A Running Prayer

Runners along the trail on the morning of Sept. 10, 2016

By Jacky Thompson and Taylor Haynes

Listen to the audio piece here.

As the sun crept over the arid desert during the early morning hours of Sept. 10, a group of about 50 ran along a network of trails crossing northeastern Arizona. The paths dipped into dry river beds and climbed mesas rising thousands of feet in the air.

The run, known to English-speakers as the Water is Life Run and to the Hopi people as the Paatuwaqatsi Run, consists of a 50K ultra-marathon and shorter 10 mile run.

While there is a clock present, this event differs from other races. Time doesn’t matter on these trails, which have been used by the Hopi people for generations to connect communities. The trails often pass springs, where water is collected for traditional Hopi ceremonies.

According to Bucky Preston, the event’s founder and well-known long-distance runner, the run’s end goal is more than just completion. Preston was born and raised in Walpi, the ancient village where the event took place this year.

“It is not a race, it is a spiritual run,” Preston said.

He believes running these trails maintains Hopi values and tradition. The run begins and ends with a prayer; it is a sacred experience for many involved.

Andy Bessler, a former member of the Sierra Club who now manages the race’s bank account, described the intensity of the event.

“It’s a deeply personal and spiritual event,” Bessler said. “You feel the thirst in the desert, and you’re like ‘Wow, there are springs out here.’ You really get the picture that there is a survival component of this issue — that water is critical. Especially out there. You have people just saying thank you … It’s transformative for some people. I have seen people break down and cry.”

The Hopi people are traditionally long distance runners. Running is an integral part of Hopi culture — it was a faster way to search for food and communicate with other clans and tribes — and it continues to have an important place in ceremonies today. The Paatuwaqatsi Run is an ode to the ancient tradition of covering long distances by foot, but is also designed to bring awareness to present-day issues facing the Hopi and Navajo people.

Hopi runners, photo from the Northern Arizona University archives

“There’s a lot happening today with water everywhere. I’ve been doing these runs all the time — I’ve run to Flagstaff and Zuni and Acoma and all my campaigns are about water,” Preston said.

Around 72 miles north of Walpi is the Kayenta Mine — a sprawling excavation site, where the Peabody Western Coal Company has mined for coal since 1973. The mine occupies nearly 45,000 acres.

According to the Peabody Energy website, “In 2013, the mine sold 7.9 million tons of coal.”

Coal mining uses an exorbitant amount of water for controlling dust and creating coal slurry. The Kayenta Mine pumps millions of tons of water out of the Navajo Aquifer every year — the primary source of fresh water for communities on both Navajo and Hopi land. The depletion of water in the area has led to sacred springs being vastly reduced or disappearing altogether.

Peabody Energy proclaims the mine has resulted in some economic benefits.

According to the Peabody Energy website, “Peabody’s Arizona operations have injected an estimated $3 billion in economic benefits for tribal communities. For example, native people comprise more than 90 percent of Kayenta Mine’s 430-person workforce.”

Still, the unemployment rate on reservations remains above the national average. Peabody Energy filed for bankruptcy this spring, however they plan on keeping their mines in operation.

Preston believes the costs of coal mining greatly outweigh the benefits.

“We have to have humility and prayer and sacredness — and water is sacred,” Preston said. “The way we do things in ceremonies all has to do with water and that’s why we have to protect it. With the new technology, our minds are taken away from these things we should be thinking about.”

Preston, along with many other activists in Arizona, including the Black Mesa Trust and the Black Mesa Water Coalition, have spoken out against Peabody Energy and their activities on Hopi and Navajo land for decades.

The Paatuwaqatsi Run is another way global awareness is brought to their cause. Dozens of people, from all corners of the nation, travel to participate in the run and, in turn, learn of these concerns facing Hopi and Navajo communities.

A view from the trail during the morning of Sept. 10.

“It is an honor to be there and see these places that non-Hopis really don’t get to see and to help [Preston] and his family,” Bessler said. “I think every year revives me… everyone should strive to be Hopi — that means living in peace, living in a good way. I really try to strive to be Hopi as best as I can. This run reminds me of that.”

With the dedication and determination of an ultramarathon runner, activists like Preston have continued to fight for their beliefs and the sanctity of water.

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