Sacred Run ’95: In the Ancient Way

By Brian Covert

All around the world there are marathons and running events with glittering prizes and noble objectives of every kind: runs for gold medals, for large amounts of money, for titles, for trophies, for T-shirts, for competition, for personal ambition, for exercise or merely for fun.

Come summer 1995 in Japan, however, an entirely different type of run will take place — one in which the final goal is no less than the salvation of the Earth and all its inhabitants. It is the “American Indian Spirit and Sacred Run.”

This yearly event in countries spanning the globe promotes the centuries-old Native American Indian traditional belief that the Earth is mother to all creation and that all life upon her is born with the holy right to exist in the eyes of the Great Spirit, creator of the universe. It is a philosophy that is as old as time, and as strong today in the 1990s as it was back then.

The objective of the ’95 Sacred Run in Japan will be the same as it has been in many other nations every year for the past 16 years: to deliver that American Indian spiritual philosophy to the residents of cities, towns and villages located along the run’s course — with the underlying hope of raising people’s consciousness and awareness about the importance of taking better care of the world environment, and of each other as human beings, in these chaotic times.

“My job is to get the runners to take that message to the next village,” Dennis Banks, renowned American Indian leader and founder of Sacred Run, said in a recent interview. “What the village does with it, that’s not our concern. Our mission is just to get them the message.”

The general plan behind the Sacred Run ’95 in Japan is to have two groups of international runners — starting separately from Hokkaido in the north and Okinawa in the south. Along the way, they will stop in a different town each day and offer cultural exchange programs in which local residents are delivered the “message” of the sacredness of the Earth through American Indian singing, dancing and discussions.

The two groups of runners from opposite ends of Japan will continue to make their way at a pace of about 100 kilometers per day until they converge on a common point: Hiroshima.

There, on Aug. 5, all the runners and grassroots supporters are to stage their own events commemorating the anniversary of the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima on Aug. 6, 1945. The month-long Sacred Run will conclude with a final three-day run to Nagasaki by Aug. 9, the date of that city’s atomic-bombing anniversary.

Nineteen ninety-five will be a symbolic year for the Sacred Run in Japan, notes Banks, in that it marks the 50th year of the end of the Pacific War. As a young soldier based in Japan with the United States Air Force in the mid-1950s, he witnessed with his own eyes the aftermath of The Bomb and the often-degrading treatment of Japanese citizens by the Occupation forces. He has come to treasure and nurture his relations with the Japanese over the many decades since.

Yet Sacred Run ’95 is much more than just a protest for peace, Banks stresses: It is also a spiritually based guide for the future.

“Young Japanese people ask the question over and over again: ‘What can you say? What can you do? How can you help us?’ Not that American Indians have the answers to worldwide problems. It’s just that we’ve hung onto it. And if there is a thread hanging through the Japanese culture that says ‘This can do it,’ then they’re gonna have to search for that thread.”

“But I’m here to say: If you don’t look for that thread, and if you continue to pursue the Tokyo Dream or American Dream, then you’re gonna be starving for spiritual direction.” He sees Sacred Run as a small step in that direction.

Banks, known as Nowa Cumig (“One Who Stands in the Center”) among his people of the Anishinabe tribe, came up with the idea for the Sacred Run organization on the heels of a 1977 mass meeting in Vancouver, Canada of 200 elders, chiefs and clan mothers of North American Indian tribes. They had gotten together to discuss how to deal with the critical state of environmental destruction and human depredation, and where to go from here. Their conclusion: It is time for North American indigenous peoples in particular and humankind in general to start to put aside their materialistic chase and return to a more stable way of living based firmly on spirituality and living in harmony with the Earth, just as American Indians have been doing for millenniums.

After that 1977 meeting, Banks recalls, “It came to me about five or six months later — What can I do to get this message out? Then the thought came of running from village to village, bringing up the old tradition of running. Spiritual running.” Since its inception, the Sacred Run has chalked up more than 34,000 miles (54,400 kilometers) in countries around the world, and that’s not even counting the 1993 run held in Australia and New Zealand. The ’94 run is scheduled to take place in South Africa; then in ’95 it’s on to Japan, which will be the second time around after the ’88 Sacred Run that was also held in this country.

“I stress ‘spiritual running’, but some of them have gone on to compete in marathons — the Boston Marathon, New York Marathon, Tokyo Marathon. So, it just keeps going on and on with our people.”

Dennis Banks is no stranger to organizing people at the community level, having been one of the founders in 1968 of the American Indian Movement, which sought self-sufficiency for all Native Americans and recognition of past treaties with Indian peoples that the U.S. government has either ignored or outright broken. His participation and leadership in several major protest actions in the 1960s and ’70s led him to become a target for attempted assassination by a U.S. government agent. But the 57-year-old Banks has survived that and the prison time he later served.

In the past several years he has been devoting his efforts more to the cultural enhancement of his people rather than to outright political confrontation. At the same time, like many others in and outside the Indian community, he remains an outspoken advocate for the release of one of his closest comrades of many years, Leonard Peltier, a Native American Indian who was sentenced to two life terms in connection with the now-famous shootout at the Pine Ridge Reservation, South Dakota on June 26, 1975 that left two FBI agents and one Indian dead. It is going on 18 years since Peltier was imprisoned, despite concrete evidence that has surfaced over the years of improprieties by the FBI in attempting to secure its case against him.

With the ’95 Sacred Run just around the corner, Dennis Banks is encouraging runners from all walks of life in Japan — professional and amateur alike — to join the main run as well as the other smaller runs to be coordinated throughout Japan around the same time. Non-running volunteers are also invited to take part in the various Sacred Run activities.

• This article is dedicated to Tom John of the Diné (Navajo) nation for his friendship and faith so many years ago, and to his family. “Mitakuye Oyasin — All Our Relations.”

Brian Covert is an American journalist, currently working as staff writer for the Mainichi Daily News newspaper in Osaka and as regional correspondent for the Tokyo bureau of UPI news service. He is devoted to the Kansai area and promoting its internationalization.