These Native American Runners Are Transforming Their Mental Health, One Mile at a Time

Illustration by Well+Good Creative
The first time Sarah Agaton Howes laced up her sneakers and decided to go for a jog, she was admittedly self-conscious. Running wasn't something she saw anyone doing on the reservation where she lived in northern Minnesota—or any reservation that she knew of, really. But she wanted her life to change—and this was the first step.

It was her doctor who had suggested running. Howes's daughter had died a year and a half before, and what followed was the deepest depression she had ever experienced. In the midst of her pain, she gained over a hundred pounds. Her doctor warned that if she didn't change her sedentary lifestyle, she was at risk of becoming diabetic. "I had a new baby, and I didn't want him to grow up watching me in the place where I was, both physically and mentally," Howes says. So she decided to run.

She didn't get very far that first time, but Howes kept running and even signed up for a 5K. "I came in dead last," Howes says. But it didn't matter, especially when she saw her husband and son cheering her on at the finish line. "I felt victorious for the first time in a long time," she says.

The sight of an indigenous woman crossing a finish line is a powerful one. Headlines about Native Americans and mental health typically highlight the obstacles, not the victories—Native American populations have higher rates of domestic abuse and opioid use; the suicide rate for Native American women is up 139 percent since 1999; Native Americans experience serious psychological distress 1.5 times more frequently than the general population. These are very real, pervasive problems. But despite the odds, positive changes are slowly and surely being made within many Native American communities.

The narrative behind the statistics

Jillene Joseph, a member of the People of the White Clay tribal community in Montana and the executive director at the Native Wellness Institute (a non-profit aiming to improve the health and well-being of Native people), says the higher rates of depression and suicide are deeply related to the enduring trauma of colonialization. "[Native Americans] are masters of living in balance physically, mentally, and spiritually. What colonization and white supremacy did was try to wipe us off the face of the earth, and when that couldn't be accomplished, it contributed to many other problems, including genocide and stealing our children," Joseph says.

Those horrific historical injustices (which lasted through the 20th century) have impacted the health and well-being of the modern Native American community—a concept known as intergenerational or transgenerational trauma. Some preliminary research has found evidence that the effects of experiencing a life-threatening or traumatic event can potentially alter a person's DNA and be passed down to their offspring.

Joseph says that isolation and a culture of silence has made these health issues even worse in tribal communities. "There was interesting research done in the 1980s on adult children of alcoholics, and what the research showed was that people who grew up in violence, poverty, or addiction were taught an unspoken rule to not talk about it," Joseph says. She believes that's true in many Native American communities, too. "A lot of people don't talk about what's happening in their families because it's just the norm and there's an unspoken rule not to talk about it. There's a stigma of talking about depression or anxiety on a national level, but it is deeply felt in the Native American community," she says.

However, Joseph remains positive about the future of tribal communities. "Yes, we do have high rates of pretty much everything, but there are also so many beautiful things happening surrounding cultural revitalization," Joseph says. "It's going to take decades to turn the numbers around, but it will happen."

Native Wellness Institute in particular has seen powerful changes made by going onto reservations and giving people safe spaces to speak up about being depressed or anxious, something many are used to being silent about. "That's the first step, breaking that silence," Joseph says. Then, the organization's trained workers collaborate with tribal leaders on how they can get community members the proper help they need. "Many Native American people are disconnected to traditional practices, so the advice given to individuals is going to vary," Joseph says. "One person may be connected to the church more than traditional ceremonies, for example. Or, it may be recommending a therapist or medical doctor," she says. "Our communities are embracing many, many different ways of healing. In one reservation, we may bring horse culture back and the people may start working with horses more," she says as an example. And as Howes and others found, running can be a deeply healing practice, too.

Running as a tribe

For Howes, that first 5K became the first of many race days. At the 5K, she connected with Chally Topping, who is also from a tribal community in the Midwest. "I started running 12 years ago, when I was 21," Topping says. "You know when you get angry and just want to destroy everything? Well, I started going for walks to deal with feelings like that. There was one time, I remember, that walking didn't make me feel better. So that's when I decided to run."

Like Howes, running didn't come easy to Topping. She also felt self-conscious because no one in her community was ever seen out running. "Then, I decided that I wanted people to see me outside running. I wanted to put that positive picture out there," she says. Even though she had newly quit smoking, was overweight, and could only run a few blocks at first, Topping kept going. Then, she really dared herself and signed up for a half-marathon.

"When I saw Chally at the 5K, she told me I should run a half-marathon," Howes says. To motivate each other—and others—Howes and Topping decided to form a running group, which eventually came to be called the Kwe Pack ("kwe" meaning "woman" in Ojibwe). The group started 10 years ago with seven women meeting on the Fond du Lac Reservation in Minnesota for regular runs and training. They're now at 161 members. Other Native American running groups like Kwe Pack exist across the country, such as Wings of America in New Mexico and Native Fit in Arizona.

"At certain points in the race, you would just hear someone in the Kwe Pack let out a loud howl and it was just so beautifully tribal. You knew you weren't on the trails alone." — Chally Topping, Kwe Pack member

One of their first races together was the Superior Trail 25K in Lutsen, Minnesota, which was a huge milestone for the group. "Every single one of us had a moment during that race when we wanted to give up," Topping says. "There were these transformative moments where you didn't think you were going to make it, but you do, and it's just this incredible feeling." The Kwe Pack had decided that they wouldn't run the race all together; every woman would go at her own speed and they would all meet up at the finish line. "At certain points in the race, you would hear someone in the Kwe Pack let out a loud howl and it was just so beautifully tribal," Topping says. "You knew you weren't on the trails alone."

Both Topping and Howes speak of the Kwe Pack as a family and say the benefits extend far beyond the physical. First, Howes points out that there's safety in numbers. "Instead of being one woman running alone, we're a whole pack." But it's also about the bond. "I'm an introvert and I don't really know how to make friends, but this running group has given me a place to connect with a way that's healthy and doesn't involve alcohol," Topping says.

Topping adds that movement has long been a form of healing in many indigenous communities, which makes running all the more meaningful for her. "At ceremonies, there's drumming and dancing as ways to literally shake off anxiety and depression," she says.

Of course, the women are also motivated by the positive example they aim to set for others. "I hope kids see us and it makes them want to run, too," Howes says. "It's possible to make incredible social change within one generation. If we normalize running and living a healthy life, that is going to create a powerful shift."

"Our ancestors have always known that you carry trauma in your body and there's a lot of research being done now to support this," Howes says. "What's so powerful about running is that moving your body helps you break away from a lot of those sicknesses that you carry. And then when you have others cheering you on and sharing your joy, that's powerful, too."

Here are other amazing ways to work out to fight depression, according to science. And if you want to start running, here are some tips.

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