Native American women run to strengthen and heal their communities

The women of KwePack run in Duluth on May 5 for the National Day of Awareness for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women (MMIW). Ivy Vainio

"We don't want to be invisible because that's how we disappear, and that's why people don't look for us," said Sarah Agaton Howes, a runner-activist and Anishinaabe artist. "We want people to know that we matter."

As the founder of KwePack -- a running group for women at Fond du Lac Reservation in Minnesota, as well as Duluth and the surrounding area -- Howes is a frontliner. ("Kwe" is Ojibwe, an indigenous language of North America of the Algonquian language family, for "woman," so KwePack translates as pack of women.) They run for their health and well-being but also to draw attention to the problem.

Murder is the third leading cause of death for Native American women, and more than 5,700 were reported missing in 2016, according to the National Crime Information Center. Health problems including diabetes and heart disease are also claiming the lives of native women. In hopes of being a part of the solution, many indigenous women are lacing up their running shoes and hitting the pavement.

"We have women from our community who have been murdered and are missing -- women that we know," Howes said.

May 5 was the National Day of Awareness for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women (MMIW), and KwePack organized a run in Duluth that drew more than 125 people -- the group's first organized run for the day of awareness. Around the country, others organized runs or participated in a virtual run -- a race that you can run, jog, or walk at any location you choose -- created by Verna Volker, a Navajo ultra-runner in Minneapolis, and Red Earth Running Company.

"Part of us deciding to run and be healthy is deciding that we matter, our bodies matter and our communities matter," Howes said. "It seems so basic, but it's such a big deal to value ourselves and value each other."

Howes, 42, started running 13 years ago after she lost a daughter (she has two other children). Overwhelmed by grief, she found herself weighing 211 pounds. Her doctor told her she would have diabetes in 10 years if she didn't change her lifestyle, so she began eating healthier, jogging and strength training. Her goal was to be both physically and spiritually healthier.

"Running is what makes me feel free." Sarah Agaton Howes

"The first time I ran, I felt conspicuous and awkward, like so many other obese folks feel," Howes said. "I didn't feel like I belonged or had any place being there." At the first 5K she ran, she wore her husband's running shorts, because she didn't own workout clothes.

"Another native woman was standing there, and she was all dressed up in real running clothes. I had never seen a native woman wearing athletic gear before," Howes remembered. She talked to the woman, named Chally Topping, who suggested that Howes run Grandma's Half Marathon, a race along the scenic North Shore of Minnesota. Howes thought that was crazy, "but she planted that seed in my mind" -- both that she could run longer races and that other native women could do the same. Howes was the 5K's last finisher, "but when I came across the finish line, my son and my husband were standing there cheering for me, and I was forever changed."

Initially, Howes ran with one woman, Trish Staine, and then a few more. They recruited members through word of mouth, social media and texting. "What we saw pretty quickly was that, when we ran together, we felt safer. It was so powerful to be in a group of native women where we felt supported and where we were pushed to go beyond what we thought was possible," Howes said. "A lot of us went from living completely sedentary lives to running ultramarathons and trails."

The group has been running together for seven years, and have organized several events, including 5Ks. They have a core group of 5 to 10 runners, and about 80 who participate in various races, from 5Ks to 50Ks. "It's the biggest indigenous running group in the Midwest," Howes said, noting that native runners are more common in other areas of the United States.

At first, people would see the KwePack athletes in action and pull over to ask if they needed a ride because the sight of native women running was so unfamiliar. Part of KwePack's purpose is "to create space for native women to see that we run," Howes said. They've even developed a KwePack scholarship fund to help runners pay for running gear and race entry fees. At the very least it will allow them to feel more comfortable while running.

Another purpose is to promote healthy living. "Our community has every epidemic you can name -- depression, suicide, addiction -- but the flip side is that we have a lot of people who are working on revitalization, health and wellness," Howes said when speaking about the hardships her community faces.

"Running is like practice hardship. Whenever you're running, you go through every human emotion, from sadness to relief, excitement, euphoria, frustration -- everything, and because we're dealing with a lot of stuff in our community, that is a way for us to be stronger," Howes said. "We'll say to each other, 'Run it out. Whatever you've got going on, run it out.'"

