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Spirit Run: A 6,000-Mile Marathon Through North America’s Stolen Land

Air Date: Week of

Peace and Dignity Journey runners gather to bless the ceremonial staff before they set out on their daily run. (Photo: Courtesy of Jose Maldivo)

Every four years a 6,000-mile marathon run called Peace and Dignity Journeys unites Indigenous runners from all over North and South America, seeking to heal the wounds left from colonization and displacement. In his memoir Spirit Run: A 6,000-Mile Marathon Through North America's Stolen Land, Noe Alvarez shares how the communal run helped him reclaim a relationship with the land and reconnect with his parents' migration and life of labor in the agricultural fields of the Northwest, and he spoke with Living on Earth’s Bobby Bascomb about the journey.


CURWOOD: It’s Living on Earth, I’m Steve Curwood.

Every four years a marathon run called Peace and Dignity Journeys unites Indigenous runners from all over North and South America. Runners begin from opposite ends of the Americas: Chickaloon Alaska and Tierra del Fuego Argentina. The ending point can vary year to year but each leg meets somewhere in the middle. Noe Alvarez joined the run in 2004 as a way of reconnecting with the land and honoring his parents' lifelong struggles working as immigrant fruit packers in the agricultural community of Yakima, Washington. In his memoir 'Spirit Run' Noe shares how the pilgrimage helped him heal his relationship with nature and reconnect with his indigenous heritage. He spoke with Living on Earth’s Bobby Bascomb.

BASCOMB: Give us a little bit of your own personal background, if you will, and how that influenced your decision to run.

ÁLVAREZ: Yeah, so my background, I'm still trying to figure out and I, you know, my parents are from Mexico, they immigrated to the United States to be laborers in the state of Washington. So they worked in the apple orchards in the fruit packing warehouses while I grew up. And, you know, that was my reality. My reality was very much working on the land and, and being, you know, told by my dad, my father, that you know, the land was a bad thing you needed to get out of it, because what it did to my people, and what it meant to work on the land. So for me, my reality was getting out and I didn't know what that look like and trying to be better than my dad, right? Because he wanted me to be different from him. And, you know, I was born and raised in Yakima, Washington and very small town and immigration had an impact on my life, you know, and so for many years, we were running sort of away from things away from fear. Running was a bad thing and so when I came across this run, it was an opportunity for me to reconnect in ways that I wasn't able to, spiritually, to be amongst other people who are talking beautifully about their emotions, about their flaws, but the things that needed to be worked through and I didn't have that going on. We just communicated through our hands and our hard work so Peace and Dignity Journeys was a sort of a second chance for me to reconnect with the child that I couldn't be when I was younger.

BASCOMB: Now you had a difficult time growing up, and then you actually ended up getting a free ride to college to Whitman college, but you had a hard time there and then ended up dropping out in order to participate in the PDJ. Can you tell me about that decision please?

ÁLVAREZ: Yeah, so I got accepted to Whitman College in Walla Walla, and that was a great moment in my life, right? My whole life is always just get into college, get into college. It was never what do you do once you get in because I don't think I ever believed that I would get into college here. Here I was finally able to save my family that was the narrative. You know going to college meant saving your family, making the money, making that whatever and then I finally got there and it was the war to college and it was just so much catching up to do and it was a culture shock, every step of the way. It was very difficult to sort of find my footing find my ground and so when I finally got there, I sort of had a meltdown, you know, especially since I felt like I was leaving my people, like literally I was, I was gone. I was, you know, I couldn't sit with the fact that I had made it here I was in college, while my parents and my people were still laboring away, stuck back home and no real out for them and so I had a lot to contend with. And peace and dignity sort of gave me the alternative language for me to learn the way my people learn, which is through migration, through the land movement about the land and I wanted to honor my parents migration, you know, I was I sort of wanted to reengage in that experience that they had and sort of retransform what it meant to migrate.

BASCOMB: I'd love for you to read a passage from your book. If you don't mind it starts on page 71, the third paragraph down.

ÁLVAREZ: I punch my arms into the air and beat my chest like I did along the Nachis River, reviving this human flesh into action. The wing cracks branches around me like a whip, whipping me into shape. In this isolation, I take the opportunity to shout it down, to scream at the ugly things inside of me as loudly as possible. I yield to make my speech physical to give my words muscle and to build the strength necessary to speak to things I never could. I run to follow as closely as I can the path of those who came before me, migrants who knew suffering and deprivation. I run to find fragments of my own parents sprinkled over the earth, artifacts their stories of hope and desperation. In facing these things I tried to find the bringing in to the suffering that has haunted me in childhood. I want to learn how to embrace my past, where I come from, and to love myself again. Finally, I feel in this forest on a path toward become free.

