The Weight of Eagle Feathers and Sage

I grew up with Navajo traditions and ceremonial practices as central piece of my experiences in the outdoors. The area around Sashjaa’ the Bears Ears is a place where we would gather medicine and perform ceremonies. When I grew older I would adventure through the piñon pine forests around Sashjaa’ and down into Tséyík’áán Comb Ridge backpacking, running, or on a mountain bike. This area grounded me both to my cultural identity and a sense of place. I was approached by a friend, Greg Balkin, in the fall of 2017 about my interest in participating in a relay run across Bears Ears & Grand Staircase to bring attention to the areas that would lose national monument protection. The chance to spend time in these area was an easy sell. My role in organizing the run was to bring native runners and infuse the story with the cultural significance of running and the land that we were on. Navajo ceremonial runs are accompanied by a baton of sage and an eagle feather plume that is carried and passed between each runner. The eagle is an animal that symbolically represents the connection between people and the Diyin Dine (the Holy People).  The sage is a cleansing and purifying herb.

There is a larger significance of being able to hold these eagle feathers and running across this land in a form of ceremony. What we did 40 years ago could easily be construed as a felony. Whereas in the United States the first amendment of the U.S. constitution guaranteed freedom of religion, this guarantee did not apply to indigenous religions. Until 1978, it was illegal to perform ceremonies and other religious acts by many indigenous people in the United States on public lands. This law existed among many other laws that impeded indigenous religious practices. The passage of the Indian Religious Freedoms Act in 1978 ensured that these religious practices, including those that occur on federal lands, are protected more equally.

This relic of racist policies was imbued into the creation of public lands in the United States – namely that they were predicated on the removal and displacement of indigenous people from the boundaries. However, policies that prevented ceremony and other traditional practices ensured that indigenous people remained removed into the 20th century.

The opportunity to run the width of these monuments over the course of a weekend meant that I had a captive audience (with a fairly significant social media following) to share this history with. These truths and histories not a part of the education that is provided to many in the United States and it’s often one that many folks are uncomfortable talking about outside this particular context.

Until this run a majority of my experience as an indigenous person in sharing these stories and histories has fallen primarily into a category of indifference or being tokenized, with a few rare exceptions. Entering this run I was prepared for an experience at either end of this spectrum. However, I was quite presently surprised to see how seamlessly and effortlessly these stories came as we flowed through the canyons and mountains. The nature of the stories that I told expanded beyond this difficult history to include stories about running in our creation story – like how the Hero Twins trained by running against the holy people and how running messengers crossed these lands before the introduction of horses by the Spanish. In sharing these stories, along the drive I was also gifted with the stories that Katie provided about her connection to this place and how she ties this with her identity. For those couple of days it was amazing to share this connection to place with others.    

This run was symbolic of the larger political context in history. In this particular land grab, it’s not just native people getting things stolen again, it’s the outdoor community and the broader public as well. The fight for public lands has coalesced and aligned native and non-native communities to protect these places that we all care about. The current battle over public lands are not just simply a fight for these beautiful places, but also for the human rights of indigenous people that continue to be violated in this context and other. If we do not work collectively to protect these places, we greatly diminish our ability to protect these places.