The Return of the Runner, by Jim Kristofic

An older Navajo runs for his people

He is in the place where it started and continues. He is in the prayers.

The sun is coming. Blue shadows weave between dark branches of piñon and juniper.

Stars glitter in the cold morning sky. Edison Eskeets walks to the edge of the sandstone cascade called Canyon de Chelly in northern Arizona on the Navajo Nation. He offers his hand to the east.
His untied black hair streaks with gray. It falls around his thin, defined body. His high cheekbones and articulate nose give him a certain handsome nobility. He stands five feet, nine inches and weighs no more than 135 pounds.

He wears only a woven kilt and his pair of moccasins.

He looks through a half-mile of space to Tsé ya’aa’hí (Spider Rock), the seven-hundred-and-fifty-foot-tall sacred spire where Na’ashjé’ii Asdzaa (Spider Woman) is said to have lived after teaching the art of weaving to the Diné—the Navajo people. Edison has painted his bare arm and chest white and offers the white corn from the jish (medicine pouch). His left arm is painted turquoise. His right leg is yellow and red. His left leg is black. The story is quiet. It is in the paint. It speaks of mountains, of a journey through the worlds, through forms and bodies, to this world with the help of the gods.

He looks to the remaining stars of the Milky Way and sees a specific curving shape. It is a feather, clear to any eye. It is what he needs. It is enough.

Edison was a quiet teenager at Gallup High School who spent more time herding sheep than talking to girls. He got recruited and became a first-team All-American runner for Haskell University. He ran professionally for years. He organized running camps all over the Reservation. He was a teacher and dean of students at an elite Native American prep school in Santa Fe. Now he is the trader at Hubbell Trading Post, the oldest operating trading post in Diné Bikéyah (Navajo country). Today he will begin a run to honor the survivors of the Long Walk—the forced removal of most of the Diné people to a military-controlled reservation on the Pecos River in south-central New Mexico. He will run from here, Spider Rock, to Santa Fé—where the scheme for the Long Walk was drawn out and executed—to deliver a message. He will run 330 miles in sixteen days. He will run a marathon a day. He’s fifty-nine years old.

Edison’s prayers fall into the air like white cornmeal and become part of something that might be so old only Spider Woman remembers it.

In the days before the Americans claimed the ground, when medicine needed to be gathered or messages sent, someone sent a runner. This morning, Edison is running.

He is not running for a trophy. He is not running for a place in a record book. He is not running for a finish line.

He is running to tell a story. He is an old man leaving an instruction—a lifeline—for the young people. He is meeting an obligation he has been taught since he was a small child.

Edison makes it happen in the old way. He sets down a rug woven by Mary Henderson Begay. Against the gray background, you will see the blue and red lines of the rainbow, constellations of stars, the line of sky and atmosphere that burns and destroys meteorites and protects Nahasdzáán, the Earth Mother, the plants that are medicine and food and dye for the rug. The plant is a rug and the rug is the plant. The white eagle feather, the shape of the feather he saw in the stars. The “X” of the treaty. The dates of the Long Walk, 1864-1868, in brown wool. The six sacred mountains. The four directions. It is all there. As a comfort. To protect us. It is the whole Navajo story. The story of the struggle for fulfillment.

The closest way to say this in Navajo is with the phrase: Są’ah naagháí bike’hózhó. It interprets to “A Beautiful Harmony Fulfilled By A Long Life” or “A Fulfillment Brought About By Maturity.” Literally są’ah naagháí (The One Who Is Long in Life, often referring to Earth Mother) plus bike’hózhó (Directs Pleasant Conditions, often associated with Father Sky).

The first is the proper state of femaleness (which can be experienced by the most manly of men) and the latter is the proper state of maleness (able to be felt by the most feminine of women). Są’ah naagháí bike’hózhó is often the “still point” between the two. A beautiful perfection.

If you want the clearest interpretation, ask the corn plant. Watch the corn tassel burst forth with yellow pollen, a sudden expression of intense and determined life and beauty that allows for the experience of eternity. That is Są’ah naagháí bike’hózhó.

Edison lays the rug on the ground as the ya’sikaad (ground cover). Edison gives the weaver a carefully wrapped buckskin pouch of corn pollen. Two hundred years ago, these pouches would be made of hides of deer unpunctured by arrows or spears. They had to be killed by runners, who would chase the deer to exhaustion, when it could no longer run. They would place the deer in a headlock and pin it, take the sacred tádídíín (corn pollen) in their hands and use it to smother the deer. Life became death and became life. It is all so simple that it takes your whole life to understand.

Edison sets down the basket and puts the yellow corn pollen inside. He turns to his family. They are going to travel with him. His sister, Lorraine, will be his nurse, his coach, his advisor, and his provider, as she has been on many of his other runs. Her husband, Jason, and their daughter, Jay-Lynn, will drive ahead of him as he runs.

