Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Race Report: Hopi 10k

Current day Oraibi--note the combination of original stone and modern cinder block 

"Askwali! Askwali!"

The woman at the water station ahead was shouting to all of the runners as they passed. We were in a lonely stretch of desert about three miles west of Oraibi, a small village near the western edge of the lightly populated Hopi reservation, which is surrounded by the U.S.'s largest Indian reservation (the Navajo Nation), which itself is located in the most remote corner of Arizona. To put it another way, we were in one of the most isolated places in the country without a significant polar bear population.

Another runner passed the woman.


I don't know many Hopi words but that one I recognized.

"Emily, do you know what that woman is saying?"

"No, what?"

"She's saying thank you."

The woman was spending a hot Saturday morning handing water to runners along a remote dirt road in the middle of the desert, and she was thanking every one of them as they passed. Man, I thought, suddenly able to put my finger on what was so special about this race, these people are utterly unique.

When I reached the woman she handed me a cup of water and then tossed the contents of another cup on my back which had been baking in the bright sun. It felt great. I started to thank her but she beat me to it.


Third Mesa seen from the east. Oraibi is just left of center; the ruins of the church are farther left. 

The two hour drive from Holbrook to the Hopi reservation is the type of drive that makes you second-guess your vehicle maintenance. When we left I-40 a few miles east of Winslow, we were already in country straight out of an old Roadrunner cartoon or Pixar's Cars (Radiator Springs was based on Holbrook and other Route 66 towns).
From there, we drove north through fifty miles of the Navajo Nation until we reached the Hopi reservation. All of the Hopi towns are on or around three spider-shaped mesas, logically named--from east to west--First, Second, and Third Mesa. We took the fork toward Third Mesa to pick up our packets.
Oraibi in 1899
The Hopi are relatively unique among Native American tribes in that they were never displaced from their traditional lands. Whereas the Cherokee Nation is currently located on a reservation a thousand miles from the Cherokee's original territory, the Hopi people are still living in the same villages and farming the same land that their ancestors were half a millennium before Columbus. Oraibi (also called Oraivi or Old Oraibi) is the oldest of all the Hopi villages, dating back at least to the 11th-century.
Another vintage photo of Oraibi, this one from 1896
Oraibi is also where the packet pickup was. As we pulled in (after missing the turn entirely the first time), we could see that the village has changed a lot in the last hundred years. Remains of the original multistory stone "condos" are still there, and still inhabited, but the current residents have built with modern cinder block and plywood giving the village a patchwork appearance. At first I was a bit disappointed since present day Oraibi doesn't have the same pristine beauty you see in the old photographs, but the more I thought about it the more I felt embarrassed by my reaction. The reason modern Oraibi doesn't look like 19th-century Oraibi, or Montezuma Castle, or Wupatki, is that it's not a ruin--it's a living village of 21st-century people. The real surprise shouldn't have been that they use modern materials but that they're still building homes in the traditional style at all. You don't see modern Sioux living in tepees, but walking through Oraibi I saw multi-story pueblo-style homes complete with wooden ladders.

(You may notice that I don't have any pictures of my own from inside the village. This isn't by accident. As a general policy the Hopi discourage photography in their villages in order to protect the privacy of the residents. Considering the average temperament of the people I've met it's hard to imagine actually being called out on it, but given the incredible graciousness with which we were welcomed the last thing we wanted to be was rude so we left the camera in the car.)

We picked up our packets and then drove back to the Cultural Center on Second Mesa to pitch our tent. After that was done, we decided to have dinner at the Center's restaurant. The food was a combination of typical American (burgers, etc.) and the Mexican-Indian fusion that many Arizonans would recognize ("Indian tacos" and tostadas--tacos and tostadas on frybread). One thing I'd never had before was blue frybread (most Indian frybread is made with normal flour); presumably they make it with blue corn flour in addition to wheat flour.
After dinner we went to our tent and settled in for the night. As I was starting to drift off, though, I noticed a sound in the distance. It was deep and rhythmic. Is that... drums? It seemed unlikely. Am I having a racist dream? I asked Emily and she was hearing it too. I wriggled out of my sleeping bag for a look. Sure enough, next to the Cultural Center there was a woman playing a drum while someone taught a dance to a group of children. The drum had a deep sound that sounded like it was coming from miles away.

It seemed like the middle of the night when the alarm on my phone went off. We packed up our campsite in the dark and got in the car. It was only when I started the car that Emily noticed that our car's clock was an hour earlier than what we thought the time was. Not again... My phone was apparently getting its signal from a tower on the Navajo reservation (which observes daylight savings time) instead of one on the Hopi reservation (which, like the rest of Arizona, doesn't). Oh well, at least we weren't going to be late.

