Runningwolf Brown will more than live up to his name this month as he starts his 1,500-mile journey, running from the Intertribal Friendship House in Oakland, Calif., to the Blackfeet Reservation in Browning, Mont.
The run is both a personal healing journey for Runningwolf and a fund-raising event. Runningwolf hopes his journey will draw attention to the plight of Native American families broken up by destructive relocation programs initiated by the U.S. government in the early 1950s. He also hopes publicity from his journey will help raise $100,000 for Native American agencies handling Native adoption issues in the San Francisco Bay Area.
"The genocide of Native Americans didn't end in the 19th century," he says. "It continued well into the 20th. ... Native Americans were persuaded, and essentially forced by economic conditions to leave their communities for promises of 'a good life' in the city. Those promises were never fulfilled."
From 1954 until the Nixon administration, the Relocation Act resulted in approximately 100,000 Native Americans leaving their reservations. Runningwolf's mother was one of them, relocating from the Blackfeet Reservation to Oakland. For her, too, the "good life" never materialized. Runningwolf, the eldest of her four children, ended up being adopted out to a non-Native family in the Bay Area at the age of six months.
Runningwolf says his whole life since then has been a journey to find his true home.
"I was always looking for something," he says. "I was always looking for something through education, through experience, through traveling, that I never found."
Raised by a Quaker family, Brown's mother was English and his father Norwegian. His adopted brother was Japanese and Hawaiian. "I knew pretty much from the get-go that I was adopted," he muses.
Taught carpentry at an early age by his father, Brown soon used his trade skills as a ticket to travel. After graduating from a junior college, he spent 10 years roaming around the world, "looking," for something, somewhere to fit in.
"I was subconsciously struggling with the issue that I was just displaced," he says. "And all the things that made people happy in the regular world - a house with a white picket fence, two cars in the garage, a model girlfriend - that just wasn't it for me. All of my friends were basically Caucasian, middle-class people who were striving to get "a better life." I felt there was something beyond that. And I was struggling."
Not surprisingly, by the time he was 30, Runningwolf discovered he was an alcoholic - a problem affecting adopted Native Americans at a 200 percent statistically higher rate than the national average.
Counseling, AA (Alcoholics Anonymous), nothing worked. By chance, while taking a computer course at United Indian Nations foundation in Oakland, he met a Native American therapist who dealt in something called "rational recovery."
"There are certain roads that certain personalities shouldn't go down, because it's just not for them," Runningwolf says. "I was going to non-Native rehabs and it was failing. Rational recovery is the exact opposite of the 12 Step program. In AA, the first step to recovery is basically you say you are powerless against this addiction. Rational recovery says you have power over it.
"For me, with the 12 Step program, I thought it was trading one addiction for another. So I switched out."
It worked. Despite previous failures to get a handle on drink, once he was treated as a Native American by a Native American, everything finally clicked. Seven years later Runningwolf says he hasn't touched a drop.
The experience changed his life. For the first time, instead of ignoring his Native heritage, Runningwolf sought it out. A shaky reunion with his mother and his long-lost family on the Blackfeet Reservation left much to be desired. Something was still missing. While participating at the Indigenous games in Browning in 1999, he went running in the hills near the tribe's sacred mountain. There, he got the answer.
"Basically, something inside was talking to me. And it said, ' you have to walk home. You have to come home by foot.'"
Runningwolf says he realized that by coming home this way, he would be repeating the forced relocation marches many of his people experienced. Sharing their pain, their exhaustion, their dislocation is a way he believes he can reunite with his heritage. And he will have a lot of time to think and release old feelings of anger and resentment that might still stand in the way of his healing.
Running more than 20 miles a day to get prepared, Runningwolf says he plans to run and walk at least 35 miles per day on his trek. Counting on friends and volunteers to drive support vehicles carrying supplies, his path will take him through northeastern California, through Oregon and the Umatilla Reservation, up the Columbia River to Spokane, Wash., then east to Browning, Mont. During his run he plans on visiting reservations, encouraging tribal members to strengthen their efforts in preventing violations of the American Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978.
He hopes to make the journey in 40 to 45 days, arriving at the reservation for Indian Days. During the pow wow, he plans a giveaway to his mother's family.
Those who wish to follow Runningwolf's journey can track his run on the Internet at www.tribalink.com. Tax deductible donations can be made to "Going Home," c/o Seventh Generation Fund, P.O. Box 4569, Arcata, CA, 95518.