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Tribal Affairs

Growing Native-Led Online Community Finds Healing Through Running

Crystal White Shields stands on grassy, paved path. In the background are the buildings of downtown Billings beneath a lightly overcast sky. White Shields stands with her left hand on her hip. She's smiling, wearing black running tights, a red MMIW awareness t-shirt, sunglasses, and a hair band. Her running shoes are light blue and orange.
Kaitlyn Nicholas
Yellowstone Public Radio
Crystal White Shield stands on top of the Rims in Billings, Montana.

Look up “runner” on the Internet and results likely include training plans, exercise clothes and inspirational photos of muscular athletes, most of them white. Verna Volker didn’t see herself in those search results, so she created Native Women Running, a community for women who often run as an act of healing.

Crystal White Shields is one of those women.

“Péve-vóona'o to my Cheyenne relatives. Nii'óó'ke' to my Blue Sky People, my Arapaho people. Kee ohn day daw! Good morning, my Kiowa People.”

White Shields stands on top of the Rims at Swords Park in Billings. She’s lacing up her shoes, putting in her headphones, getting ready to run.

“I think it's important to acknowledge the land that we're on. It originally belongs to the Indigenous peoples of this area, specifically the Apsaalooke’ Crow Nation,” she says.

White Shields says she always reminds non-Native runners to be aware of whose homeland they’re on while running. She offers a different reminder for her Indigenous friends.

“Bless yourself with the earth that you're running on. You're very fortunate to be able to run. But then also breathe the air and partake in the land you're running on.”

Although no one is with White Shields today, she knows she isn’t really running alone. White Shields is preparing to run with other Indigenous women from across the country and the world, all members of Native Women Running.

Running Alone, Together

White Shields joined the online community after being invited in by the group’s founder, Verna Volker, a teacher from Navajo Nation. Volker says running is an important part of Indigenous culture -- for example, every year Northern Cheyenne children run hundreds of miles from Nebraska to Busby, Montana to remember their ancestors who tried to escape U.S. troops forcing them onto a reservation away from their homeland.

But Volker says she just wasn’t seeing Native representation in the commercial running world.

“I had been running for 12 years and I think in the last three, four years, I was just doing my research on other runners who were running. Like Runner's World, running podcasts, running apparel. And it seemed to have the same type of runner: white, fit, blonde. Especially being a mom too, because I started in the middle of motherhood, you’d see the really fit mom with her baby, and she just ran Boston. And you're like, ‘That's not me!’ You know? And just like feeling like I couldn't relate,” Volker says.

Volker started noticing individual Native runners, like White Shields, on Instagram. In 2018, she began reaching out, asking if they’d be interested in sharing their stories and forming a community to support each other.

“I wanted to create a space that Native women felt a belonging in the running world, in the running industry and simply show the running community and industry that there was so many other runners,” Volker says.

The group blew up. Native Women Running now has well over twenty-thousand followers and is very active online, sharing multiple stories a day about ultramarathons, running after pregnancy and staying active during the pandemic.

The group has also partnered with brands like Hoka One One, the running shoe company, to bring more diverse experiences into the running world.

Over the past few weeks, the group ran a virtual run, raising more than $30,000 for MMIW USA, a non-profit supporting families and investigations involving missing and murdered Indigenous people.

But for the women in Native Women Running, Volker says putting one foot in front of the other is not just about raising awareness or getting in shape.

“For Native people, I think running is more of a healing, spiritual time,” Volker says. “And for Native Women Running, time and time again I get stories of women who are healing from trauma or loss of people they've lost in their lives.”

White Shields says that’s true for her. While she originally ran to improve her mental health, White Shields says she now runs as a way to live with loss.

“In 2018, my six-year-old daughter Alison Eagle Speaker, she succumbed to flu, the Influenza B strain. Once I lost her, that helped me significantly, just to run and to cry and pray and just trying to balance my grief along with trying to stay afloat. And even though it's been almost three years since I lost her, it's still a heavy, a heavy burden to carry. And I use my running to heal.”

Kaitlyn Nicholas is Yellowstone Public Radio’s Report for America Indigenous affairs reporter.