Not just for exercise


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Running has always been a part of Matthew Sakiestewa Gilbert’s life.

Not just because his dad was a high school cross-country runner and the family ran together, or because they could run on the same trails as the Olympic runners training at Buffalo Park in Flagstaff, Ariz., where he grew up.

Gilbert runs because he is Hopi, and because it connects him with his roots in Hopi culture. The Hopi people have a long tradition of distance running.

"Often when I run, I’m thinking about home, as in back home among my people and my community, back home on the reservation. Running connects me mentally in my thoughts and my prayers to home," he said.

The Hopi traditionally ran up and down the mesas of northeastern Arizona, leaving their villages in the early morning to run long distances to tend to their fields, working all day and running home at night. They also ran for religious or spiritual reasons.

"Certain clans in Hopi society were given the responsibility of running far beyond Hopi lands to entice the rain clouds to follow them back to the mesas and provide moisture to their fields," Gilbert said.

He runs 4 to 5 miles every other day.

When Hopi filmmaker Victor Masayesva Jr. visited the University of Illinois a number of years ago to work with the American Indian Studies Program on a film, he and Gilbert went for a 3-mile run in Crystal Lake Park.

They talked about the Hopi tradition of running and how they mimicked animals such as deer and antelope, studying them to see how they run efficiently. Gilbert noted that Masayesva’s gait was light and easy, "dancing on Mother Earth."

Then Gilbert -- curious about how their run that day matched up with Masayesva’s usual mileage -- asked the filmmaker how far he usually ran.

"To the fence and back" was the answer.

The "fence," for Hopis, can be the next village or their fields or places much farther away, where the rain clouds are.

Gilbert realized his view on running was immersed in a Western framework, with its emphasis on distance and time, with heart rate monitors and GPS watches and energy gels.

"I thought about how commercialized running has become. Runners are running laboratories. You can run anywhere on the globe and your stats can be sent wirelessly through the internet," Gilbert said. "That wasn’t the kind of running Victor was talking about.

"Running in Hopi culture is not meant to be timed in hours and minutes and seconds or miles. It was cyclical. Going out and coming back. I’ve really tried to implement that idea in my own running. It’s not so much about time and distance covered, but the idea of going out and coming back."

Despite this running philosophy focused less on time and distance, Hopis are not just runners, they are racers. Hopi runners have been successful nationally and internationally on the track and in the marathon, and they have been among the top high school cross-country runners in Arizona for decades.

Gilbert’s daughters are also racers, on their middle school cross-country team in Champaign, which Gilbert’s wife, Kylene, coaches.

"I’m always reminding my children about the connection and who they are as Hopis and that we as Hopi people are runners," he said. "Running isn’t something you do just because you’re on the cross-country team or because you’re young and can do it. We run because of who we are as Hopi people. I hope they will carry that with them for life. Running is a lifelong sport."

At his daughters’ cross-country races, Gilbert sometimes cheers them on in the Hopi language, telling them to "run strong." But, he said, "in Hopi culture, there’s more to it than running strong. Hopi encourage one another to run with happy hearts. There’s a lot to be said about what’s going on in the heart and mind, and how the body reacts to that."

Gilbert has run some Hopi races on the reservation in Arizona, and he wants to take his kids to run in Hopi races. He also looks at their running in Champaign-Urbana as carrying on the Hopi running tradition.

"It’s not only part of the tradition of running of our people, but also the tradition of running far beyond Hopi lands, far beyond the mesas," Gilbert said. "Hopis have always been running beyond our mesas. Champaign-Urbana is our fence, and we’ll eventually make our way back."

Jodi Heckel, a writer for the University of Illinois News Bureau, is a runner and triathlete. You can email her at, or follow her at Her blog is at

Photo: From left, Matthew Sakiestewa Gilbert and his children, Luke (6), Noelle (9), Meaghan (11) and Hannah (13) run up a hill at Morrissey Park in Champaign on Monday. Gilbert has written a book about the Hopi tradition of distance running. Photo by Robin Scholz/The News-Gazette

Book talk: Matthew Sakiestewa Gilbert will talk about his book "Hopi Runners: Crossing the Terrain Between Indian and American" at a book launch event at 3 p.m. Nov. 8 at the Illini Union Bookstore, 809 S. Wright St., Champaign.

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