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Dan Ninham
Special to Indian Country Today

The 125th running of the Boston Marathon was the year of Indigenous people.

“What a highlight to have both the Boston Marathon and the first nationally recognized celebration of Indigenous Peoples’ Day, just recently signed by President Joe Biden, on the same day,” said Patti Dillon, a citizen of the Mi’kmaq tribe of Nova Scotia, the Boston Marathon’s official starter and three-time marathon runner-up and former American marathon record holder told Indian Country Today.

(Related: Joe Biden is first president to mark Indigenous Peoples' Day)

“Unfortunately, I did not know any Native American runners when I ran in 1979, 1980, 1981. It was after my career, much to my delight, I met Billy Mills, Olympic gold medalist and several other Native runners through Wings of America,” Dillon said. ”We seemed to be few at the major races. However, I know there is more running and soon we'll be crowding the podiums.”

The 1907 marathon champion Thomas Longboat, Onondaga Nation, along with the 1936 and 1939 winner Ellison Meyer "Tarzan" Brown, Narragansett, and three-time runner up Dillon were all celebrated at this year's marathon.

“I'm honored to be a part of this representation of Native Americans,” Dillon said.

One Native runner finished in the top 50 out of thousands of runners the race in Boston.

“I hope to help as many Native American runners become elite competitors at all major races,” she added.

Craig Curley, Navajo, talked to Indian Country Today about Dillon’s legacy.

Elite Native distance runners Patti Dillon, Mi’kmaq, and Craig Curley, Navajo, met at the 125th Boston Marathon. (Photo courtesy of Craig Curley)

“We have known about each other for some time and I cherish the moment we finally met. Patti has always given her time to help me whether it's running related or not. People have won championships, but very few have run her times and that shows how tough she is. As a runner I have a lot of respect for what she's done for running.”

Curley planned to run two marathons in October.

“I had early plans to run the Dublin Marathon on Oct. 24 and the Boston Marathon on Oct. 11,” he said. “Preparing for two marathons in the same month and wanting to run a personal best for each one would be tough for anyone.”

Then came disappointing news in July. The Dublin race was canceled.

“All my training then focused on Boston and I felt good having run in the elite race twice before,” he said. “Feeling good and training harder, I developed a leg injury.”

As Boston approached, he turned to swimming and resistance training due to injury.

“Days before I wasn't sure I would be healthy enough to complete the run in New England. Nonetheless, I love running the Boston Marathon and I felt motivated to start and finish the race,” he said.

“I know in our small communities we had the loss of loved ones in this pandemic and at times it can feel like a large part is gone,” Curley said. “I felt that literally hours before the race when connecting in conversation with a woman I just met. We shared our experiences with the pandemic on the rez and there's so much raw truth and sadness that I just cried my eyes out unexpectedly. I didn't know how much I was holding on the inside. I know I didn't run anywhere close to my best time, but I hope people know I ran trying to give the love back to those home and across Indigenous land.”

Beth Wright, Pueblo of Laguna, finished her fourth Boston Marathon. (Photo courtesy of Beth Wright)

A former track and cross country runner for Syracuse University, Beth Wright, Laguna Pueblo, finished the 2021 Boston Marathon in 3:28.18.

“I was proud to run for my community and the next generation of Indigenous runners,” Wright said.

Wright is an attorney at the Northwest Justice Project in Seattle. She’s a four time Boston Marathon finisher.

“It was important for me as an Indigenous runner to run the marathon on Indigenous Peoples’ Day to show people that Indigenous people are still here. We're not just people from the past, but we exist in the present as runners, teachers, lawyers, activists, business owners, etc., and we're using our traditional knowledge in our day-to-day lives to uplift our communities, keep our communities healthy, and fight for our legal right to live on the lands we have always inhabited.”

Kyle Sumatzkuku, Hopi, finished 48th out of 15,000-plus runners at the 2021 Boston Marathon. (Photo courtesy of Duane Humeyestewa)
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Kyle Sumatzkuku, Hopi, is from the village of Mishungnuvi, known as Second Mesa in northeast Arizona. He lives in Munqapi, known as Third Mesa.

