Verna Volker and Native Women Running

A profile of Verna Volker, the founder of Native Women Running, a group celebrating Indigenous women in running.

By on August 3, 2023 | Comments

Ultrarunner Verna Volker is the founder of Native Women Running, which began as a virtual community for Indigenous women to connect, and to help increase the visibility of those runners.

After Volker started running, she noticed that athletes would post about their runs on Twitter, so she went to Instagram to see if runners were there, too. While she found runners, she didn’t see any that looked like her. “I did research on apparel, brands, ads — and there were far and few native runners,” recalls Volker. “I was following Native Runners, though there wasn’t anything elevating native women and people like me and because I didn’t see myself in running, I wanted to create a space for people to see themselves,” she adds.

It was 2018 when she launched the organization. Today, she says: “I am incredibly grateful for how far it’s come — I never realized it would be what it is today.”

Verna Volker - Native Women Running

Verna Volker, founder of Native Women Running. All photos courtesy of Verna Volker.

Native Women Running (@native_women_running) shares others’ journeys and creates a space that’s positive to break down stereotypes of native people. Today, Volker is focused on supporting the race fees of Indigenous women and launching in-person teams at races for women to gather. The first being for the Antelope Canyon Ultras 55k in December 2021.

“The women are blown away by how much they have felt community, positivity, and all these good things that mean so much to me on my end and that’s the drive. It’s a movement of us showing up at races now and we create teams at events to be seen,” says Volker.

She adds, “It’s empowerment and sisterhood and our women are running for competition, but a lot are running for healing, grieving, and someone they’ve lost.”

Based in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and raised near the Navajo Nation in the Four Corners area of New Mexico, Volker’s clans are the Tódích’íi’nii (Bitterwater) nishlíi, Hashtl’ishnii (Mud People) bashishchiin, Ta’neeszahnii (Tangle) dashicheii, and Tó’ áheedlíinii (Water Flows Together) dashinalí. As a traditional ritual for the Dine’ people, also known as the Navajo, “A lot of Navajos grow up running. I was always an athlete but never grew up running,” says Volker, who entered the sport in her thirties, as a mom to a newborn, preschooler, and toddler — three little boys — after moving east to the city for her husband’s job.

Caregiving for a family “was a crazy journey as a mother, and we didn’t have a house at first, so we stayed with family in 2008. In March of 2009, we finally got a house. I had noticed right away that Minneapolis has a running culture and there are a lot of sidewalks,” says Volker, who was motivated to lose weight, shedding nearly 200 pounds. The idea to use running as a health tool was planted by her sister. Without knowing the benefits of run-specific footwear and watches, she signed up for a half marathon, a goal that “ignited a fire” in her. She didn’t follow a training plan but did get up to eight miles in training.

Native Women Running - She's Beautiful Race

Members of Native Women Running at the She’s Beautiful Race in California.

“At the time, I was trying to just enjoy running then the race experience really made me realize, I could run! My three boys were at the finish line. I felt really good and thought it would be wise to train more. I started learning about running through a lot of reading, education, and asking questions of what to do and how to do it,” she says. Today, her boys are 19, 16, and 14 years old and she has a 10-year-old daughter.

Falling into a ritual of 5 a.m. outdoor runs and reaching a stable weight, by 2011, she entered her first marathon — rendering her first experience of being so sore she could hardly walk afterward. Weekends are for outdoor miles. For self-defense, she brings a Go Guarded Hand-Held serrated knife with an alarm, and always tells her family where she’s going and what time she’ll be home. If she’s driving in a minivan, she’ll pull on a hoody and slouch, so she doesn’t appear to be a woman driving alone at early hours to the trails.

“Sadly, I have to do that because you never know if you could be followed,” she says, more a realistic than conservative point of view when one has been exposed to prolific injustices within their community. Known broadly as the Missing and Murdered Indigenous People Crisis, the crime rates against Indigenous women have been extremely high for decades.

Within Native American and Alaska Native demographics, violent crime rates are higher than national averages, and four in five women — 84.3 percent — have experienced violence in their lifetime, including 56.1 percent that have faced sexual violence, according to a 2016 study completed by the National Institute of Justice. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that non-Hispanic American Indian and Alaska Native females experienced the second-highest rate of homicide in 2020, according to the National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey.