They are his bloodline, his family. There are guests: journalists, politicians, executive directors, and well-wishers.
Edison speaks to them all the same. He takes up the tádídíín and to each person he hands the blessing of the pollen. He tells them Díí ní doleel.

This is for your future. Your blessings for your path of life.
In all this he keeps it together. He stays focused. After the last blessing, he turns back to the sunrise. He sees the white band of dawn. And he just breaks down.

In that white line on the horizon is the East, the white shell direction. The place of nitsaahakees—the thinking, where Sisnaajini, the mountain of the East, Mt. Blanca, sits. The vision of what could be. This is the color of Edison’s right arm that holds the pollen. As the Diné see it, the right side of each of us is the woman. The side that stirs the coals of the fire. The side that prepares the food and carries the children and rears the possibility for a future.

Edison feels the old places and the old faces of the people who once did those things here in the canyon. The ruins of the Anasazi (Ancient Ones) still cling to the broad south-facing arches in the canyon walls. Some are impossibly mortared against the smooth peach-colored sandstone. The tł’oh ’azihii (ephedra) blooms green and the t’iis (cottonwood trees) spread in arteries of green fire at the canyon bottom.

Edison Eskeets. Wet-plate photograph taken prior to the run. Photograph by Joseph Kayne

The Diné call this place Tseyí (The Rock in the Canyon). It has called people into it for five thousand years. On the Colorado Plateau, it is the place where people have lived longest, through war, slaving, and drought. The people get labeled according to dates of occupation. They are silent and cannot complain. Archaic (2500–2000 B.C.), Basketmaker (200 B.C.–750 A.D.), Anasazi, the builders who made the compounds and kivas (750–1300 A.D.).

The scholar and mythologist Joseph Campbell once said there were two great sacred spiritual centers he’d experienced in his long life. One was Chartres cathedral in France. The other was Canyon de Chelly. He called it “the most sacred place on earth.”

When the Anasazi built the first kivas, a tribe on the other side of the planet that called itself the Achaeans, whom Americans will call the Ancient Greeks and who will lay the foundations of a civilization that will come to lay borders on this ground—emerged from a mass of 51,000 square miles of dry ground and mountains. The Anasazi claimed a country of similar size, stretching from modern central Arizona to southern Colorado.

Most Anasazi moved away from Canyon de Chelly, but their descendants, the Hopi, returned to hunt and farm the reliable flowing waters. The Diné moved in with sheep and horses in the 1700s. Or they were always here. They say one of the first Navajo clans—the Tséńjíkinií (Honey Comb Rock Clan)—emerged from the cliffs near what is now called the White House Ruin.

The Diné had one generation watching the corn pollen drifting in the cool sunrise and the peach trees shimmering green in the noon heat. Then the wars were on. With other tribes, with the New Mexicans, the Americans. Then the government in 1931 stepped in to “preserve this record of human history” of the fight over plants and water.

At the Spider Rock overlook, a juniper twists dead into the sky. A lone naked limb is covered in graffiti. Someone has carved a marijuana leaf. These are the signs and petroglyphs of the young. The most common phrase knifed into the bark is “I Love the Rez.” Brown sagebrush lizards dart between the roots of the tree.

Edison feels the movement of Spider Woman. He feels the direction of Mary Henderson Begay, the weaver.

He lets himself break down. He has finished the words.

So much will be unsaid, spoken by breath and motion. This all begins in youth, in the dawn of life. You had to wake up and run toward the rising sun. You took in the cold breath, the air of the gods. As the Diné see it, by running you are alerting the gods to your presence. By running in the morning, you are encountering deities like House God and Talking God. They chase you. They mock you. They tame you into a new kind of strength. This strength will perhaps allow you to live into old age, to acquire the character and the wisdom that one can give to the grandchildren and live through them. That one might experience Są’ah naagháí bike’hózhó. That your strength of maturity might be a demonstration for the young.

Running is part of encountering Są’ah naagháí bike’hózhó. Before the day of the run, Edison had his check up at the hospital in Ganado, Arizona. The nurse took his vitals and his blood pressure.

“She couldn’t believe it,” Edison said. “She said, ‘Your numbers are completely perfect. Perfect.’ And she actually took them again. She couldn’t believe it. She said, ‘How old did you say you were again?’ I said I was fifty-nine years old. She shook her head. She just couldn’t believe it. She said, ‘Well, whatever you’re doing, keep doing it.’ But she never asked me what I actually did. Which was a bit disappointing.”

I ask what he would have told her if she had asked.

“Stay active,” Edison says. “And move what you eat. You’ve got to use it. Just stay moving.”

Many of the Anasazi’s descendants will say Navajos are synonymous with movement and often acknowledged them as superior runners. In the Zuni way, Morning Star and Evening Star first offered corn to the people. Morning Star made a race to decide how they would divide the corn. The Zuni, Acoma, and Navajo offered up their fastest men.

