By Mike Popejoy

Hopi and Tewa runners jog along a stretch of road towards the Navajo Nation's Twin Arrows Casino and Resort, east of Flagstaff, Ariz., where a council subcommittee in October 2016 considered whether to approve a proposal to allow developers to build a tourist resort on land considered sacred by many American Indian tribes. The committee shot down the proposal, but it still has to go through several more committees before facing a battle at the tribal council.

Hopi and Tewa runners jog along a stretch of road towards the Navajo Nation’s Twin Arrows Casino and Resort, east of Flagstaff, Ariz., where a council subcommittee in October 2016 considered whether to approve a proposal to allow developers to build a tourist resort on land considered sacred by many American Indian tribes. The committee shot down the proposal, but it still has to go through several more committees before facing a battle at the tribal council.

Just before 5 a.m. on Sunday at the Hopi Tribal Complex in Kykotsmovi the air is still and the sky dark.

The scene has the feeling of the calm after a deep breath.  Soon headlights start piercing through the black, and as more and more people decked out in warm running gear ramble out of their cars, the calm slowly builds to an excitement and anticipation familiar to anyone who has toed the line for a race before.

But this is no race that these runners have gathered for.  They will be running, but as a form of prayer, of protest, of resistance, as a plea.  There’s no starting pistol, only a prayer and the sprinkling to the wind of the sacred Hopi white corn meal.  There’s no competing, just a group of concerned community members determined to collectively relay run the 78 miles from Kykotsmovi to Twin Arrows Casino, where the Navajo Law and Order Committee is to hold a hearing on the proposed Grand Canyon Escalade project at the Confluence of the Colorado and Little Colorado Rivers.

But these are the Hopi, with their long tradition of running, speaking in one of the best ways they know how – with their feet.  They too hold the Confluence to be a sacred place, and have for hundreds of years.  And through the many steps that it takes to cover those 78 miles, they seek to pound out their message like the beat of a drum – this place is sacred, holy, and exploiting it for profit will not only undermine the spirit of this sacred place, but also the spirit of these people.

During this peaceful prayer run I had the honor to run with many of the Hopi participants, mostly during the early hours of the morning.  We watched the sun rise to our left as we ran south on the highway out of Kykotsmovi, and saw a rainbow appear to our right from the early-morning clouds.  As the sun climbed and we crested a rise in the road we saw the sacred peaks in the distance near Flagstaff, with a fresh dusting of snow atop patches of yellow from the changing aspens.

The runners passed a small bag of homa to each other as they ran – sacred Hopi white corn meal.  I ran alongside Bobbie Kewanwyma, and asked him about it.  He said the white corn represents purity, innocence, spirit.  It reminds us that our spirit is one with all this (Bobbie gestures to the land surrounding us), with this spirit.  I came up to a young woman chanting while awaiting her turn to run, stepping in place.  I ran with others who played traditional songs on their cell phones, the rhythmic beat mirroring the beating of footsteps on asphalt and gravel.  I ran with a grandmother who was given the homa from her grandson; a man passing us in a car called out, “Nahongvita!”  I asked her what it meant and she said, “Be strong.  Find strength within you.  My boy.”  Three generations, united in running, in strength, in the convinction that this land on which we depend is holy.

Some non-Natives don’t seem to be able to understand the import of the Hopi (and Navajo) idea that land itself can be sacred, a place of reverence.  To make an analogy to the tourist development at the Confluence for such non-Natives, would we think it’s permissible to put a fast food chain on the floor of the Sistine Chapel, so long as we were guaranteed to get rich off it?  The fact that conceiving of a landscape, an entire river, or water itself as sacred is difficult for the non-Native mind to grasp does not mean that those who have this expansive view of what is holy can be ignored in the name of profit and development.  As the painting on the back window of one of the cars helping to shuttle runners said:  “Leave the Grand Canyon alone…we will stay rich in culture and tradition…say no to $.”  Some places are more precious than any amount of money can buy, and the Confluence is one of those places, both to Natives and non-Natives alike.

This run was the embodiment of a plea, a peaceful protest, a prayer.  It said what is of utmost significance is not money, but the human spirit; not a corporation, but the community; not a fossil-fuel-powered tramway, but our own two feet.  This Sunday was a day of worship for this group of runners – a day of worshipping the land that surrounds us, by gratefully placing our feet upon it, one after the other.

After 12 hours the runners all poured into the Twin Arrows parking lot together, and the next day were greeted with a small victory in the form of a 5-0 vote from the Committee opposing the Escalade project.  But it’s only a small victory – there are three more committees to consider the proposal before it’s voted on by the Navajo tribal council later this month.  You can join these voices, quietly but powerfully calling for justice and respect, by signing the petition at savetheconfluence.com.  Every voice matters.