BASCOMB: Can you describe a typical day on the run for us please?

ÁLVAREZ: Every day was different, the typical routine was we would open up with ceremony and close with ceremony. So we would wake up before sunrise and you know, close, ideally when the sun was setting and we would have sort of a ceremony around the staffs that we carried. We carried ceremonial staffs that represented specific prayers, specific land, specific territories that people had donated to the run, to keep in mind when we ran and so there was a staff that would be dedicated to, to rain and to certain people who suffered from drought or a certain feather that an elder had donated for their youth who are struggling with drug addiction and a specific mom who wanted us to pray for a child who was in prison. And so these were the sort of staffs that we carry with us and every morning, who pick up a different staff, whichever one we wanted to pick up during the day. And when we carried those staffs it was sort of a kind of a visual reminder of the burden that we carry right? And of the power that we carry and you know that we're not alone. And so you know, we would sleep with the community territories in the region, we’d have ceremony and food with them and, and just engaging in talking with them and listening to what they had to say to us and what they wanted us to carry forward. So it was about just literally, you know, being messengers for the next community and telling them hey, the next community before you know, wants you to know that they're with you, and that they believe in you and so we were just trying to, you know, build that fire. So we, you know, we scrambled for food, you know, we were welcomed by numerous communities. They gave us what they could camped out a lot. And so we're very thankful what they could offer and we carried what we could every day.

Peace and Dignity Journeys has taken place every four years since 1992. It is an arduous journey during which runners average about 70 miles a day. (Photo: Courtesy of Hector Cerda)

BASCOMB: You know the way you describe it the runners going through all of these different communities it sort of reminds me of your like a needle and thread sort of stitching together a quilt made of two pieces and trying to hold it together. How do you see it?

ÁLVAREZ: Yeah, no, that's exactly it and part of the thing that I want to communicate in this book is that that's the beauty of this run that there was so much difficulty and so many obstacles still and we came at it from very different lifestyles a lot of us. A lot of us had our own traumas, our own histories, our own, you know, stitch work but the thing that we agreed on was that we came to put in the work around running specifically. So wherever you were coming from, that was a common ground. And that's what I try to write you know that there's a lot of pain and I don't want to shy away from that but I think I wanted to find some beauty and some strength. And then I wanted to put out an amplify a voice for people who are going through the same things, who might find power in these narratives, where not everything is resolved but that doesn't mean that the world is over right? It means that we're all human. There's a lot of beauty in the messiness of human nature, right? And so I just wanted to put it out there, especially as a male Latino where I personally didn't have very much model around articulating weakness articulating what it meant to be man, what it meant to be vulnerable, and what it meant to just, you know, love yourself. And that's sort of what I'm still trying to do.

BASCOMB: Well, let's talk a little bit about the physical act of running. It sounds really grueling at times, there are long days, a lot of miles and just a little food and you had some injuries along the way and some of the other runners are kind of difficult to get along with. What kept you going through all that and and how difficult was it?

ÁLVAREZ: It was extremely difficult. You know, you had to remind yourself why you were doing right? And it had to be some powerful It had to be something stronger than just calories stronger than just the competitive spirit. You know, it's not a competitive run. And I think what kept me going were the stories, right? Every day you were running through a different community. And every day you were meeting people who had something very special to say, you know, and it was that, that was what you want it to run. You were literally running to the next story. And so, you know, everyday you were running for a different reason. You know, one day I'd be running from my dad, my mom Sometimes the smell of a certain region helped me recall memories that I didn't want to confront when I was younger, there was a lot of healing for me on the run. But if you were doing it just for a competitive nature for sort of calorie burning or whatever, you wouldn't last. You had to tell yourself because it was, you know, it defies all logic, right? Like, why are you doing this? Why are you inflicting so much pain? And so you had to tell yourself you know, I was doing it for my family, I was doing it for me, I was doing it for these communities and you know, there's people who are counting on you to finish. There’s people counting on you to spread that message and, you know, you can't take that responsibility lightly. When someone shares something special and profound, and personal, so deeply personal about their, their history and their family you just can't displace it, you just can't dishonor it, you have to sort of put in really like the commitment to you know, running to the next community.