According to Howes, running also offers a new level of freedom for many native women. "I love it here [on the reservation]," Howes said. "But there are also these boundaries telling you this is where you're supposed to be -- you're not supposed to leave here. There are also feelings like ... I don't feel safe out in the woods by myself, but I'm supposed to feel safe being out there." So KwePack provides both safety and freedom. "Running is what makes me feel free," she said.

Another woman creating space for native women runners is Mica Standing Soldier, 24, who is Oglala Lakota. She formed a team called "Running for Our Lives" that is running the Deadwood Mickelson Trail Marathon in South Dakota in June to raise awareness and funds for MMIW. The team is planning to raise $10,000 for three indigenous nonprofits.

Standing Soldier ran the Twin Cities Marathon in 2018, wearing a shirt with the names of 26 MMIW on it -- one for each mile. "I like doing things that push my physical limits, and running a marathon was very difficult for me," she said. "But I realized that when you're doing something just for you, there's not as much motivation as if you were doing something for a larger cause." So she dedicated her run to these seemingly forgotten women.

Some studies and reports about MMIW and sex trafficking, including one by the Urban Indian Health Institute, "have gone unnoticed in Minneapolis, and I've personally known several community members that have gone missing and who have not gained any attention," Standing Soldier said. Part of the reason is that "there's a lack of representation in the media of native peoples in general, and this leads to a lack of coverage for the women who are missing or murdered. It's also tied to non-native offenders and the lack of jurisdiction if it occurred in tribal territory," she said. The Urban Indian Health Institute report also points to poor relationships between law enforcement and some native communities.

"The native millennial generation are upset about this, and we are willing to fight until we get the attention it deserves," Standing Soldier said. She added that they are using social media "to raise awareness in a way that hasn't been accessible before. It's opened up a lot of opportunities."

The team includes women Standing Soldier had played basketball with in native tournaments and some family members. "We're training together, we're working together every day, collaborating, discussing the best ways to ice your feet, to roll out your muscles -- all those sorts of things, so it's also a point of connection between us," she said.

She believes that running also deepens connections to ancestors who ran as a way to survive. "It's a way to honor them as well," Standing Soldier said. "In the same way they were fighting to ensure the survival of their communities, we're doing that, too -- it's just a different issue, but it's just as urgent."

The urgency includes health problems, Standing Soldier said. "I think one of the most radical acts of revolution is taking care of yourself and ensuring that the next generation is healthy."

Standing Soldier ran with Volker in Minneapolis, adding that their efforts go beyond raising awareness. "It's about action, research, and understanding how prevalent and real this is -- how likely it is for a native woman to go missing in her lifetime," she said. "I want this to be something that non-natives care about."

Volker, 45, agreed. "This hits home for a lot of us," she said. But "a lot of my non-native runner friends had never heard of this [problem] because it's not in the mainstream -- not in the media." The virtual run was a way to put the issue out there. Volker said that, as a mother of four, it's difficult for her to travel to marches and rallies, but anyone can join a virtual run.

Previously, Volker had started Native Women Running on Instagram and Facebook to support and celebrate native women runners because she rarely saw anyone who looked native in the online running community. "I knew some of these women were doing awesome things -- they need to be highlighted," she said. She hopes that her 6-year-old daughter "one day will look in a running magazine and see someone that looks like her.

"It's been really neat to see that everyone's been inspired at whatever level they're at," Volker said. She picked up running when she found herself 50 pounds overweight after her third child and she had moved to Minneapolis, which has an active running community and trail system. She started running, lost the weight, and recently ran her fourth 50K. In the process, "I found this resilience that I didn't realize I had," she said.

Patti Catalano Dillon, who became the first American woman -- and the first indigenous woman -- to break 2:30 in the marathon in 1980, recently started a nonprofit called Indigenous Women United for a walk she is planning from the Canadian border in Maine to Quincy, Massachusetts, tracing the route her Mi'kmaq mother took when she was sold for $40 as a nanny at age 11. "Her education stopped. At that time, native girls were sent to families in exchange for a small fee to work," Dillon said. The walk aims to promote young women's education.

For many of these women, what began as an individual effort grew into something broader to uplift and preserve their communities.

"You know those moments when you're out doing something, and you just know it's right? We'd be out running on a trail, all of us single file," Howes said, and she'd think, "This is exactly what we should be doing right now."

Allison Torres Burtka is a freelance writer and editor in metro Detroit. You can read more of her work here.