Late we weren't. We got to Oraibi in time to see the sun rise over Second Mesa (a gorgeous sight). We had plenty of time to wander around, take in the scenery and meet people while the fun run and 5k started. The people we met were fantastic--quietly friendly and welcoming, with a wonderful perspective on running. Emily struck up a conversation with a middle-aged woman who talked about how the Hopi run for strength and prosperity rather than for finishing times. This certainly seemed consistent with what we were seeing. Instead of the atmosphere of your typical 5k/10k--a small bunch of semi-competitive men (always men, it seems) in singlets and expensive shoes jostling for a place at the starting line, a crowd of women in tutus (usually, but not always women) acting like they're at a party and on their third martini, local residents irritated at not being able to drive their normal route home--the atmosphere of this race was quiet and noncompetitive.
Pictured: someplace at least 200 miles from Oraibi. 
This was especially surprising given that the average pace of the runners was by far the highest of any race I've been to. Everyone was fast, everyone was running hard, and yet no one looked like he was "racing." The villagers were uniformly supportive of everyone, native or visitor. The overall feeling of the event wasn't that of a few people racing but of a community coming together to do something of value. It was an amazing thing to be a part of.

When the call came for the 10k we shuffled over to the back of the group. It was obvious that was where we were going to end up anyway. The largest percentage of the runners were Hopi and Navajo teenagers. All were very fast, at least one was wearing a Foot Locker regionals shirt, and many were wearing ratty old sneakers. There were a smattering of white runners as well but we were definitely a minority.
The course took us straight through the village, past a "no visitors beyond this point" sign and the ruins of a 17th-century church, and down the side of the mesa on a well-worn path. I wondered how many Hopi runners had run down that path in the thousand years that they have been living there. Like all tribes without horses, the Hopi relied on running as a means of transportation, communication, and hunting. In addition, the Hopi ran as part of many religious ceremonies. More than most American tribes, the Hopi are a running people, and these were their ancestral paths.
I wondered how many white runners had run where I was running. There were of course a few from the seven years the race had been held, but not that many (looking through the race results, in 2007, the second year the race was held, there were only six runners from outside the reservation). How many from before 2006? Any? The Spaniards first came to this town in 1540 while searching for the Seven Cities of Gold but didn't stay. In 1629 Franciscan missionaries came and built a few churches but they were all destroyed in the pueblo revolt of 1680.
The race took us past this church, which was burned down in the 1680 pueblo revolt
Eventually America acquired the territory but the government had no contact with the Hopi before 1850 and, aside from building a few schools starting in 1887 and settling border disputes with the Navajo Nation, surprisingly little since then. No settlers came to the Hopi lands, and very few visitors.

And probably no runners. The fact that we were allowed to come and run with them, here, was amazing to me. I felt honored, and very out of place.

And then people started thanking me.

It wasn't just that one woman. We were thanked by at least a dozen people. All the aid station volunteers were thanking everyone, including Emily and me, for running. We were both taken aback by it. From what I can gather, in the Hopi tradition running brings blessings to a village and by running we were bringing blessings as well, and so we were met with sincere gratitude. It was an amazing experience.
Once we were off the mesa the course took us straight out toward... nothing, really, aside from the Grand Canyon 80 miles away, where their tradition says the Hopi came from, or the San Francisco Peaks a similar distance to the southwest, where the Kachinas are said to live. After three miles we turned around and went back up the mesa. We were running strong but the course was sandy and it was slow going, and the mesa wall was a brutal last hurdle.

The post-race refreshments were an eclectic mix of Gatorade, melon, and piki bread, the traditional Hopi bread made from blue cornmeal and ash, baked paper thin and rolled up.
After the award ceremony (everyone stayed for the award ceremony, another thing you don't often see at a 10k), we drove back to Show Low. We arrived home less than 24 hours after our trip started but it felt like we had been to another country and back.

I can't wait to go back for Paatuwaqatsi.


Order my children's book about barefoot running: What Should I Put on My Feet to Go Run?


  1. This is a great blog John. Really enjoy your photos and I learned something new about the Hopi people... hadn't realized their running roots. Most certainly they have dominated northern Arizona races I've been to though. They are indeed fast in a very calm and natural way. All the best to you & Emily on your racing and barefoot adventures.

  2. Very interesting write-up, Patrick. Thanks. Would have loved to have been there! Your second to the last sentence should probably say, "We arrived less than 24 BEFORE leaving" or "We LEFT less than 24 hours after ARRIVING," but we get the point! :)

    1. Thanks, though my name is John. Are you confusing me with Patrick Sweeney? If so, I have to say I'm a bit flattered. =) That sentence is a bit confusing; I'll have to tweak it.

  3. I started running when I was five or so....and when I became a Dad I started my sons on running daily at sunrise......for centuries Natives have done this....not just Hopis and Navajos....

    Running at the mesas is a humbling sons always medal in their age group....if you can run with Hopis you can run with anybody.....great article!

    1. Thanks!

      "Running at the mesas is a humbling experience"


  4. Your thoughts are beautiful, respectful and heartfelt- I appreciate your consideration while visiting - I am Hopi and have been am the "water girl" in my village during the Paatuwakatsi run and see many who disregard the meaning of the race- who take advantage and take pictures when told not to, exploiting images of our villages with no consideration of respect of who we are as a people. Running in these races again are community based and also a time for individuals to be one with higher power-giving thanks, sending prayers and emanating strength for all. Asquali, run hard, run strong, run with a good heart and continue to pray for all of us.