BASCOMB: So there's obviously a lot of personal healing in this but I understand another goal of the run is to bring healing to the land, and you pass through many, many sacred Native American sites including, you know, remote mountains in the middle of nowhere and downtown Los Angeles. Can you tell us about that and the different feelings that those places about out for you?

ÁLVAREZ: Yeah, it was. It was an amazing, an amazing experience. And it was it was really interesting how, you know, we we weren't running with technology at the time, we were literally going through with maps and navigating the areas. We were relying on indigenous elders to take us through ancient routes through trails that hadn’t been gone through for a while, and oftentimes the names of the communities where referred to as their indigenous name the names of their origin. So for the longest time, I didn't know where it was right, because they weren't referred to the the names of the big cities, right, because those were cities that conquered those those names that sort of oppressed them and so they were asserting their individuality and the reality and augmented by preserving the name of their land. So only until we reached the cities like Los Angeles or Portland or Vancouver BC that I was able to orient myself, oh, this is where I am. But it was sort of this magical middle ground because I was completely, you know, immersed in the land with the people who have such respect for the land and celebrated of the land and sang to the land and danced to it. And so, I felt like I was in a different world and that was the world that I wanted to be in. So connected, profoundly connected with the land and, and having a conversation with it, as opposed to how I grew up with the land, which was working it, you know, today, you know, tailing it, you know, and harvesting it, using it as a product to cultivate apples and just destroy the land at times. And then you know, it would destroy you too you know. You're working long hours for such low pay, and they weren't the best conditions and always worried about immigration coming in to you know take your parents away. It was it was a fear, you know, that that all of us had, that we were used, and then when we were no longer needed you know, be disposed of, and so there's a lot of fear around. So we couldn't celebrate the land the way we wanted to and my dad growing up almost made quite a profound connection to the land to down there but you know, his conditions didn't allow him to sort of sit with it the way you want it to. And so, here finally having the privilege of being born in the United States and being able to travel, I made it a mission to sort of sit with that and figure out what the lounge would be to me and I wanted to create a conversation that will last for generations in my families now that there's a conversation, a solid conversation about landscaping in our family, reclaiming it in our story.

Each runner carries a ceremonial staff gifted by Native American communities. Noé Álvarez can be seen on the far right of this picture. (Photo: Courtesy of Hector Cerda)

BASCOMB: You know, we had a guest on a while back. My name was Leah Penniman and she said something that really always kind of stuck with me. She said that nature, you know, the land is the scene of the crime, it’s not the crime itself. Now, she was talking about African Americans and slavery, but how relatable is that sentiment to you and to maybe some of the other runners.

ÁLVAREZ: Oh, that's, that's very beautiful and I think, I think very well put. I think that's very accurate that I always loved the land right when I was a young kid it's only as I grew older, and through the stories and my father that I learned the violence inflicted upon it, and just the suffering upon it. And so it was really conflictual to me to feel so much love for a land it was you know, eroding my people, my dad and had warped our sense of connection to it. That's how I wanted to transform my experience. I knew there was always some beautiful and special in the land I enjoyed running through the fields when I was younger, it's only when I had to sort of learn the trade that I too started feeling the same way I felt betrayed by the land betrayed that I I was only good for, you know, my own physical strength, I was only good for the product that I was able to help my dad produce. And so, but that was that was on someone else's terms and you know, a lot of the indigenous communities, when they are able to honor the land on their own terms, it's very much with deep respect. It's coming back to it in and not just having the land but it's having a conversation with it and celebrating it and bringing people to the land and passing down stories that are very empowering, that give you strength. That’s the kind of land that I want to have, that I wanted to be proud of. We all need a sacred space in the land is always been a place that’s made me happy. That's given me centeredness and I couldn't have done that I don't think without a community of Peace and Dignity Journeys, with people who have been working on it for generations. And so to lose something like that would be profoundly detrimental to our society, in our community in our landscapes. So we got to, we got to start introducing new stories and asserting how the land is a very powerful medicine for us.

CURWOOD: Spirit Run author Noe Alvarez, speaking with Bobby Bascomb.



New York Times | “Running Thousands of Miles in Search of Yourself”

Learn more about Peace and Dignity Journeys

The Fresno Bee | “Native American Runners in Valley on Alaska- to Panama Journey”

More about "Spirit Run: A 6,000-Mile Marathon Through North America's Stolen Land"


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