In the desert landscape of Hopi land, runners draw attention to water, reverence, and life.
As the sun creeps over the arid desert during the early morning hours, runners listen in silence as a cadent Hopi prayer is recited by an elder over the intercom, initiating their 31-mile journey. His voice is soft, giving no thought to how he may sound through a microphone; his prayers and intents do not need amplification. A few modest tents containing registration information and snacks circle the small group of pulsing runners as they wait for the clock to start. The neon pinks and yellows of their high-tech running gear stands out in contrast to the tans and browns of the mesa.
"I run in reverence for all living things. In our prayers, may we always remember that water is life.”
At the start line, Bucky Preston recites the motto for the Paatuwaqatsi Run, a footrace held on the Hopi reservation in northeastern Arizona every September. There are three courses: a 4-mile, 10-mile and 50K, which all follow ancient and technical trails. The quote—printed on the participant t-shirts and held in the hearts of the run organizers—is an intention that carries the weight of a running history and human responsibility that goes back for generations.
While there is a clock present, time doesn’t matter on these trails, which have been used by the Hopi people for generations to connect communities and hold spiritual value.
According to Bucky Preston, who founded the event in 2003, the run’s end goal is more than just completion.
“It is not a race, it is a spiritual run,” said Preston.
Raised in the small town of Walpi on the Hopi reservation, he believes that running these trails maintains the values and tradition of his heritage.
“The run was created to stimulate thought, prayer, and meditation,” said Kim Secakuku, who has been the race director for the past eight years. “It is a different kind of run than competition. It is instilling how running is a way of prayer and sense of spirituality—it is good for the soul.”
Preseton’s message is clear: he is excavating the deeper meaning behind running, what it really means culturally, to Hopi.
“I want to see that effort return to our community,” Preston writes on the event’s website. “Putting Hopi life values and teachings at the forefront is the purpose of the run.” The run begins and ends with a prayer; it is a sacred experience for many involved.
He created the event, also known as “The Water is Life Run,” with intent to reclaim recognition for the running tradition of his people and for the water that is so scarce and cherished in the Arizona desert.
Running for water has been a central part of Preston’s life for years. Running hundreds of miles from his home to various destinations, he has drawn local attention to the issues facing native peoples and this essential resource. “There’s a lot happening today with water everywhere. I’ve been doing these runs all the time,” he said. “ I’ve run to Flagstaff and Zuni and Acoma and all my campaigns are about water.”
Around 72 miles north of Preston’s birthplace is the Kayenta Mine — a sprawling excavation site, where the Peabody Western Coal Company has mined for coal since 1973. The mine occupies nearly 45,000 acres.
Coal mining uses an exorbitant amount of water for controlling dust and creating coal slurry. The Kayenta Mine pumps millions of tons of water out of the Navajo Aquifer every year — the primary source of fresh water for communities on both Navajo and Hopi land. The depletion of water in the area has led to sacred springs, the sources of ceremonial water, being vastly reduced or disappearing altogether.
According to the Peabody Energy website, “Peabody’s Arizona operations have injected an estimated $3 billion in economic benefits for tribal communities. For example, native people comprise more than 90 percent of Kayenta Mine’s 430-person workforce.”
Still, the unemployment rate on reservations remains above the national average while ceremonial waters are running dry. Preston believes the costs of coal mining greatly outweigh the benefits.
“We have to have humility and prayer and sacredness — and water is sacred,” Preston said. “The way we do things in ceremonies all has to do with water and that’s why we have to protect it.”
Preston, along with many other activists in Arizona, including the Black Mesa Trust and the Black Mesa Water Coalition, have spoken out against Peabody Energy and their activities on Hopi and Navajo land for decades.
The coal mining industry is just one of the many water issues that have plagued the reservations in the recent century. Arsenic—in concentrations twice the limit recommended by the EPA—is present in the Hopi drinking water. After the introduction of livestock and coal mining at the turn of the 20th century, wells were drilled by the US government and stakeholders on Hopi land, which later led to the introduction of running water to their villages.
In many areas in the west, arsenic is present in ground water. In the past, Hopi people had relied on springs for clean, potable water. When running water was introduced in the 1980s from these wells, tribe members noticed an odd taste to it; but with the springs depletion and increasing population, there was little choice but to drink it.
Today, nearly 75% of Hopi people are drinking the tainted well water, with little resources or funding to implement solutions. Many drive for hours to purchase bottled water from outside the reservation to supply their homes—an unsustainable band-aid for the health of the tribe. Cancer rates on the reservation are significantly higher than other communities in Arizona.
There are constant efforts to rebuild infrastructure and purify the water, such as the recent authorization to build a pipeline running from First and Second Mesa (the areas with the highest levels of contamination) to cleaner wells in the northern part of the reservation. Yet, there are insufficient resources and funding to complete these projects, which may take years.
“This run provides the outside world a way to see how these issues affect Hopi,” says Sekakuku.
Dozens of people, from all corners of the nation, travel to participate. “It creates awareness that most people don’t think of,” she said.
In such a dry place, the sand is merciless. 50K participants run across the starting line and immediately into a series of sand traps. Vegetation and root systems, which typically keep soil in place, are absent along the trails, resulting in long sections of loose and unforgiving terrain. Each step up sinks in just deep enough to make one feel as though they are running in place. At the top of the first hill, only a half mile in, many can be seen sitting on the ground dumping a waterfall of sand out of their shoes. Some battle the grains throughout the entire endeavor, stopping to empty their Hokas and Asics with such frequency that they would be better off without them—not seemingly far from the truth as those sporting sandals or less trot past their cushioned companions.
