Verna Volker is from the Navajo Nation. She started running in 2009 and noticed the lack of Native women in the running community – from advertisements to product ambassadors, to podium finishers. She created the social media account Native Women Running to support others like herself and amplify their stories. The account has become a movement and an organization, helping to shine a light on Native women runners.
What are some of the challenges Native women face in the running community?
As Native people, we often call it erasure. We’re left out a lot of times because we’re such a small percentage of the population. But we still exist. We’re often overlooked and our women are ignored.
One of the challenges for Native women, is that we face things differently. I think my account is unique because Native women, we run for competition but our views on running are so different. It’s more spiritual. A lot of women share their journey of loss and trauma, and that extends to historical trauma. Running is a way of healing.
I don’t speak for all Native runners, but another common barrier for Native women is the ability to access races. We’ve created something to help our women work with race directors for to decrease or eliminate those barriers. Things like free registration or help in getting women to races with gas money or flights, or new shoes. But we don’t want these to be one-time occurrences. We need race directors to invest in the Native running community and to create sustained visibility for Native women.
How do you see running specifically, and sports in general, as a space to help give voice to important issues?
There are two issues that have particularly affected Native women through generations – residential boarding schools and Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women (MMIW).
Over the last few years, there has been growing awareness about what happened at residential schools in the U.S. and Canada. From that comes the movement called Every Child Matters, and the generational trauma continues as we continue to find remains of Indigenous children at these sites.
Every Child Matters and MMIW provide a way for us to be advocates within our own communities. I created a MMIW virtual run for people who weren’t able to be out there to protest. Whether women were in isolated areas or just couldn’t for whatever reason be part of a public protest, they could feel like they were making a difference.
I think it gives us a healing. We will run for that. We run for a purpose. We run for healing. It helps all of us.
What are ways that running can be more inclusive, particularly for Native women?
Build real, authentic relationships with Native runners. Take time to understand and learn our ways, our world views, and how we see running in our culture. Learn why it’s important for us to run. The perception is that we’re running because we want to achieve a set of goals, and that can be part of it, but we run for healing.
One of the companies I work with is a hydration pack company that’s owned by two white guys who really want to be more inclusive. We were in a meeting, and they said to me, “Verna we stand in your shadows.” That stood out to me and meant a lot to me. They were willing to follow me and let me be the decision-maker and give them direction.
Listen to what really matters to us. Don’t just throw some free products our way. I want to you to know more about us and why we run.
Give us an opportunity to be on boards and be ambassadors We want to give. Start by inviting us to the table and then give us an opportunity to lead in those spaces.
What do you hope to see from women’s sports in the future?
When I started running, I never saw myself reflected in the running community. In the industry and in ads the only type of runner I saw was white, skinny, blonde, and a Boston qualifier. I created the account Native Women Running as a space for others to share their journey.
What I want to see is more Native women in these races, speaking on panels, at big events, and invited into these spaces. My main goal through all of this has been representation. That’s our mission. Representation matters. I want young Indigenous girls to see themselves in running. When I started this, the stories of Native runners were few and far between. I want to be able to do a quick internet search and easily find Native women telling their stories.
What athletes should we be following on social media?
There are so many! Angles_ventures is part of our leadership team and never considered herself a runner before. Also on Instagram are some amazing Native women runners among them Marlinda “Hohokimal” Bedonie at @lou_bedonie who is an ultrarunner and Carol Seppilu at @nasqaq, a mountain-ultra-trail runner.