Today is Columbus Day and Indigenous Peoples' Day. At Vacation Races we are constantly working towards creating a more inclusive, more thoughtful, and more compassionate community. We are far from perfect, but we hope each day we are a little better than the day before. We make large strides, followed by missteps, and ask for patience and understanding from others as we continue onward and upward. We assume that we are all doing the best we can with the life experiences we have.
We have been able to host events in some very special places. A few of these events have taken place on tribal lands. Our Antelope Canyon Ultra takes place largely within the Navajo Nation, while our Glacier Half Marathon is entirely within the Blackfeet Nation in East Glacier. We are fortunate to have permission to host events on these lands and enjoy a mutually beneficial and respectful relationship with the Tribal Governments. We are guests on these lands, and appreciate that privilege. Both the Navajo and Blackfeet Nations (among others), have been gracious hosts and indulged our efforts to make these events more than just a race, but also cultural experiences. With their guidance, we have been able to learn much more about their history, culture, and traditions and we have tried our best to extend those experiences at our events by hosting Native speakers, cultural performances, etc..
The majority of these lands are ancestral homelands of Tribes, Bands, and First Nations. More important than setting aside a day to honor and respect indigenous people is educating ourselves, amplifying the voices of indigenous peoples, and respecting the lands we love when visiting.
In 2021, we included a very brief history of the indigenous people that occupied these areas before they became National Parks. The synopsis is brief, and devoid of rich context, but hopefully it gives a deeper appreciation for the complex history of these locations and the people that inhabited them long before we came here. A complete synopsis for each park can be found here.
We recently held our Grand Circle Trailfest event: three days of running some of the best trails with the most scenic views you can find in southern Utah. On one of the days, we run on Navajo land. If you've run with us before, you know that we start each race by singing the national anthem and standing before the American flag. Many times, we also have runners carry the flag during the race as a symbol of unity, in honor of those who have fallen, and many other reasons.
But when we debriefed from the Trailfest event as a team, the question was asked, "Are the photos of the American flag flying on Navajo land insensitive to the Navajo?" It is a tough question, and a big part of becoming a more inclusive and compassionate community is having difficult conversations.
We can't speak for every single one of our Navajo brothers and sisters. Many display the flag proudly, but this was an important question that prompted us to look closer.
By the early 1860s, Americans began settling nearby and even in Navajo lands, leading to conflict between Navajo people on one side and settlers and the U.S. Army on the other. In response to the fighting, the Army created a plan to move all Navajos from their homeland.
The forced removal of the Navajo, which began in January 1864 and lasted two months, came to be known as the "Long Walk." The Navajo did not want to go, they did not want to leave their homes. In order to force them into submission, the Army began a scorched-earth campaign burning their villages, poisoning water sources, stealing their flocks and destroying their crops, especially their treasured peach orchards with the intent to starve the Navajo into submission. With winter coming and few options for survival, several thousand Navajo surrendered and began a forced march of over 200-400 miles to the Bosque Redondo Reservation. Several hundred died during the march. Navajo oral history tells the stories of those who lived through the terror of the Long Walk. Once on the reservation, things did not improve. For many, this may seem like distant history, but for a culture where oral history is so important this event gives the Navajos a sense of identity as a people.
Is there any malice in the actions of runners who choose to carry the flag? Absolutely not. Is this an attempt to vilify the flag? No. No. Could some indigenous people see a photo like this and be hurt or upset by it? Undoubtedly. And by taking the time to learn a little bit of history and with a little understanding, we can understand why. Taking the time to understand those with different life experiences than us is the only way we move forward.
As mentioned, many veterans and active military run our races carrying an American flag. They carry it for any number of reasons: in honor of the fallen; in respect for those who have fought to protect our country and its citizens; for the opportunities, liberties and freedoms - this ideal the flag represents. But that doesn’t erase the hurt and damage that has been inflicted under that same flag to others in our communities. We can be unified by these actions, even feel a sense of pride, while also being aware and sensitive to the implications for others. We can have these hard conversations.
“I know that some have been through more than others. But if we don’t expect more from each other, hope better for one another, and recover from the hurt we experience, we are surely doomed.” - Bryan Stevenson, Just Mercy