Running for Native American Awareness

Last semester, Conor Handley (‘15, Wildlife) took a four-month leave of absence from HSU to run across America raising awareness about Native American culture.

2013-02-07-PDJmain.jpg
Conor Handley (‘15, Wildlife) joined hundreds of Native Americans from across the nation on the Peace and Dignity Journey.

“It was tiring and cold and scary at times,” says Handley, who was one of hundreds of Native Americans from around the country to participate in the Peace and Dignity Journey, a national event held every four years to raise Native American awareness. “For me, it was all about reconnecting with my culture.”

From May to December, Handley and about 20 others covered 6,000-miles by foot—averaging between 50 to 80 miles a day—from Chickaloon, Alaska to Uaxactun, Guatemala. They got help from support vehicles and visited Native American communities along the way.

2013-02-07-PDJ3.jpg
The journey included a ceremonial Aztec dance in Mexico.

Started in 1992, the Peace and Dignity Journey is open to anyone interested in building awareness about Native American culture. Participants begin running at locations around North America and meet in Guatemala for a final ceremony in December. Each year’s journey revolves around a theme significant to Native American culture. This year’s theme was water.

In addition to honoring the journey’s theme, participants share stories, dances and traditions. For Handley, one of highlights of the trip was learning a ceremonial Aztec dance in Mexico. “I’m a member of the Aztec dancing group at HSU so to be able to witness people from around the country coming together to participate in this ancient, Native American tradition was extremely moving.”

During the six-month trip, runners carried ceremonial staffs representing different communities. Handley and his ancestors are members of the Yavapai and Yaki tribes of Arizona. But for the trip, he officially represented the Kumeyaay—the tribe from his hometown of San Diego. Before joining the run, Handley had to receive approval from his tribal elders. “Because of the necessary physical and mental energy, not everyone can participate,” he explains.

2013-0207-PDJ2.jpg
During his trip, Handley discarded his expensive running shoes in favor of a pair of traditional Native American sandals he made himself.

Interestingly enough, the only hiccup Handley encountered during the 6,000-mile journey was his hundred dollar running shoes. After eight weeks, he began experiencing severe back pain. “I felt like an 80-year-old man,” he recalls. So he who tossed the shoes and fashioned a pair of traditional Native American sandals from rubber and leather instead. He ran with the sandals the rest of the way to Guatemala.

Handley returned to the United States in December and began his sophomore year this semester. “Doing something like this, you change as a person,” he explains. “I didn’t have much focus before and now I’m interested in tribal environmental policy and helping Native people better manage their land.”

“It opened my eyes to all of the issues we face as Native American people,” he says. “It gave me a sense of responsibility to my community.”

For more information on the Peace and Dignity Journey, visit www.facebook.com/supportpdj.