Between periodically hurdling themselves over sandy hills and across dry creek beds, runners are relieved to pummel their dusty feet on rocky mesa trails—until that too, becomes unbearable and sand a blessing. All the while, the unrelenting sun beats down upon Hopi land.
“Even just being out there and running around in the desert heat, you get a sense of extreme scarcity, specifically water,” says runner Edward Kemper, 33, of Flagstaff, Arizona. “It's dry, to put it simply.”
The course is laden with enough challenges to break down any runner. However, this event stands out in its ability to braid the struggle with Preston’s campaign for the sanctity of culture and water.
“It’s a deeply personal and spiritual event,” said Andy Bessler, a former member of the Sierra Club who now manages the race’s bank account. “You really get the picture that there is a survival component of this issue — that water is critical. You have people just saying thank you … It’s transformative for some people. I have seen people break down and cry.”
Wyatt Brown, 43, of Flagstaff Arizona, was one of those people when he ran in 2010. “By the time I finished the race, I was physically depleted,” he says. “I was crying and bleeding, and at the same time my mind was full of all of this crazy information that all the locals had given me out there. You weren't just running a race, you were running for their life.”
Sand and dust slip into every crease and crevice and coat every surface. By mile 20, neon blue compression socks are brown. Hot pink shorts are tan. Beet red faces are grainy with salt and earth. The runners begin to blend in with the desert hues, melting into the topography.
They look less like foreigners, more like the land.
“Askwali! Askwali!” a group of women shout near an aid station. “Thank you!”
The Paatuwaqatsi Run emits the spirit of Hopi history. It is a platform for shared experiences between non Native Americans and those who call the reservation home.
Many participants, like Tiana Tallant, 28, of Flagstaff, Arizona, find themselves running back year after year because of the opportunity to connect across cultures.
“What is meaningful to me is the simplicity of the event, the fullness of which people are present,” says Tiana. “It's about connecting, looking at something greater than yourself. Everyone is going out there in the spirit of doing the same thing—everyone is trying as hard as they can.”
Bessler, who has been present through the evolution of the run over the years, recognizes the importance of taking these lessens home. “I think every year revives me,” he says “Everyone should strive to be Hopi . That means living in peace, living in a good way. I really try to strive to be Hopi as best as I can. This run reminds me of that.”
The Hopi run hard, and the race is an ode to a long history of their running culture—characterized by excellent race performance, but grounded in spirit. “Run as hard as you can, pray as hard as you can, that's part of it. But it's a prayer. It's a running prayer,” says Bessler.
More than a century ago, Lewis Tewanima, a Hopi who spent most of his life living on the reservation, became a two time olympian and hero for the tribe. There is an annual run held on Second Mesa in honor of his achievements. The tribe’s success has continued into recent years; the Hopi High School boys cross country team held an impressive 27-year streak as Arizona state champions, which was only broken this past year.
The Hopi people are long distance runners: a tradition woven into oral stories and practical needs alike. Before the introduction of modern transportation and livestock, the tribe relied on running for their survival.
“Part of our cultural background is being runners,” says Secakuku. “That is the way Hopi people communicated among the villages—but it also it played a role in our culture and religious acts. Making offerings to those shrines and springs continue the prayers, so that life can continue to exist, for all humankind. So that the world will continue to grow in a good way.”
For centuries, neighboring villages across Hopi land have also challenged each other in races along the trails featured in the Paatuwaqatsi Run—those that Preston has rebuilt and is bringing back to life. In this ancient prayer practice, “winners” were not rewarded with medals, but with the prospect and hope of water and well being for the people. These races have carried out an emphasis that running strengthens the heart, mind and body of the individual, but also of the whole community by bringing water and abundance.
As Hopi values have dwindled with the introduction of modern transportation and technology, so have the trails through lack of use.
"These trails are like the blood vessels of our body,” Preston tells runners at the starting line. “Spread out, but all connected. When you put the footprints on the land, that's calling the rain, and it's calling the Kachina and the Cloud People."
Preston emphasizes the ancient wisdom of his ancestors: human thoughts and actions influence the coming of rain. When people are spiritually imbalanced, the relationship with the clouds are compromised—the rain will not come, and the springs run dry. According to this wisdom, water is the blood that sustains all life, and trails are the village veins. Running them brings rain, because each footstep is a prayer to the Earth that keeps the trails alive and flowing, like water.
“Our knowledge, laws and ways of life teach us to be responsible at all times in caring for this sacred gift [water] that connects all life,” reads The Indigenous Declaration on Water, written collectively by indigenous peoples from all over North America at the International Conference on Water for People and Nature in 2001. “In ceremony and as time comes, the Water sings. Her songs begin in the tiniest of streams, transforms to flowing rivers, travels to majestic oceans, and thundering clouds, and back to the earth, to begin again. When Water is threatened, all living things are threatened.”
The indigenous sentiment that water is life—that water is alive—births practices, ancient and modern, that revere and protect the waters. The Dakota Access Pipeline protests, the Water is Life run, and the formation of political campaigns dedicated to the protection of this animate resource are modern manifestations of an ancient principal.
Running the veins of the land, offering gifts to the springs, protesting the contamination of rivers, or praying with our footsteps like drums on the earth—is is all about water.
In the final miles, the desert paints skin and gear with the arid camouflage of soil and challenge and the lines between cultures blur.
A Hopi woman stands at the finish line, holding a clay pot filled with water. Someone is speaking over the intercom.
“One day we will all leave this earth, but our footprints will stay.”
As runners step across the finish line, she pours the water over each salt-stained face. For each runner, the water revives, replenishes and renews. The physical rejuvenation emphasizes the central reason for why we run: water is life.