, [with] the stars and everything. It was really good to see the kids … they seem to really be listening, and learning, when you come at them in a way they can understand. [Some of us] didn’t have good mentoring and role modeling; now seeing what it was like, ‘Ah man, this is really good.’”

The run was conducted in a relay fashion, allowing many runners to participate depending on their level of fitness. Throughout each day the runners continually switched off, worked at keeping pace, and provided encouragement and support as they worked together to complete a day’s run. One of the youngest runners was 5 years old, the granddaughter of LaRue Jackson, a Community member and an employee at Salt River High School.

Jackson said, “My children did not participate because they were already involved in sports and stuff, but we helped prepare. Now that they are grown, I am now able to go on and support the run. I brought my granddaughter, who is 5 years old, with me. Instead of going to Disneyland, we decided to come here to spend her spring break, and run. She is so strong; she did two relay runs and ran over one mile in a day.”

Jackson continued, “I grew up my whole life in foster care. You hear about ‘well-known tribes’; but what about us, what good things [did my tribe do]? I always wondered if my people knew where I was. When I first became involved [in the Unity Run] last year, it felt like a homecoming. You see all these O’odham people together. I want my granddaughter to experience this and have a passion for the people [the O’odham]. Her granddaughter told her parents [during the week], “I am not done running yet; when I am done, I will come home. She said the prayers go and they come back, like the wind from the mountain.”

The runners are required to disconnect themselves from modern conveniences, such as cellphones, iPads, laptops and radios, so they can focus on the journey they will take during the weeklong run. All the runners were required to bring basic items and spend their time in between running interacting with each other, as well as participating in discussions and exchanges of sharing that took place. This had to be one of the toughest elements of the run for everyone.

At of all the villages and communities the Unity Run encountered during the run, tribal members, organizers and supporters welcomed them, offered nourishment and a place to set up camp to rest, offered their prayers and prepared for the next day of the run. Every community provided what they could, and all the Unity Run participants indicated they were appreciative, because during the day’s run their sustenance included mainly water, Gatorade, energy bars and sandwiches such as “Indian Steak” (bologna).

Some of the runners shared their experience and encounters they had as they reached their next destination. Community member Mychal Osif is 18 and the son of Neso Osif. He said, “I have been running for nine years. My mom first told me about this. I [initially] grew up in the city [of Tucson]. So, I thought it was going to be like a ‘camping thing’ and I really didn’t want to go. I came to the run; I met new people, met family members. I just fell in love with it.”

Osif expressed, “When I run, I mainly think about three things: my land, my culture and my people. I pray for my people first (my relatives, and those who never get a chance to experience this), then my land, and for my culture [the Unity Run is for our culture].” I learned about stories from other villages, about where [we] come from. It can be very emotional to hear [if you take it to heart]. You come to realize people actually died for us to keep the villages as they are.”

Each day began at sunrise and included a morning blessing as the runners and supporters prepared themselves for the next journey. Every day began and ended in a similar fashion; however, each day and evening brought new experiences. Hicks said, “[When I was running], it was nice; I was always thinking about stuff; you are in your head, praying and thinking about stuff, focusing on my people and everybody I loved. I wanted to make sure I was thinking about the right things.”

Many of the communities the runners reached exhibited and shared with them some of their shrines and special altars as they spoke and expressed to the group significant traditional and spiritual elements of their communities. This O’odham experience is like no other; many traditional O’odham people are very cognizant of what can and should be shared among the group of Unity Run participants.

Once they left Black Mountain on the first day, they headed through the Tohono O’odham Nation and reached Santa Rosa Ranch by the end of the day, which included a rest stop at the Veterans Memorial Park in Three Points (Robles Junction). On Monday, March 16, they rested at Si’ Nakya and then reached the Community of Palo Verde. This is a very special place to the runners of Unity. On Tuesday, March 17, they rested at North Komelik and reached Cockelbur to camp for the night. The Unity Run group was very appreciative of every village on the Tohono O’odham Nation that provided their hospitality, their teachings and a welcoming place to rest.

On Wednesday, March 18, the Unity Run contingent reached the Ak-Chin Indian Community and received a nice welcome from the organizers. On this day the rain began to fall. You could feel the coldness of the rain, the dampness, as well as a sense of freshness in the air. It appeared the conditions did not drastically affect the Unity Run. Fulwilder stated, “The rain will not affect what we are doing; during past runs we have [encountered] snow, high winds [and much more].”

At Ak-Chin, all the runners, their leaders and supporters were offered space to set up their tents and sleeping quarters at Milton Antone park. They were also able to shower at the recreation center, and some of the supporters and runners were able to sleep inside the gym because it rained most of the evening and night. In addition, they were provided a lunch and in the evening were given a hearty dinner. Most of the runners are youth; therefore, they were eager to eat whenever they were given the chance! The Ak-Chin Indian Community leadership and others provided a welcome in the afternoon, and their youth council shared some traditional social dance songs.

On Thursday, March 19, the runners reached the Gila River Indian Community. They visited the elders at the Caring House, where Governor Stephen Lewis, Lt. Governor Monica Antone, Council Representatives Carol Schurz, Arzie Hogg and Joey Whitman, and others greeted them. Council Representatives Robert Stone, Jennifer Allison and Angela Allison and two other singers sang for the runners. A Unity Run representative shared, “The elders were so happy!” The Unity Run set up camp at Aji Do’ag and was provided a nice environment, including canopies for eating arrangements, wood for fires, and security lighting, and they were provided dinner by the community members from District 4. Once again, the Unity Run group offered their prayers, their songs, and then rested for the night.

On the final day, the Unity Run reached SRPMIC around 12:30 p.m., and they gathered at the field next to the Community Building. It was a sight to see all the runners, escorted by two mounted horsemen, come across McDowell Road on Longmore Road and enter the field to sounds of O’odham songs. The group was welcomed by SRPMIC Vice-President Martin Harvier and Council Members Jenelle Howard, Archie Kashoya, Michael Dallas and David Antone, who were present to greet all the runners and supporters.

President Delbert Ray, Sr. was given the honor of offering a blessing for the food that was provided and for the people in attendance. He provided his prayer in O’odham, which was loosely translated to say that he gave thanks for all that prepared the food, for the young people, for all the O’odham people; he spoke about how this day made him feel (good in his heart); and he spoke of how it was good to see so many young people involved, they were learning their Himdag.

In the afternoon, the journey took the Unity Run participants, along with family, friends and volunteers, to Red Mountain to enjoy dinner prepared by SRPMIC volunteers and others. They prepared their camps, offering blessings and singing through the night.

They gathered at Red Mountain to celebrate and immortalize their experience, as well as offer prayers and thankfulness for the many things (both materialistic and spiritual) that were provided to them and their Community. They had a morning run, they received nourishment, heard traditional songs, and they danced!

This year marks the end of two decades of the O’odham Unity Run. Osif voiced sentiments that other participants shared when he said, “The Unity Run is something I will keep coming back to do every year.” The future of the run remains to be determined, as the coordinators and leaders of the Unity Run will decide what the coming years will bring for the people.

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