Running for a Cause: ReNew Earth Running and the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition

An account of one runner’s experience at the San Juan Solstice 50 Mile, to raise money for ReNew Earth Running and the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition — two non-profits set up with the aim of honoring and respecting Indigenous lands, and restoring lands to the stewardship of tribal nations.

By on February 21, 2024 | Comments

[Editor’s Note: This Community Voices article was written by Sara Aranda of ReNew Earth Running.]

Nestled within the San Juan Mountains of Colorado sits Lake City, population 430. Contrary to its name, the small town is filled with quaint houses, cemeteries, old outbuildings, historic churches, and cabins. There are railroad and mining histories; there are remnants of glacial carving and volcanic turbulence; and there are studies revealing Indigenous activity in the region as far back as 12,000 years ago.

It’s easy to overlook the relationship the Ute people and other tribes had and still have with this land. However, the non-profit group ReNew Earth Running (RER) is working to change how we runners think about land and our relationship with Tribal nations.

The Minneapolis, Minnesota-based organization (Dakota and Anishinaabe land) was created in 2020 during the height of social and racial upheaval with the mission to “protect and heal the environment by restoring land to the stewardship of Tribal nations and Indigenous leadership.”

ReNew Earth Running - coffee run

Members of ReNew Earth Running on a coffee run. Photo: Michael Harralson

This project, begun by Michael Harralson, who is currently a judge for several Tribal nations, has become greater than he could have ever imagined. The RER board currently sits nine members, including the founder of Rising Hearts, Jordan Marie Brings Three White Horses Whetstone (Lower Brule Sioux Tribe), and professional skier Connor Ryan (Hunkpapa Lakota).

RER created a running team from applicants interested in the cause, and through their running or other movements, members advocate and fundraise. Funds are then distributed to Indigenous-led organizations engaging in land stewardship work.

One prominent example of this took place within and around Lake City, through the town’s iconic ultrarunning race, the San Juan Solstice 50 Mile.

In June of 2022, RER member Becca Jay arrived to the valley to prepare for what was to come. She reveled at the ever-steepening mountains just beyond town limits, knowing that she would be traversing the undulating ridgelines as part of a very long loop.

The race, which boasts over 12,000 feet of vertical gain over 50 miles with a maximum altitude of 13,334 feet, has a cutoff time of only 16 hours. Not only was she in for a grand physical and mental adventure, she was also on a mission to raise money for both RER and the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition (BEITC).

Becca Jay - 2022 San Juan Solstice - visit with respect

Becca Jay running the 2022 San Juan Solstice 50 Mile, brandishing the slogan of the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition — “Visit With Respect.” Photo: Matt Delarosa

“I wanted to have an intention for when I was doing my race, an intention bigger than just running it and finishing,” Jay said, “So I asked Michael if there was any Tribal nation that he was aware of that needed more support.”

After a few conversations, board member Sergio Avila suggested reaching out to someone he knew from the BEITC, co-director Charissa Miijessepe-Wilson (Prairie Band Potawatomi/Kickapoo).

The BEITC, which began as a partnership between the Hopi Tribe, Navajo Nation, Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, Pueblo of Zuni, and Ute Indian Tribe, now receives support from over 30 tribes in its mission to address the needs of the Bears Ears landscape, such as utilizing place-based conservation, land management, and exercising traditional ecological knowledge.

“We had seen that [RER was] one of the more reliable sources on amplifying content around Land Back,” Miijessepe-Wilson said, “and we started following them on social media. Out of the blue, Sergio reached out to me and expressed that there might be an opportunity for our two organizations to collaborate.”

Avila and Miijessepe-Wilson had previously met at a People of the Global Majority in the Outdoors conference.

Both RER and BEITC knew that Jay’s effort would be an excellent way to intersect their missions and raise awareness and funding. Jay was not only moving to support RER’s “Legs for Land Back” motto, but was now also an advocate for the BEITC’s message of “Visit With Respect.”

“It seemed like a really good opportunity for us to start showing ways that people can recreate responsibly while also doing mission driven work,” Miijessepe-Wilson said. “Becca, the way that she approached the project, was also really respectful.”

She added, “And another reason why we took a special interest in wanting to amplify her work [was] because she was actually demonstrating the values that we look to in our partners: reciprocity, responsibility, transparency, and communication.”

During these conversations with the BEITC, Jay noted that it was important, “to honor and remember these sacred spaces that you’re in,” which goes hand in hand with restoring land to the stewardship of Tribal nations. Making such connections with a race organization, however, was an unknown for Jay, but a task she was willing to take on.