For Volker, her past is rippled with oppression. “I always get emotional. I grew up with a lot of childhood trauma, poverty, and alcoholism,” says Volker, who attends therapy to work through those experiences and her grief. “I had a father who passed when I was three years old. My mom passed 1.5 years ago. I’ve lost three siblings. I used to really care about running fast and going longer and now my running is really from the heart. It’s running in honor of the people I love. Every time I run a race, I write the names of my parents. Every time I’m running in the middle of night and in a hard part, I imagine them telling me in my language, ‘keep going, keep doing your best,’” says Volker, who vulnerably shares her experience with the Native Women Running community, which has found collective healing and solace.

Native Women Running - Hood to Coast - Windy River Relay

Native Women Running at the Hood to Coast Windy River Relay in Oregon.

“What I’ve had to go through in life resonates with our women, who have lost, too. There’s laughter and healing together. This work has been medicine to me, and having these women cry and embrace me and tell me how much Native Women Running has done for them. This work isn’t just running — it’s more about the heart of people who are going through hard stuff, and it’s been such a great healing place for them as well,” says Volker.

While each person’s experience is unique, challenging and unsafe living conditions is not uncommon among the people of Navajo Nation, or the nearly 580 tribes recognized by the federal government, which stems from generations of genocide, broken treaties, and oppression of the U.S. government against Indigenous people.

Non-Indigenous supporters of Native Women Running can follow the group on Facebook and Instagram to learn more, join virtual runs, and wear a branded shirt as an ally. Folks can also get involved through partnerships and sponsorships that support the participants and community members in the running and trail running space. Indigenous women can apply to join and lead the race teams on a rolling basis, which are announced via the organization’s social channels.

Today, Volker prefers to do her early morning runs on a treadmill, sprinkled with inclines, for safety and security. She embraces the change, because the consistency of those workouts helps her build and maintain strength. Beyond her leadership through Native Women Running, she’s an ambassador for Native Women’s Wilderness and Red Earth Running Company, a running brand that aims to increase awareness of Indigenous runners. During the COVID-19 pandemic, she became active on TikTok, utilizing the platform to educate and advocate for Indigenous women.

“TikTok is different than Facebook and Instagram. I felt I could share more of my voice and some of the videos would probably not fly on Instagram. It’s been a different type of audience and with people who share the same passion with me with regard to our Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, native mascots, racism in the run industry, and the things we face as Indigenous people,” says Volker. In contrast, when she’s shared her experience on Instagram, she’s received passive aggressive messages and gaslighting from non-Indigenous community members and race directors.

Volker’s passion for running has continued to evolve and grow. After running her first ultramarathon in 2018, Minnesota’s Trail Mix 50k, she fell in love with trail running and longer mileage. Her longest ultra race was a 100 miler, at the 2023 Dark Anchor 34-Hour event in Savannah, Georgia, with a three-mile loop, and she reached 94 miles: “I’m proud I go that far. It was a redemption race, because I’d done the Javelina 100k and got to 32 miles, then I got heat exhaustion and severe asthma, so I stopped,” says Volker.

Verna Volker - 2023 Dark Anchor 34-Hour

Verna Volker at the 2023 Dark Anchor 34-Hour in Georgia.

“For the last couple of loops, I was slouched to my right, because I had a lack of potassium, and I was running slouching. My crew gave me some trekking poles — they should have given me crutches. You could see the horrified look of people. The cramps I had were in my fingers and were everywhere. There were a lot of crazy things my body went through that I’d never experienced,” says Volker.

Next, she ran the Antelope Canyon Half Marathon in Arizona. Later this year, she’s registered for the Eddy Trail Races 50k in Minnesota in August. Ultimately, running with her feet against the dirt is also a connection to the earth and her ancestry.

Volker says, “I love being outside and in nature, being able to go at your own pace, and I like the community, which is smaller and there’s more connection to who you are, especially when I run back home and with appreciation of the land where I came from and my peoples’ land. Running through the canyons thinking about my ancestors and where they were is really powerful.”

Call for Comments

  • Have you heard of Verna Volker and Native Women Running?
  • What other groups and individuals do you know of who are giving a voice to minorities in the sport?
Morgan Tilton

Morgan Tilton is the WeRunFar columnist of iRunFar and a Staff Writer for GearJunkie and AllGear Digital. Morgan has covered outdoor industry news, adventure travel, and human endurance for nearly a decade. Aside from iRunFar, Morgan has written for more than 70 publications, including recent contributions to Outside, Forbes, Trail Runner, Runner’s World, Bicycling, and NewsBreak. She’s a recipient of more than a dozen accolades for her travel writing from the North American Travel Journalists Association. Based in Crested Butte, Colorado, Morgan enjoys mountain running and exploring the high alpine in the summer when she’s not splitboarding or mountain biking.