How Two Indigenous Runners Made a Film Connecting Running and Environmental Activism

Runners World (October 25, 2021) by Taylor Dutch

After dedicating years of intense study to earning a Ph.D. in environmental science, Lydia Jennings couldn’t wait to celebrate at her graduation in May 2020. But like most major events during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, the program’s ceremony at the University of Arizona was canceled.

Instead of receiving her diploma alongside 15 fellow Indigenous female scholars, Jennings, who is a member of the Huichol (Wixaritari) and Pascua Yaqui (Yoeme) Nations, celebrated receiving her doctorate virtually. However, the experience left her feeling a lack of closure on her goal of amplifying Indigenous voices in efforts to protect the environment.

While coping with the disappointment, Jennings sought out ways to honor her studies in mining reclamation, work that was heavily influenced by Indigenous scholars who came before her. An avid runner, Jennings remembered how Jordan Marie Brings Three White Horses Daniel dedicated each mile of the 2019 Boston Marathon to missing and murdered Indigenous women. Inspired by her activism, Jennings decided to plan her own run as a way of honoring the accomplishments of Indigenous scientists.

After following each other on Instagram for several years, Daniel, a director and founder of the Rising Hearts Coalition (an Indigenous-led grassroots group with the goal of uplifting and defending Indigenous community rights) and Jennings connected in-person to produce a film featuring her run.

And on Wednesday, October 20, Run to Be Visible was released on Patagonia’s YouTube channel as the latest episode in the activewear company’s “Run to” series.

The film, co-directed by Daniel and her fiancé Devin Whetstone, captures Jennings’s 50-mile journey on the Arizona Trail, where she dedicated each mile to a different Indigenous scientist. With 40 percent of mines located on or bordering tribal communities in Arizona, the film also explores the industry’s destructive effects on the environment and Indigenous people who live in close proximity.

“When you begin to see these patterns of extraction industry not valuing Indigenous lives or lands or waters or air, you feel this sense of erasure,” Jennings says in the film.

Through her studies and now post-doc work, Jennings aims to create more inclusion in the industry and she’s well on her way. “I want to be able to tell my children or grandchildren that I did all my effort to protect this environment,” she says. “That’s our responsibility and that’s an Indigenous way of knowing and being and living.”

Before the film’s release, Runner’s World caught up with Jennings and Daniel to learn the inspiration behind the film, the significance of using running as a platform for activism, and the awareness they hope to generate within the running community and beyond.

This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.

Runner’s World: What sparked the idea for this 50-mile run?

Lydia Jennings: There are a couple of different factors that came in. A big [factor] is thinking about how native people were impacted by COVID-19 and really how the media didn’t pay attention to that initially. It was really native journalists and native bio-statisticians and epidemiologists who were bringing attention to that, but there was also this really big conversation and shift within science specifically about who we honor and acknowledge as the founding thought makers of our different disciplines.

It was partially me going through my Ph.D. dissertation and struggling, knowing that my graduation is going to be canceled. But also in writing my dissertation, there’d be times that I would finish reading something and be so moved by the scholarship that these people have done and to know that it’s here so I could read these words. [I was] thinking about my own process and what so many of these Indigenous scientists must’ve gone through to have their perspectives seen as valid or important. We’re talking about papers from 150 years ago of native communities talking about mining and land rights [at a time when] they weren’t even seen as human.

[I wanted] to use this scholarship today in my dissertation to continue advocating for those same things. That really moved me, recognizing how I continue to sit on the shoulders of giants of our Indigenous scholars.

Our graduation was going to be 15 of us Indigenous women scholars graduating together. It was going to be a really powerful moment for our communities that was robbed from us because of the pandemic. It makes sense, but it was still painful. At the same time, I won some coaching, and [I thought] having a training plan that would keep me inspired to continue running would be good for my mental health.

I thought training for a 50-mile run was reasonable while writing my dissertation. The idea of honoring 50 Indigenous scientists was important to me because as a science communicator active on Twitter, I had yet to see resources on native scientists and what they do, what fields they represent, and what tribal nations are represented. That was something I didn’t see, so I wanted to create it and have that as a resource for future native scientists.

I felt like [this run] was an opportunity to amplify their work, incorporate my love of running into that work, while also being inspired by the work that Jordan did in honoring missing and murdered Indigenous women and bringing attention to that issue in such a powerful way. I wanted to bring attention to our joy and accomplishments by highlighting Indigenous scholars who are also working on creating pathways for other Indigenous scholars.

Why did you choose running as a way to honor the Indigenous scientists who came before you?

Jennings: Running is really central to who I am. It’s part of why I came to science. It’s part of how I practice my own ceremony of self care throughout my Ph.D.

Many Indigenous runners have used running as a way of amplifying issues, and we see it more recently from the youth at Standing Rock, Jordan, Rosalie Fish, but it has a much longer history than that. Some used running as a way of navigating oppressive systems and academia is a really core one of those. It’s a space that was not designed for us, but we’ve used running in a way to navigate and be successful in it. I think in that way, running is a really powerful metaphor for us surviving, thriving, and flourishing in these systems.

Running is also a great unifier. Many of us go through really intensive courses and ultra running is a great one. We experience valleys and peaks and everything in between. And that’s exactly what graduate school is. It’s a mental ultra course.

What was the process like of documenting and producing the film around this run?

Jennings: This is my first 50-mile run, and I felt like I was really well-trained and prepared. My coach did a great job with that. It was great because I had community, but it’s a very different environment of doing a self-supported and self-designed run versus a trail race; there are a lot of logistics to figure out. The day of the run, it was the hottest day of the month. It ended up being 89 degrees at the peak of the day.

