How far would you go to honor your history?
How many marathons would you run to honor something that matters to you?
Edison Eskeets will run nearly one a day for two solid weeks, starting today. He took the first steps of his 330-mile journey in the first light of dawn at Canyon de Chelly National Monument in Arizona this morning and will finish his run in Santa Fe, New Mexico on June 1. He is calling the event — which is long even by ultrarunning standards — “The Message | The Run.”
Eskeets has been planning the feat for more than 10 years and views it not as an athletic accomplishment, but as a way to honor the Navajo people and their traditions. A big part of the message in The Message | The Run is to specifically commemorate the forced march known as the Long Walk that Navajo people endured more than 150 years ago.
In 1864, the U.S. military, under the leadership of frontiersman Kit Carson, used violent, scorched-earth tactics to force more than 9,000 Navajo people from their homelands — killing their families and livestock, burning their crops and orchards, and contaminating their water. After surrendering, these Navajo and several hundred Mescalero Apache people were forced to walk more than 300 miles in dangerous conditions. They were subsequently held for four years with inadequate food and shelter at a reservation in New Mexico known as Bosque Redondo. Thousands of people died from the standoff, walk and internment. In 1868, the government admitted that the relocation was a failure and signed a treaty allowing the Navajo to return to a portion of their homelands.
Eskeets’ run will end on the 150th anniversary of the signing of that treaty.
“Somehow, we overcame that, and we still maintain our language, our traditions, our weaving — our creativity is still a part of us,” he said. “I’m very appreciative of that, and an acknowledgement is proper.”
Although the run is about the same length as the Long Walk and follows a similar trajectory from eastern Arizona into New Mexico, Eskeets didn’t plan the run to take the same route the Navajo did in 1864, but to honor a greater sense of connectedness between past, present and future. He will carry a ceremonial rattle as he runs, which will create sound and a sense of rhythm as he moves.
“To me, it’s a performance,” he said, “a wonderful dance, if you will. For 330 miles.”
He began his first few miles this morning in traditional dress and moccasins, evoking what he describes as “our tradition of running that meant something.” Before the Navajo had horses, he explained, runners sometimes carried medicine and other essentials over long distances for their communities. “I’m not running to get the best time,” he said. “No, it has nothing to do with that. This is the old communication.”
As part of his run, Eskeets is raising money to benefit the Hubbell Trading Post National Historic Site, a national park site where he has worked as a trader for more than a decade. After the Long Walk, trading posts such as this one were essential for Navajo and other Native American people to obtain goods and maintain livelihoods. Hubbell was established in 1878 and has been a market for everything from coffee and horse tack to baskets and rugs since then.
Eskeets works at Hubbell through a unique partnership with the Western National Parks Association. The nonprofit works with 71 national park sites in the West, managing gift shops, assisting with interpretation and visitor services, and developing educational programs, among other services. The association’s work at Hubbell is unlike its role at other parks because the site is preserved as an active trading post. Staff work with more than 400 artisans from Navajo, Hopi, Zuni and other area tribes to maintain a marketplace for traditional crafts. It is the oldest operating trading post on the Navajo Nation, a site where people still communicate in their native language and find authentically made ceremonial items.
“When you walk in the room, you feel like you are going back to the 1800s,” said James Cook, executive director for the association, who noted the creaky floor and singular ambiance of the building, as well as its role in not just capturing a moment in history, but a continuation of that history.
“It’s relevant to the locals and it’s relevant to the tourists,” he added.
Still, he said, the popularity of traditional crafts in the larger culture changes over time, and visitation to the site has declined significantly in recent years after record highs in the late 1990s. The money raised from Eskeets’ run will help the association travel around the region and offer demonstrations that interpret Hubbell’s history and the significance of various artisan traditions. The goal is to raise the profile of the site and continue supporting the people who create the many artworks and crafts that are traded there.
“It’s a story of incredible tragedy,” said Cook, reflecting on the Long Walk, “and hopefully we as a nation will learn from that and continue to learn and not forget these stories. But it’s also this story of hope and cooperation where cultures can come together and move forward. It’s truly a profound thing that Edison is doing.”
For the last several weeks, Eskeets estimates that he was logging 18 to 20 miles a day, much of it in the extreme midday heat, to prepare — though he didn’t record his progress, believing that after more than 40 years of running, his body knows what to do. Mainly, to keep moving with a sense of purpose.
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He also believes his body is telling him not to keep putting it through the stresses that an event like this demands. He will continue running shorter distances, but The Message | The Run will be his last “ultra.”
When I spoke with Eskeets, I asked if he was nervous about undertaking such an enormous feat.
“My soul, no,” he said. “My heart, my mind, my soul, [they’re] ready to go. It’s my physical part, I’ve just got to match it. … I’m relying on my spiritual part for guidance.”
Learn more about the Western National Parks Association at wnpa.org.
About the author
Jennifer Errick Managing Editor of Online Communications
Jennifer co-produces NPCA's podcast, The Secret Lives of Parks, and writes, edits and moderates online content.