“I was so focused and in the zone for the race sometimes it feels like a blur,” Sumatzkuku said. ”It was monumental to be at the start line with thousands upon thousands of amazing runners from all over the world.”

Sumatzkuku met other Native runners, including Curley and Dillon.

(Related: First Native person to cross Boston Marathon finish line)

“I ran for land we need to protect, the clean air we breathe, and especially the water which is precious. I ran for the strong cultural knowledge and traditions passed down from our ancestors, the teachings that guide us and the cultural practices that make us who we are.”

Sumatzkuku finished in 2:26.17 and placed 48th out of over 15,000 runners. He was also featured on Indian Country Today’s newscast..

“I ran for my parents, my aunts and uncles, for our elders and leaders, our young ones and those who are not able to run,” he said. “I ran to inspire our families and youth to move towards a healthy lifestyle and to make wise choices for a better life. I hope we can all continue to continue this tradition of running for many generations to come.”

Runner Dustin Martin, Diné, was more excited for this year’s marathon because of the connection to Indigenous Peoples’ Day.

Dustin Martin, Diné, visited with Sherry Holloway of Bemidji, Minnesota at the pre-Boston Marathon Indigenous Peoples' Day festivities. (Photo courtesy of Sherry Holloway)

Martin, executive director of the Wings of America, said he was part of conversations with the Boston Athletic Association, representatives of the local tribes and other local Indigenous organizers.

“Despite the complicated issues associated with the Boston Marathon being held on Indigenous Peoples’ Day, I was determined to help create a space to celebrate the past, present and future of Indigenous running.”

He had a role in a mural at the race that featured past Indigenous runners. The mural was completed by Yatika Fields and Robert Peters. “Each of their stories are powerful and I felt partially responsible for making sure their brilliance stood out to passersby.”

“On Wednesday before the race, I stayed up late composing concise summaries of their contributions to running. Those viewing the mural would use these descriptions to educate themselves about the ‘greats’ up on the wall if the artists and I were too busy to explain ourselves.”

The race was Martin’s fourth in Boston and plenty different from his past races.

“The race itself was very different from the three other Boston Marathon's I've run. Because of COVID, the race organizers imposed a rolling start to keep down the crowds. Instead of taking the bus to Hopkinton and having to wait in a big crowd until it was time to go to the starting line, we were let off the busses and allowed to casually make our way. Because I wasn't wearing a watch, I had no idea what time it was or when the gun went off.”

For the first 16 miles, Martin said the group of runners around him ran at a slower pace.

“ It was exhilarating to ‘whoosh’ past them with such ease as I focused my mind on loved ones and loved places to help the miles tick by,” he said. “I felt confident in my knowledge of how to hydrate and fuel and took sips of water at most water stations, barely slowing to make sure the water made it in my mouth. The sky was overcast and the air was mostly calm. Each time I spilled a cup of water on my front, it felt good to let the wind gradually dry me off.”

Then came the famous “Newton Hills” part of the race.

“My body really started to feel the miles around mile 18 or 19. This is a section of the course known as the ‘Newton Hills’ where Tarzan Brown put John Kelley to rest when he won in 1933. For the first time ever, I went to scout this section of the course before the race when I arrived in Boston last Wednesday. Right as things got tough, I was able to rely on my knowledge of the terrain and the inspiration of Tarzan and Heartbreak Hill to pull me through.”

His right hamstring started to cramp after and calves were getting stiff. He said he grabbed a cup of water and slowed to a walk for about 50 feet and said a prayer for his body to finish.

“I was pleasantly surprised how well I started to run again and leaned into the pain all the way down Boylston.”

Martin finished the Boston Marathon in a time of 2:28.26.

“Soon after finishing, I was able to link up with my old Wings teammate Craig Curley. I was happy to learn he was also pleased with his race and we double-backed over the last mile of the course until we found a bike-share station to rent our rides back to the apartment we were staying in. As we cruised up the path along the Charles River, I felt 100 percent proud to be Indigenous. And I also felt like I was being 100 percent me. Who could ask for a better feeling?”

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10/20 correction: Ellison 'Tarzan' Brown won the Boston Marathon in 1936 and 1939.

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