Running Into The Sunrise

Dakota Jones writes about the cultural significance of the Canyon de Chelly Ultra on the Navajo Nation.

By on November 8, 2017 | Comments

[Author’s Note: Canyon de Chelly is pronounced as “canyon de SHAY.”]

“The Indian, he says maybe the white man makes the woman go through the door first because he doesn’t know what’s on the other side.”

So said Allen Martin, Navajo elder, mid-way through a pre-race prayer in the sand at the mouth of Canyon de Chelly, Arizona on October 14. In the final moments before the morning sun crested the horizon of the Chuska mountains–thereby beginning the race the Canyon de Chelly Ultra– all runners, spectators, and volunteers clustered around a bonfire built in a small depression in the sand. We left a gap in the circle facing east, as a way of welcoming the sun and saying thank you to the coming of a new day. Allen went through a litany of motions, words, and songs, largely in Navajo but masterfully peppered with English to keep us attentive, all of it meant to say thank you to the various life-giving forces and to ask for strength in the day ahead.

The duality of “male” and “female” is a central component in the Navajo belief system. To this end, Allen recruited two volunteers, one male and one female, from the group of runners to represent all of us. Using a fan made of eagle feathers (“my grandpa gave me this when I was given tribal responsibility,” he said. “It is very important to me”), he waved it in the smoke rising from the fire and wafted it over himself. The smoke drifted clearly in the cold morning air, making distinctive swirls. He then did the same with his volunteers, beginning somewhat randomly–per the joke above–with the woman. He asked them to repeat after him a brief prayer in the Navajo language, which, given the vast linguistic distance between English and Navajo, elicited further laughs from the crowd. Allen laughed too. Despite the formality and gravity of the proceedings, he was clearly enjoying himself.

Just as the sun crested the horizon, Allen’s son Shaun Martin rallied all the runners to the start line and sent them off yelling. Shaun is the race director of the Canyon de Chelly Ultra and has become somewhat of a celebrity among native runners. Expertise and accomplishment attract attention anywhere, and his work with various running groups on the Navajo reservation has been rewarded with success that seems massive in a place not known for big achievements in the American sense of the term. In a land riddled with poverty, obesity, alcoholism, and depression, Shaun has guided young native runners to impressive victories on the national and world levels. He does this, he says, because he fosters relationships with his runners. “Anyone can look up a 10k training plan on the internet,” he told me when I asked about his coaching. “The training is no secret. The trick to coaching is connecting with your runners.”

In 2013 he started the Canyon de Chelly Ultra as a way to simultaneously celebrate his Navajo running heritage and to raise money for young runners on the reservation. The race sold out in two days the first year, and the pace has only quickened since, to the point that UltraSignup is now hounding him to create a lottery so that people don’t crash the website trying to sign up for the race. Shaun reserves 10 spots for locals from Chinle, Arizona (the town at the mouth of Canyon de Chelly), and there were native runners from other parts of the reservation as well. But the overwhelming majority of runners were white people from around the country (and, in several cases, the world.) This, I think, reflects the general demographics of our sport. But beyond ethnicity, the race seems to represent the deeper values that set trail running apart from other strictly competitive sports.

The Navajo are a “Dené,” or Athabaskan, people who migrated to the American Southwest over many generations from northern Canada. The Navajo language is mutually intelligible with several First Nations and Native Alaskan languages from tribes who live thousands of miles to the north. But for almost as long as anyone can remember, their homeland has been the rocky, labyrinthine canyon country of what is now the Four Corners region. And among this landscape, their heartland is Canyon de Chelly.

Canyon de Chelly is a conglomerate of three main canyons and countless smaller ones that begins as minor depressions high in the Chuska Mountains and quickly grows into snaking canyons of vertical rock walls hundreds of feet high that wind down to the valley bottom at Chinle (which is a Navajo word meaning something like “where the water comes out.”) The canyons are checkered with the detritus of past civilizations who left ruins and drawings that inspire a nervous awe in both Navajos and visitors. When explaining the need to respect archaeological sites to the assembled runners at the pre-race meeting, Shaun’s father-in-law William Yazzie told us of the Ancestral Puebloans (whom he called “Anasazi”): “They left a long time ago, maybe for a good reason, maybe for a bad reason. But we don’t touch any of that stuff. We don’t want that on us.” His next comment was only half-joking: “If you touch that stuff, you might have a ghost following you around, and you can only get that off with a ceremony with a Navajo medicine man. It’s a pain. So just don’t touch it.”