We tried to make the route in an area that was pretty accessible for both our crew and filming, but there were 12 miles where there is no access, so that made filming a challenge. I think in some ways it was kind of nice, because I had some morning time to really reflect, be in my own space, and be intentional and prayerful in what I was doing. I felt like I was really blessed because deer are really important on my mother’s side of the tribes, and some deer ended up running alongside me. So, that was really cool.

When I really struggled, I got to run with Jordan, and really be present and intentional. I got to bond with Jordan a lot on some things that I was processing during that time, but the last six miles were really rough and it was dark. Then the route I had planned ended up being a half-mile short, so I had to do a half-mile on the road to finish the run. The last mile was for Indigenous students of the future. I couldn’t leave them hanging.

Jordan Marie Daniel: I really got into filmmaking because I see the industry just so extractive in and of itself in terms of storytelling and the misrepresentation, the erasure, and ignorance that could still be put on film and how these stories are told. My project management skills translate to being a producer. I wanted to try and reframe how filmmaking is happening, especially when you’re working on stories and documentaries. My approach was, I’m going to be a filmmaker, but I’m also going to be an advocate for the story and for this person.

Often, I feel like the client, executive producers, the director can forget about the human behind the story. We can’t push the film industry’s construct that they’ve created, which [often means] 17 hour days, hardly any sleep. There’s a big strike happening with the IATSE (International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees) right now where workers are demanding basic human rights, fair rates, and having eight hour days rather than 12- to 16-hour days.

I really wanted to try and come at [Jennings’s story] from that perspective of, we can tell a great story on something that is fair and just for everyone involved, and to be an advocate for the person that we’re telling the story about. It was my first time co-directing and doing that with my partner, Devin, was a really fun process too. It was a new growing process for me, and to also be on the other side where I get to help tell someone else’s story, rather than me always having to tell my story is just a really awesome [place] to be in. To be able to watch Lydia run and be part of that run with her, was a really fun process with a lot of lessons learned. I’m excited to help tell more stories like this in a powerful way.

Jennings: This was also all happening during a pandemic. There were a lot of interviews that were super hard to accomplish because people were concerned about safety precautions despite all of us being vaccinated and testing negative regularly. Getting access to field sites because of safety precautions presented another roadblock. Despite the challenges in the filmmaking, they still produced such a beautiful piece.

And I am so grateful to have an Indigenous woman storyteller, who I know is advocating for me at every turn—whether it’s around the title, how something is being portrayed to ensure it doesn’t hit stereotypes, making sure it shows a unique perspective that’s honest to who I am—I think was really important. If anyone was going to tell my story, I wanted it to be Jordan, and I’m really thankful that it’s her.

What was the most rewarding part of making the film?

Jennings: Recognizing that running and academia are both activities that you can’t do alone. Though they’re celebrated as individual accomplishments, you can’t do them without a community around you to support you. The community that I had to support me as my support crew through the run was such an important reminder of that.

As we were getting ready for our call-to-action campaign and talking to different Indigenous science organizations, [I feel] so thankful that I’m integrating sport and science together and what a role that positions for our community and for our future leaders, I think has also been really meaningful for me.

Daniel: The most exciting part about this is just how important Indigenous representation is across every platform—not just in running, not just in science, but in film too. There’s a way to be able to do it in a powerful, meaningful, and purposeful way. We see that with Reservation Dogs, we’ve seen that with Rutherford Falls, we’re seeing that with more television movies that are coming out and being produced now while having more writers being out there, more runners and more voices being louder and more present and visible.

This is all part of that work that I really love doing—just paving those pathways forward so that our next generations can be part of it and have access to it and feel supported and be visible all at the same time.

What do you hope the running community learns from the film?

Jennings: I hope the running community recognizes that it’s not only important that we have diverse ways of knowing, being, and enjoying the trails and the lands on which we run, but also knowing and understanding some of the challenges that many of us students have to fit and belong in these spaces. To be able to fit and feel like we’re part of them is really important; that’s why it’s critical that we have leadership or our own affinity spaces as well.

Also, I hope the film will continue to highlight that we have a range of leaders already present in this space. Hire them, pay them, cite them, feature them.

I think both Jordan and I, in our own unique spaces, often get bombarded with things. I personally feel overwhelmed with these things when we have so many other leaders who are present, and who we are trying to continue to amplify and share the mic with. Part of what makes running a great sport is the community and knowing that each of us in our individual communities have such important stories to tell that inform how we are. So, learn those stories.

Daniel: Whether you’re a runner or not, you can take any creative platform to advocate, give awareness, or honor something. It doesn’t have to be through these typical gestures that people do when they think they have to think, honor, pray, give back, or advocate. You can do it in any creative way.

I hope that that leads to creativity for people, and I also really hope that non-indigenous people, maybe even Indigenous people, develop and foster a deeper connection to the land because the land is also a character within this film. We’re trying to give life to it because we want people to gain new perspectives and to learn something new and to learn why it’s important to protect these lands and to learn who the Indigenous peoples are and the caretakers of those lands, that we are still here, that we are not relics and figures of the past, that we are very much in the present and that for all of us to live together and beyond this earth, we need to protect the lands.

We need to protect the soil. We need to protect everything and everything is all interconnected. So, I’m hoping it also sheds light on the individual, [to show them] there are ways that we can foster deeper, more meaningful connections to our surroundings.

Jennings: I’m all about people learning about the soils and the ecosystems in which we’re running with. I use “with” very intentionally as opposed to “on” because we’re part of that ecosystem, we’re not above it or dominating it. At the most basic level, as you’re using your Garmin and thinking about where those metals come from, thinking about the communities that are impacted from those metals, and thinking about how you can be a better relative to the lands and waters and airs in which you run, live and recreate with.

To read the article online, click here.