ReNew Earth Running - Arizona Trail

Runners from ReNew Earth Running on the Arizona Trail. Photo courtesy of ReNew Earth Running.

The fees for the San Juan Solstice 50 Mile benefit the Lake City volunteer EMTs — they provide a scholarship fund to graduating local high school students, and they help support other public services in the area.

Jay knew that perhaps reaching out to the race director, Jerry Gray, would prove fruitful in her efforts to engage in discourse about land acknowledgements and Indigenous advocacy. While the race organization had not yet taken such steps, Jay was happy to learn that Gray did have connections to Ute Mountain Ute Tribal leaders, and this sparked a whole new path for relationship building.

Jay reported that the following year, in 2023, the San Juan Solstice 50 Mile conducted its first land acknowledgement the morning of the race, which involved a ceremony with Ute Mountain Ute members.

Having these runner blessings before a race are impactful, Jay emphasized, because they set the stage for respect, and even if they only touch the hearts of a handful of participants, that is still a powerful moment of connection. Even though her race did not yet have the ceremony, Jay showed up with gratitude.

“I get to race. I choose to be here,” she began her race mantra. During the grueling hours that followed, she struggled, but would often sidestep her own discomfort by saying out loud, “Are you kidding me?” at the beautiful scenery. Jay finished a hair under 13 hours, sharing her final mile with both of her sons.

Becca Jay - 2022 San Juan Solstice - finishing with sons

Becca Jay finishing the 2022 San Juan Solstice 50 Mile with her two sons. Photo: Mike Hewitt

“I got emotional several times during the race thinking about the collaborative effort of so many people supporting our mission and loving me and cheering me on. I felt very held and carried,” said Jay.

Jay had learned all the more about reciprocity and about the particular needs of entities like the BEITC, such as the importance of proper signage in recreation areas. Providing adequate information about sacred sites, Tribal sovereignty, pertinent history, and cultural practices help relay the message that traditional relations with the land and its people are important.

When I asked Jay about whether or not she sees the running industry as a whole changing in these more culturally aware ways, she sighed out a long, “Hmm.”

“I wish I could say that I did. I think there are small pockets. I think there is a desire to [change], but I’m hearing that people are wanting it to be authentic. Which is great, I appreciate that. But I’m curious, like [I see it as] just do it and then build from there. Don’t disregard authenticity, but I just wonder, how long are you going to wait?”

She went on, “You just don’t do it. Making a statement [is one thing, but] building relationships — that’s the biggest thing. Not having those relationships built yet, I do think that it makes it harder for race directors and the industry to authentically talk about where their races are, what land they’re on.” Yet, as to how to approach the matter, Jay added, “Always be asking.”

“It would be cool if there was a ‘visit with respect’ emphasis with every store, brand, anything, and then [an expansion] from there. That would be great,” Jay said.

ReNew Earth Running - trail race

Members of ReNew Earth Running taking part in a trail race.

“Movement, particularly running, is a form of healing to Indigenous communities,” Miijessepe-Wilson said. “When we pair that with wanting to heal the land, which is what BEITC does, we’re actually starting to build up infrastructure for the healing of not only the people in our communities but the overall ecosystem.”

She added, “In order to be effective, we don’t have to operate in these compartmentalized, Western constructs of conservation, or environmentalism, or even advocacy — because in the Indigenous view, these are all one in the same.”

Jay’s efforts raised over $4,200, which was split equally between RER and the BEITC. Miijessepe-Wilson quickly became a close friend to RER, and a few months later, she accepted Harralson’s invitation to join the RER board.

“[RER has] a really good mission, and I can just see that not only is the work good, but the people that they bring into community are really good, too, and this is something that I want to be a part of,” Miijessepe-Wilson said.

Every February, RER opens its application to join the running team with its year of membership running April to April. They are hoping to inspire all the more people, Indigenous and non-Indigenous, to join the cause, spark conversation, and create lasting kinships.

Grounding oneself with the land is integral to who we are as human beings, and what better way to start the process than to run or walk the places we know and love — while also learning about the people whose land we’re on.

Call for Comments

  • Have you heard of ReNew Earth Running?
  • Do you know of any similar initiatives in your area?
Becca Jay - 2022 San Juan Solstice - crew stop

Becca recuperating at a crew stop during the 2022 San Juan Solstice 50 Mile. Photo: Ryder Jay

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