“Know to Run” Documents First Land Acknowledgement at Western States Endurance Run

Yatika Starr Fields.

As the sun sets over the Sierra Nevada Mountains, Yatika Starr Fields’ body is beginning to rebel against him. He’s been running for what seems like forever, and he still has about five more hours to go. As the bone-crushing fatigue sets in, he sits down and removes his shoes. The angry blisters covering his feet begin to pop. He sighs, covers his feet with bandages, straps on his headlight, and continues to run.

Starr Fields is running the Western States Endurance Run, a grueling 100.2-mile ultramarathon that runs through land that’s been occupied by the Washoe people for centuries. As Starr Fields wills his legs to continue moving forward, he gains strength from his pacers and crew, a group of Native runners who all share the same message, strength and hope—cultivating a genuine understanding of the lands, the people who first occupied them and who continue to care for them.

The 2022 Western States Endurance Run featured, for the first time, a public land blessing at the beginning of the race by Herman Fillmore (Wasiw). Rising Hearts, a grassroots organization committed to elevating Indigenous voices and cultivating intersectional communities, was there to document the land blessing and Starr Fields’ subsequent journey through the race as part of their Know to Run series.

“The Know to Run Series was created through Rising Hearts’ new storytelling arm of the organization,” Jordan Marie Whetstone, founder of Rising Hearts, explained during a workshop presented by the Running Industry Diversity Coalition (RIDC). “Know to Run began with the idea of wanting to document the first ever land blessing at this really old, prestigious race.”

What are land blessings and land acknowledgements?

A land acknowledgement is a formal recognition of the Indigenous People of the land who have cared for it for generations. The Western States Endurance Run course runs through the land of the Washoe and Nisanen People, so the land blessing, delivered by Herman Fillmore of the Washoe Tribe, highlighted that fact.

“When we talk about our lakes and our rivers and all of the places within our homelands, we talk about those as sacred places, as having significance and deserving to be protected and cared for,” Fillmore said during the land acknowledgement, wearing a cap emblazoned with the number “1492” to symbolize the year colonists invaded the land of Indigenous people. “We see that there’s a need to educate people and to do better, so land acknowledgement is part of that.”

A land blessing is given at the start of the 2022 Western States Endurance Run.

A land acknowledgement is different from a land blessing, which is a blessing given to the participants and attendees of an event by an Indigenous person. This is done partly to highlight Indigenous voices from the land being used, as well as to increase visibility and representation for the Indigenous community.

Land acknowledgements and land blessings are part of the Running on Native Lands initiative, which aims to “bring the land acknowledgements and blessings to life and go beyond,” as Whetstone explained during the workshop.

Running on Native Lands

The Running on Native Lands initiative ultimately aligns with the larger mission of the RIDC—to make the sport of running a space a safe, inclusive space for whoever wants to participate.

“What we do goes beyond just the land acknowledgements and blessings,” Whetstone said. “We connect race directors and sponsors with local Indigenous voices. We advocate for compensation for Indigenous people who are part of the race programming and partnerships. We also work with the race on their DEI [diversity, equity and inclusion] initiatives. How else can they create an inclusive environment that doesn’t just benefit Indigenous people?”

Running on Native Lands requires race partners to adapt their own land acknowledgment, after participating in training and working closely with Indigenous voices. But Whetstone highlights that Running on Native Lands, and Rising Hearts as a whole, is about more than just the Indigenous community.

“During the pandemic, after the murder of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor, I wanted to go back to what I was taught growing up, Mitakuye Oyasin - we are all related or all my relations,” she says. “This means we are all related, and that is something that we say after our prayers. I wanted Rising Hearts to embody that. So, while we’re still prioritizing Indigenous voices and experiences, we want to do our part and be a good relative by fostering intersectionality within our own organization.”

Why are land acknowledgements important?

Land acknowledgements, and the larger mission of Rising Hearts, play a crucial role in highlighting the voices of Indigenous people and the places they call home.

“When our community is invisibilized, it leads to low self esteem, high suicide rates and mental health issues," says Whetstone. "We want to make sure that we’re creating spaces where they see themselves in. That's not just for Indigenous people, that's for everyone we’re doing this work for.”

How can you help?

Even if you aren’t a race director or a sponsor, you can be an ally to the Indigenous community. A simple way to start is by learning about the native lands you live on. Native Land offers a helpful resource. Simply plug in your zip code or address, and it will show you the local territories you’re in or near. As the disclaimer shows, the website doesn’t represent official or legal boundaries and is a continuous work in progress. If you have questions about the nations near you, you can contact them directly.

Another way to learn more about the Indigenous People whose land you occupy is by visiting your local cultural centers. You can learn from your local Indigenous voices about the land, how they look after it and how you can help.

Another step that Whetstone recommends is acknowledging native lands on your public social media photos. She gave the following example for a post in Los Angeles, California: “Tongva Lands - home to the Tongva people / LA Basin, Los Angeles, CA.”

To learn more about land acknowledgements, check out this Guide to Indigenous Land Acknowledgment by the Native Governance Center. Remember, land acknowledgements are just a starting point toward fostering an inclusive environment, building relationships and supporting Indigenous communities.

Keep an eye out for the next video in the Know to Run Series, premiering November 29 at Central Machine Works in Austin, TX.

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