The men ran. The Navajo man finished first, followed by the Acoma man, and then the Zuni. Morning Star broke an ear of corn into three chunks. The Navajo got the tip, the Acoma won the middle, and the Zuni took the butt end. Evening Star told them: “It is well. The Navajo is the swiftest runner. He will always be moving from place to place. He will not be able to take care of much corn.”

Even as Navajo men grew older, they would have special “old men” races.

Many people don’t know the traditions of the Navajo runner. They are lost. But they see it come back there that morning in front of Tsé ya’aa’hí—Spider Rock.

Mural at Canyon de Chelly depicting Spider Woman. Photograph by Jim Kristofic

A poetic word for a runner in Diné is jádí, the One Who Uses Legs or The Runner. This usually refers to the pronghorn antelope. The word jau’di’ (pronounced something like “JOW-DEH”) refers specifically to a ceremonial runner. This would be the runner contracted by the medicine man to run toward mountains to gather medicine, to scout for enemies, to send messages in war, to carry ceremonial items. It demanded a life of vigilant diet and constant conditioning. Jau’di’ is an old word, mostly left behind in the sands of long ago.

Edison has been trying to bring back that word for the runners to come.

When Edison attended Gallup High School his freshmen year, his coach picked him out as a natural talent who likely been well conditioned herding goats and sheep over rocky terrain at 6,500-foot elevation near Crownpoint, New Mexico. In those rocks, Edison met his first teachers: the sheep.

“When sheep go out, they go in a line,” Edison said. “They know where the water is and you’re just following. The newborns come. There is laughter. Play. And there’s death. So sheep gave me that intensity of living.”

We talked about the preparation. This kind of long-distance running breaks down to four elements: Your inner soul. Your heart. Your cognitive thinking—the mapping of the terrain, the roll of the landscape. And the well-being of your psyche—that you feed, eat well, get your glucose.

Edison hoped this preparation made him worthy of the run.

“The Diné people who survived that Long Walk maintained the elegance of who they were, even though they were tormented by their experience,” Edison said. “I need to bring that back to Navajoland. Can I manage that? Am I the person for that? They did.”

He confesses this will be the last of his four ultraruns.

“This is it. I know,” he said. “This is closure. As a person, it will be a review of things for me. It will be a teaching kit. And to leave something behind for the people. It is one person leaving behind their lifeline.”

So Edison’s coach turned out to be right. During tryouts, Edison blew the other runners away and was put on varsity. This meant longer school days. This meant hitchhiking home on some evenings. Most evenings.

He finished tenth at the 1976 New Mexico state cross-country championships his junior year. In his senior year, he was never recruited by any colleges because his cross-country coach left the school and they had to cancel their season. So Edison knew he wasn’t going to college. He would work in a lumber yard or a stone yard and make money until something else came.

But someone had told Jerry Tuckwin about Edison. Tuckwin, a cross-country and track coach at Haskell Indian Junior College (now Haskell Indian Nations University) in Lawrence, Kansas, offered Edison a running scholarship and a free education.

Edison asked his mom if it would be okay to leave. She said no.
But he continued to ask her for permission until she saw something in him that needed to leave. So she said yes.

That August of 1978, Tuckwin drove through the Reservation to collect the new student athletes for that year. He saw Edison hesitating with his small bag and jean jacket at his home in New Mexico. He did not talk much. Tuckwin wasn’t sure Edison would get on the bus. But Edison did.

While he was at Haskell, he was invited to a Tipi Way. He went with a Sioux friend of his. He was doing okay with his running that year, but not great. He was restless and eager. The ceremony started. Edison took medicine peyote and smoked tobacco. Everyone took a break at two in the morning. During the break, an old man called Edison over. Edison saw the man had been sitting in a wheelchair. He had no legs.

“He says, ‘You are a runner.’ Now I didn’t tell him this. Somehow he just knew. And he said, ‘I know you’re looking at me and you must feel bad for me. But don’t. Because I’m a full man. I’m a full man. And for you, you are going to do well. You’re going to be fine.’”

The man was right. In the following cross-country season, Edison was ranked in the top six cross-country runners in the nation. He was the only American-born member of the All-American team. The people ranked above him were all foreigners recruited from overseas.
After high school, it’s tough for Native runners, tough for them to make it. Edison recalls Andy Martínez from Acoma Pueblo, who ran a 4:10 mile as a freshman. Before the race, Martínez was prepared by the women. They would say prayers over him and brush him with feathers. He would take an arrowhead in his mouth. And he would just blow everyone away. Stanford recruited him. But he decided to stay near Acoma and to work and start a family.

Andy Martínez is one of many names Edison remembered as he made his own preparations for this first dawn of the run.

This morning is a Return of the Jau’di’, painted with the colors of the sacred mountains. Edison starts running. He goes the first mile in his moccasins to begin the lifeline. The young man in him is excited. The old man in him knows it is all already done. ◆

This piece appears in our Summer 2021 issue of Parabola, “Young and Old.” Please consider subscribing to our magazine or purchasing the issue here.