At an elevation of 5,604 feet, Jemez Pueblo is over a mile high—the sort of place world-class athletes travel to train and build high-altitude endurance. But for the people of Jemez, the tall red mesas of northern New Mexico are simply home. Thin mountain air has never kept them from running, and has in fact helped many of them become some of the best long-distance runners in the world.
Since time immemorial, Jemez people of all ages have run dozens of miles each day in the rugged mountains surrounding the Pueblo. Running serves the practical purpose of carrying messages between communities, but also simply designates sacred time for personal prayer and gratitude.
Even as telephone lines were strung across hills in the twentieth century, running retained its place at the heart of Jemez culture. Chasing wild animals or simply the wind challenged runners like Steve Gachupin, Jose Tosa, and Al Waquie to achieve new highs while connecting them to the earth beneath their feet.
Gachupin, for instance, “trained” regularly since he was a little boy and became the first man to run the entire distance of the Pikes Peak Marathon, which rises an incredible 7,815′ from a starting elevation of 6,300′ to a summit of 14,115′. He won every year from 1966 to 1971, earning him the title “King of the Mountain.” A decade later his cousin Waquie took the prize at Pikes Peak in 1982 and went on to beat international competitors in a slew of steep, high-elevation races like the La Luz Trail Run and the unconventional Empire State Building Run-Up.
In addition to the thrill and glory of competition, footraces play a sacred role on Jemez Feast Days. Twice each year, runners mark the seasons by forming a sort of relay as they carry a corn stalk or ear of corn for miles from the Pueblo to the mountains and back. Whoever takes the lead has the honor of carrying the trophy until someone else overtakes him. In this way, a skilled sprinter holds the corn first, a middle-distance racer claims it after a mile or two, and the true endurance runner eventually earns his prize as he comes to the fore. Everyone completes the run, but the winner brings the corn stalk home as a symbol of his victory and earns the congratulations of his neighbors.
Perhaps most famously, running was vital to the Pueblo Revolt of 1680, which was the first successful uprising against a colonizer in North America. To coordinate Pueblo communities separated by hundreds of miles and different languages, the religious leader Popé sent runners with yucca cords whose knots secretly indicated the date of the planned uprising. The Spanish captured and tortured two of the runners, revealing the plan, but more runners quickly alerted the Pueblo communities to accelerate the revolt by a couple days. The Spanish were obliged to retreat to El Paso, freeing Pueblo people to practice their traditions, language, and religion on their own land once again.
People of all heritages, ages, and fitness levels are invited to pay tribute to the heroic runners of the Pueblo Revolt by participating in the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center’s annual Resilience Run. Registration is now open for our 4th annual run on August 6, 2016! Sign up for the 10K, 5K, Kids’ 1K or walk and you’ll join a living tradition of not just the Jemez but all 19 Pueblos of New Mexico.
If you’d like to learn more about the runners of Jemez Pueblo, we invite you to attend our special Counter-Narrative: Tradition Runs Deep at 5:30 pm on July 20. This unique lecture series offers the public an Indigenous perspective on a different subject of interest each month, and it’s free to the public at the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center.