These stories and the perspective from which they are told lend a historical significance to the canyon that is further amplified by the farms and hogans (tradition Navajo homes) that exist within its red walls. Histories of Native American/White relations all over the U.S. follow similar lines: after a (sometimes prolonged) period of resistance, most natives were forced to live on reservations, at which point white opportunists arrived and exploited loopholes and ignorance to take away huge portions of what was often the best land on the reservations.

The Navajo fought fiercely against Western intrusion–first Spanish, then Mexican, and later American–into their land until finally being subdued by the mountain man Kit Carson. His troops spent several months between 1863 and 1864 traveling through Navajo country burning crops, killing animals, and fouling water sources. The scorched-earth tactics had the desired effect, and in 1864 nearly all Navajos were forced to walk hundreds of miles to the southeast, to a place called Bosque Redondo. There, Navajo families withered away for five long years in dense concentration, watching their crops fail, their elders die, and their dignity evaporate.

They were finally allowed to return to what is now the Navajo Reservation in 1868. With this in mind, I asked Shaun what the Navajos thought of Canyon de Chelly being designated a national monument in 1931, which put it at least partly under federal jurisdiction. He didn’t seem fussed about it. “You know,” he said. “When the Navajo came back from the Bosque in 1868, the white man kept drawing lines in the sand and telling them not to cross. This was just another line in the sand.”

But this line was different, because as far as the Navajos were concerned, nothing changed. Canyon de Chelly is a “living monument,” which means that people still live within its boundaries. So this was–and remains–the other way around: no non-Navajo is allowed to enter Canyon de Chelly without a guide and a permit. The only exception came in 2013, when Shaun started the Canyon de Chelly Ultra in close cooperation with the Navajo Nation and the National Park Service. That race is the one day a year when 150 people of all nationalities are allowed to run through the canyon twice–once from bottom to top, and again from top to bottom. The only discerning factor is how fast can you sign up. The total distance is 34 miles, which means that runners get to see 17 miles of sand, rock, orchard, petroglyph, and cottonwood, twice. When this is combined with Navajo histories and songs at the pre-race meeting, group prayers at the beginning and end of the race, and local art and jewelry as the prizes, you can’t help but feel a certain gravity of place as you run through the canyon. The race and its attendant ceremonies provide a context to Canyon de Chelly that relegates the competitive part of the race to a subordinate position, below values like respect, family, and history. When you go into the canyon, you imagine–or maybe not–that you can hear voices from the past just out of earshot.

For as long as I have been trail running, I have been drawn to its community. This sentiment has been repeated to me by countless other runners, all of whom extol the sense of inclusiveness and approachability of the people in our sport who just want to spend a lot of time running in beautiful places with good friends. Competition is fun, but it has always felt secondary to the experience and the challenge. At Canyon de Chelly, this sentiment was both supported and given a new element. The Navajo culture provided a context and therefore a reason to think outside ourselves even while practicing an individual sport. Shaun and his family use the race as a way to suggest to us a way to use personal achievement as a means to create good for other people. We can raise money for good causes, but there’s more to it. We can run into the sunrise yelling as a way to be grateful for a new day, and to celebrate the essential tension between positive and negative, and to appreciate the many life-giving forces all around us. This way of thinking gave us a sense of purpose that was characterized by the clear directions of the race markers. Rarely has the way forward felt so clear, and it was this way because we were asked to look for a way forward for many, not just for one. If for only one day, they gave us a reason to run and a place in the fabric of human cultures that meant something. This is an end that can be accomplished with the rituals of many cultures, and in this respect the Navajo way of life is but one way forward of many. But it’s a pretty good one.

Allen Martin performed the post-race prayer as well. The sun had set behind behind the pale canyons to the west, and the wind picked up. The 20 or so people left at the finish line stood shivering in running clothes while Allen spoke in Navajo and wafted more smoke around with another eagle-feather fan and passed around a cup of water blessed by the ceremonies for everyone to drink from. He told us that in this way we all honored each other as people, and as members of our community. It was an important thing to do, he said, with the implication that this was better than nothing. “Normally, this ceremony lasts all night long,” he said, laughing again. “You get sore butts.”

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • Have you run the Canyon de Chelly Ultra? Can you share a few thoughts about your experience with it?
  • Have you participated in another race or group event that possessed such a strong cultural significance?
Dakota Jones
Dakota Jones explores the wild places of the world on foot and tells us about it every few weeks. He runs for Salomon and Clif Bar.