CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — To be Hopi is to run. “That’s who we are and that’s what we do,” says Matthew Sakiestewa Gilbert.
So it’s no surprise that Gilbert, a professor and the director of the American Indian Studies Program at the University of Illinois, was drawn to the story of runners from his tribal community in northern Arizona, in the early 1900s, often running with and beating the world’s best.
It’s the story he tells in “Hopi Runners: Crossing the Terrain Between Indian and American,” being published this month by University Press of Kansas.
Gilbert, also a professor of history, became interested in the topic while working on an earlier book about Hopis at Sherman Institute in Southern California. Sherman was one of 25 federal off-reservation boarding schools that Native American students were compelled to attend between the late 1800s and early 1900s. Gilbert researched numerous newspaper clippings and other references to students’ athletic exploits.
“I was fascinated by just how well these Hopi runners did at the school, but also in regional and international competitions,” he said.
Running runs deep in Hopi culture for a variety of reasons, Gilbert said. It was a means for messaging between villages and for travel between homes and fields, especially since the rocky and steep terrain of the Hopi mesas never favored the horse.
“Running was always considered to be a trustworthy mode of transportation for the Hopi, and they became very, very good at it,” he said.
It shows even today in that the single Hopi high school has won the state title in its division in both boys and girls cross country in Arizona for most of the past 30 years, with the boys team completing a streak of 27 in a row.
Running, for the Hopis, was also ceremonial and sacred. Tribal oral histories tell of runs hundreds of miles to the Pacific Ocean to offer prayers. Hopis also ran far beyond their ancestral lands to shrines and sacred places “with the sole purpose that they would entice the rain clouds to follow them back to the mesas to water their fields,” Gilbert said.
The world first became aware of the Hopis’ running talents in the 1880s, when the railroad brought tourists and reporters to the Hopi mesas. Ethnographers noticed, too, when they arrived to record aspects of the tribe at a time when many feared Native Americans were a “vanishing race.”
“At the turn of the century, there was an American fascination with Native people and Native culture, for sure,” Gilbert said. “These accounts of Hopi running on the reservation also corresponded with an American fascination with sport and distance running.”
The Hopi students arrived at Sherman and other boarding schools already as runners, Gilbert said, but they faced significant challenges. They had to learn to run in new conditions and in new ways — in city streets rather than on wide-open mesas; in athletic shoes rather than in thin moccasins or barefoot; for school, team or country rather than their people or clan.
They also had to negotiate the cultural divide and to challenge white preconceptions. Many Americans at the time thought Hopis and other Indians were dirty, lazy and had the mental capacity of children, Gilbert said.
Ironically, the Hopi runner who would become the most famous, Louis Tewanima, arrived at the Indian boarding school in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, in 1907 as a “prisoner of war,” part of a group that had resisted federal attempts to force Hopi children to attend such schools. He was in his mid 30s.
“A year later, on a world stage, he’s representing the very nation that had arrested him and forcefully removed him from his family,” Gilbert said. Tewanima placed ninth in the marathon at the 1908 Olympics, running for the U.S.
He would compete again in the 1912 Olympics, this time winning the silver medal in the 10,000-meter event and setting an American record that would stand for more than 50 years, when it was broken by another Native American, Billy Mills. One of Tewanima’s Olympic teammates, as well as a Carlisle classmate, was the legendary Native American athlete Jim Thorpe (Sac and Fox Tribe), a gold medalist in both the pentathlon and decathlon.
Tewanima is celebrated today on the Hopi Reservation with an annual footrace, but that wasn’t the case on his return home after the Olympics, Gilbert said. “When he returned to his village, the community was unimpressed with him.” In a community of runners, “they knew that there were runners who were much better.”
In fact, when Tewanima was challenged to a race by another celebrated boarding school Hopi runner, Philip Zeyouma, from Sherman Institute — who had won the 1912 Los Angeles Times Modified Marathon and also qualified for the Olympics — it prompted what Gilbert refers to as the “Hopi Showdown on Second Mesa.”
The actual showdown, however, would be between the two younger runners and two Hopi men in their 50s who taunted them and then took up the challenge, on the spot, to join them in the race, Gilbert said. At six miles into the 12-mile race, the two older men, who didn’t even look especially healthy, were so far ahead that Tewanima and Zeyouma quit and walked back to where they had started.
“What that story demonstrates is that for Hopi people the essence of running did not begin in a boarding school, nor did it begin in the streets of Los Angeles or on a track in New York City, but that it originated from the people,” Gilbert said.
It also demonstrates that in Hopi culture it was the older men who taught the younger men to run “according to the Hopi way” and that some of the best distance runners in America at that time were unknown to the public, he said.
Gilbert has family on the Hopi Reservation and knows the mesas well, even though he grew up in the nearby mountain community of Flagstaff. He is also a runner. Though he now runs on the flatlands of central Illinois, he said the act of running always ties him back to the mesas and home.
“I can always look to my Hopi past and say that I come from a people of great runners. This is who I am as a Hopi person. We Hopis, we run.”
More information or to reach Matthew Sakiestewa Gilbert is available by calling (217) 265-0180; email firstname.lastname@example.org. (Sakiestewa is pronounced Seh-KY-ehs-tee-wah.)
His book “Hopi Runners: Crossing the Terrain Between Indian and American” is published by University Press of Kansas.