Willson Atene did not run hundreds of miles across Utah this week for himself.
“I ran for my family. I ran for my brothers and sisters. I ran for the Earth. I ran for Bears Ears. I ran for the sky,” said Atene, of Monument Valley. ”I ran for all these living beings here.”
Along the way, he and and his fellow runners left their footprints, providing new thoughts and ideas for future generations to follow.
Atene was one of about 10 Native American runners who crossed roughly 360 miles from Bears Ears National Monument in southern Utah to Salt Lake City as part of the “Running as Medicine, Indigenous Youth Prayer Run,” organized by the Native-led nonprofit Salt Lake City Air Protectors and the Urban Indian Center of Salt Lake.
Their goal “is to bring healing and prayers for our communities that have been affected by COVID-19,” said Jacob Crane, executive director of SLC Air Protectors.
As of Saturday, American Indians and Alaska Natives experienced the highest hospitalization (135.9 per 1,000 cases) and mortality (60.2 per 100,000 people) rates for COVID-19 in the state, according to data from the Utah Department of Health.
Organizers of the run said they also hoped to bring awareness to environmental issues and Native American issues, including the epidemic of missing and murdered Indigenous women, girls and two-spirit people, or MMIWG2S.
Runners began Tuesday at Bears Ears National Monument, which is a “sacred place for several tribes,” Crane said. They arrived Saturday afternoon at Warm Springs Park in northern Salt Lake City, an area that was “a sacred place to the Utes,” according to Crane.
“They would come here for ceremony and for blessings and for gatherings,” he said.
Linda Jim, one of the organizers who lives in Bluff, said she was energized by the spirit, focus and determination of the runners.
“It doesn’t matter what’s going on around you,” she said. “As long as you have a plan, you have a goal in mind, and you are compassionate and you are humble, you can always find good things in life.”
During the coronavirus pandemic, “it’s hard for us to connect to our families and our communities,” said Jordan Daniel, who lives in Los Angeles. This run, she said, “was just the perfect reason for us to come together.”
For Daniel, “a prayer run is surrendering yourself for something more than what you’re doing, your own aspirations. You’re giving up that time and space that’s usually meant for you, the individual, and you’re giving that space, or creating it, for your loved ones, for your relatives, for your communities, and staying in prayer and praying for them.”
For people, specifically Indigenous people, to see them running, “it sends that message that we are still here,” Daniel said. “That we are resilient, we are strong, we are beautiful. Despite some of the hardships and adversities that we go through in our communities and in our families and in our circles, that we still are always moving forward and fighting for a better future for our next generations.”