Circling a large drum in the foothills above Fresno this week, a group of runners and community members shared songs from more than 10 Native American tribes.
It was a fitting blend to celebrate the arrival of runners with Peace and Dignity Journeys, an organization that aims to connect communities across North, Central and South America and promote healing, peace and the preservation of native culture.
Some runners started in May in Alaska and will end their journey in Panama, where they will connect with other runners for spiritual ceremonies and prayer.
Basically, it’s about connecting communities.
Runners participate in smaller Native American ceremonies along the way and carry items of spiritual significance, including prayer staffs and feathers.
A group of 10 will arrive at Fresno State’s O’Neill Park on Saturday afternoon after leaving Choinumni Park in Piedra on the Kings River.
“There is so much that is shared,” says Daniel Mejia of Patterson, who is leading the route through inland California. “Each community that we go through has at least one story to tell.”
Many have been heartbreaking and similar, Mejia says – native communities facing suicide, alcoholism and unemployment. The 26-year-old stopped working as a nonprofit program manager, leading youth on outdoor wilderness trips, so he could run the entire route from Alaska to Panama.
We can start saying, ‘We do need help. We are craving for help. We just don’t know how to ask for help.’
The runners shared while drumming with Mario Benally’s family drum group, Hummingbird Singers, at Benally’s in-laws’ home in North Fork on Tuesday and at Big Sandy Rancheria in Auberry on Wednesday.
“We are glad they are bringing this awareness to other communities. … I think it will give us a stronger bond and to look within ourselves,” says Benally, assistant of Big Sandy’s Family Activities Department. “A lot of Native Americans, they like that we can do it (solve problems) by ourselves. We can start saying, ‘We do need help. We are craving for help. We just don’t know how to ask for help.’ ”
Peace and Dignity runners have made pilgrimages to Central America every four years since 1992. They aim to honor a Native American prophecy, Mejia says, “that when the eagle of the north and the condor of the south meet together, it represents unity.”
Runners average about 70 miles a day. A van follows, carrying supplies and the runners when they tire. The group’s numbers fluctuate over the long miles, with some joining for mere minutes or hours. The run is open to everyone, not just those of Native American descent.
The 2016 theme is a “prayer for seeds,” a reminder that the “seeds of culture and consciousness bring balance, joy, unity, peace, love, patience and harmony to the world,” says John Deanda, a Valley organizer for the runners.
After a day’s rest in dorms at Fresno State, they will leave Fresno on Monday morning for the Tachi-Yokut Santa Rosa Rancheria in Lemoore, then head to the Tule River Reservation in Porterville on Tuesday. An organizer says they could reach Panama around November. Throughout their journey, they have camped or been hosted by a number of tribes, groups and community members.
Runner Marco “Marky” Silva, 24, of Arizona says the journey “teaches you to be human again.”
“We are so dehumanized,” the college student says. “We don’t know how to have compassion for another. It’s always one person above someone because of what they have instead of who they are.”
He hopes the run helps him become a better uncle for his young niece and nephew.
“I just want to show them by example what kind of man you want in your life, how a man should treat you,” Silva says. “What better way than observing within your own family?”
Benally is grateful for the good energy the runners brought to his family’s drum circle earlier this week.
“It’s not often that we hear other tribal people’s songs,” he says. “You could really feel their spirit and how it made them feel joy to sing there on that big drum. It was just like a big fluffy cushion, like a fluffy cloud.”
Welcome the runners to Fresno
Fresno State’s First Nations Student Organization and the native community will be at the university’s O’Neill Park from noon to 8 p.m. Saturday to welcome the runners with Peace and Dignity Journeys, who are expected between 1 and 2 p.m.. The event includes a free barbecue meal, Native American drumming, Aztec dancers and music by Lance Canales & The Flood. Donations will be accepted, and raffle tickets and prizes will be sold to support the runners’ journey. Donations can also be made online at paypal.com. The account for the inland California route is under Daniel Mejia’s email, firstname.lastname@example.org.