Running for a cause
"Send a Runner" retraces the steps of The Long Walk
In 2018, Edison Eskeets, a Diné runner and educator, organized a run from Canyon de Chelly, Ariz., to Santa Fe, N.M. The 330-mile run took place over the span of 15 days. The event was meant to honor the 150th anniversary of The Long Walk, which was the forced removal of most Diné people from their homelands in Arizona to a military-controlled reservation on the Pecos River in eastern New Mexico in the 1860s.
Taos writer Jim Kristofic, who has roots in the Navajo Nation, followed Edison and his family, and documented the journey in “Send a Runner: A Navajo Honors the Long Walk.”
“So many people have asked me, ‘What’s the meaning?’ They are asking me why I’m doing this. And I’m trying to explain to them that I don’t fully know,” Edison said of the purpose of his run. “It’s so many things. Many people. Many voices.” Edison carries these thoughts all throughout the journey while running a marathon a day. “I’m thinking about the old ones. I’m looking toward the Great Ones … Beyond that? We’re out there dancing in the road.”
In “Send a Runner,” Kristofic bears witness not only to Edison’s ceremonial run but also to the history of the Diné resisting 19th century colonization, culminating in The Long Walk. The two stories unfold together page by page, with each vignette moving fluidly from past and present. And yet, during Edison’s run across the Navajo Nation (Diné Bikéyah) and border towns, the readers see the present-day effects of colonization. A few days into Edison’s run, his group meets a couple and they have a discussion about the ongoing effects of uranium mining.
In July 1979, a mine tailings disposal pond at a uranium mill in Church Rock, outside Gallup, breached its dam. “See it,” Kristofic demands of the reader. He paints the scene of a calm July morning with sun coloring the land and birds singing. Then suddenly, there’s “a roar of water and the poisoning has begun. Ninety-four million gallons of radioactive sludge goes down into the Rio Puerco.”
“I remember all of that,” Edison recalled. “We played in that damned water. And no one even told us.”
All throughout the book, the writing is as striking and vivid as the landscape the story is held in. Along with that, Kristofic is unflinching in his recounting of American colonization, where diplomacy, such as treaties with Indigenous nations, is “theft by paper.” After the Diné are marched into a concentration camp from The Long Walk, Kristofic describes how the “open-air prison” of Bosque Redondo contained the crude ideals of Western civilization: “American capital, private property and borders writhe into being on this alkali ground.”
For everyone on this journey, they carry the heaviness of this history. But then there’s also humor. It plays a vital role in this journey. At one point after another marathon, Edison is resting and ready to call it a day. His family is about to place a mile marker nearby. Across the road, a fenced-in horse watches the group. “You know,” Edison said, “we could use that horse as our marker if he agrees to stay there.”
The history of my people and family was running through my mind as I read about Edison’s experience. I thought about Kit Carson, the colonel who led The Long Walk, parading my Diné ancestors through Santa Fe to proudly display ethnic cleansing in action. I thought about the 1974 protests in downtown Farmington over another parade celebrating the “Old West” with law enforcement wearing frontier cavalry outfits. To Diné folks, the parade was glorifying the cavalrymen responsible for The Long Walk. A riot ensued.
While reading, I thought about my great-grandmother Josephine. When that Farmington riot unfolded, my dad, a child then, was in the area. The news spread, and he went to my great-grandma to tell her about the protests. “Good!” she replied, “That’s what the police get for what Kit Carson did to us.”
It only felt fitting to dwell on family stories and history while reading about Edison’s journey. Kristofic describes Edison’s run as a “prayer made with the body,” and it gave me comfort to believe that what my family lost and endured through the Long Walk was being carried in that prayer pronounced by the limbs and motion of a runner with a message.
Edison’s run is a prayer, responding to a history of settler state dehumanization. Edison’s run is a dance, reclaiming and amplifying an Indigenous presence. His run was intended to send a message, to honor the lives lost in The Long Walk. Edison’s run also highlights Diné resilience, which is found in many forms – it’s held in laughter; it’s held in the steps we take. “Send a Runner” is a moving tribute to the history and future of Indigenous resilience.