Spirit Runners: Every Step a Prayer, Every Mile a Ceremony

Bringing an end to domestic violence and drug abuse by the run.


Runners from Perseverance for Preservation – Graham, Bert, Simon Jones, Raymond, Guy, and Riley. November, 2016. Gillette, Wyoming.

Back in November of 2016, I traveled to North Dakota to write about the Dakota Access Pipeline. On the way, our carpool stopped for supplies in Gillette, Wyoming. At the checkout was a native man in a neon green shirt. His name was Simon Jones. He and a crew of Native-Americans called Perseverance for Preservation were running over 1,300 miles from Flagstaff, Arizona, to stand with the Standing Rock Sioux.

The caravan was parked behind a fast food restaurant. There was over 400 miles to go. These all-indigenous runners were joined by support crews, including cooks and drivers. They called themselves spirit runners, which is a kind of pilgrimage, wherein every step is used to pray for anything, anyone, and everything. For lack of better nomenclature, you could say the vibe was righteous. They refueled and rested before continuing north.

The late Dennis Banks of the American Indian Movement (AIM), began the Longest Walk in ’78 with a 3,200 mile walk from Alcatraz Island to Washington D.C. to support tribal sovereignty and raise awareness of anti-Indian legislation.

Jones reached out to me in 2017 after our time at Standing Rock. He was running again. This time, the group of 30+ people would cover over 4,000 miles in 5 months, from San Francisco to Washington D.C., stopping at Standing Rock along the way. It was called The Longest Run 5.2, to raise awareness of domestic violence and drug abuse in native communities. For the spirit runner, deep, lasting change happens one step at a time.

It would be a mistake to take the reigns of these runner’s effort to embolden and heal their communities by using their perseverance to extol the virtues of my own point of view. I would not be the first Jew to imagine myself useful to the civil rights efforts of a fellow minority — just ask an African-American. I would like to however highlight a few of the runners and point out what I consider an enormous victory in their gait and wake.

Kid Valance believes in confronting problems rather than ignoring them. Three years ago, Valance lost his nephew to a heroin overdose. His involvement in the Longest Walk is – like every runner and supporter – deeply personal. Valance leading led the 2017 run to D.C.. He is Cherokee, from Kentucky, and has been a run captain for 30 years with the Longest Walk through AIM. As the runners progress, they stop in native communities for ceremony. While they’re there, they offer anonymous questionnaires that help reveal the shared truth of domestic violence and drug abuse on reservations.

Spirit runner Darcy Muckuck is Mishkeegogamang Ojibway and comes from Northern Ontario. Muckuck has been sober 18 months as of the writing of this piece in 2017. His last relapse was in December of 2015, when he was alone over the holidays. For Muckuck, running gives him a feeling of accomplishment. What makes sense to him is running for those who can’t run, much less walk. Muckuck has struggled with alcoholism his entire life. Alcohol is a dark boar that lurks on the edge of the forest, but he is not alone in his fight.

“I asked God to show me a blessing,” he tells me.

His brother told him about the Longest Walk, and his sponsor paid for him to fly to the US in order to join the spirit runners as they passed through the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota.

Part of the purpose of the run is to stop in communities that need help fostering media attention around local issues. The Pine Ridge Reservation is one of the poorest indigenous communities in the United States. Although the reservation is dry, for decades, white-owned liquor stores have sold alcohol to the natives from Whiteclay, Nebraska.


Graham, Simon, and Bert. Gillette, WY. November 2016.

In March of 2017, the runners held ceremony at a liquor store parking lot with native activist Frank LaMere. LaMere had fought for over four decades to end the sale of alcohol in Whiteclay. The ceremony represented one more moment of activism to stop beer sales, which totaled some 3.7 million beers annually.

That April, the alcohol commissioners of Nebraska reviewed, and denied liquor licenses to the businesses of Whiteclay.

Liquor sales in Whiteclay were among the highest nationwide – now, they’re zero. LaMere, who recently passed, was among principle victors, along with Pine Ridge. But part of that victory belongs to the spirit runners.

There are many quantitative arguments for an active lifestyle. It is strategic for healthy living, both physically and mentally. Being in motion gives us an even keel. By flying forward, we avoid flipping over. Unbeknownst to us, we may also inspire others to truly be the change. It is unfamiliar to call running a spiritual activity – but spirituality rhymes with the reasons anyone may run – namely, to transcend our imperfections, to become strong in ourselves — so we may help others.

The runners of the Longest Walk 5.2 went to Washington D.C. in July of 2017, in time to do some lobbying for indigenous rights. They brought a message: The next time you don’t like something, get out your shoes, and call your friends. Remember to run toward the world you want to see and away from the one that must change.

Longest Walk: http://www.longestwalk.us/

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