Navajo Race in the Canyon de Chelly

by Anne Whitehouse


Fleet of foot, arms pumping,

we run towards the first light,

our cries in the dawn a prayer

opening our internal passages,

all of creation before us—

the slivered, sinking moon,

canyon, cedar, and sage

scenting the desert air,

watched over by eagle and bear,

bobcat and mountain lion.


Our feet pound the sand,

first cold, then warm

as the sun rises, and canyon walls

glow pink and red

where the ancient ones

carved pictures into the rocks

of the canyon where our families

still herd their sheep

and grow corn and melons,

apples and cherries.


We run because our teacher

ran here once in the August monsoon,

as the wind shifted from the southwest

and brought a soft mother rain.

Under a grove of trees, he spooked a herd

of wild horses that took off,

adults closing ranks behind the foals.


Filled with rainy energy,

our teacher caught up with the horses,

and they parted to let him in,

their sweaty flanks rubbing his skin,

as shoulder to shoulder, nostrils flaring,

horses and human ran as one.


They ran for a blink of eternity.

Just short of the canyon mouth,

the horses all stopped,

as if toeing an invisible line,

ears pricking, pointed at him.


He breathed their vital presence

and knew them for the spirits

of the high school runners

he’d nurtured and encouraged,

until his team was destroyed

by school politics and jealousy,

and his runners disbanded.

This is why he created this race

and inspired us to run in it,

as Navajos have always run,

for the blessings of mother earth.


Thirty-four miles through sand and scrub

up a steep path where it’s hand over hand

to the canyon rim, along the ridge

and back through red river washes,

past willows and cottonwoods,

arbors of birch and Russian olive.

Deep in the canyon, a black bear

ambles up the sand path, and we dart

into the woods until it’s gone.


When the fastest among us start to flag,

a dog appears, an ordinary rez mutt

with brown-and-white fur and intelligent eyes

running beside us to give us strength,

until he disappears on the canyon rim

to reappear hours later when an older runner,

the last straggler, slogging through sand,

emerges through afternoon haze,

the dog keeping pace next to him.

So with the slowest as with the swiftest,

all of us finishing in beauty.


Inspired by Michael Powell, “34 Miles Forward, 1000 Years Back” The New York Times, D1, D7, November 13, 2017.