Verna Volkner is an ultra runner and a Diné woman from New Mexico, who currently resides in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Diné is what the Navajo People call themselves in their own language, which means “The People”. Upon introduction, the traditional way a Diné person introduces themselves is naming their clans. This tells you where they’re from and who their family is. Verna’s clans are Tódích’íi’nii (Bitterwater) nishlíi, Hashtl’ishnii (Mud People) bashishchiin, Ta’neeszahnii (Tangle) dashicheii, and Tó’ áheedlíinii (Water Flows Together) dashinalí. These identities express Verna’s background and her quest to bring forth the Native People into the world of running.
Verna created a social media group through Instagram called, Native Women Running (NWR). This group was created out of her great frustration at the lack of Native representation. Verna never saw anyone who looked like her in the running world, which was upsetting because running is such a sacred experience for many Native runners. Running is a celebration of connection to the land – the drumming of the feet hitting the earth, the prayers that are breathed in and out of the lungs, the power of the legs pushing forward, giving you the ability to make one more stride. Running invites you to observe the beauty of the land that you pass through – the sage brush, the trees, the grass. Running invites you to be in communication with our four-legged cousins – the birds of the air, and the insects that fly or crawl. When we run, we feel and experience it all.
In 2009, Verna started running. As a mother of three children, she started running to lose weight and to help engage a healthier lifestyle. It was tough and it was hard – even simply running a mile wasn’t easy. But as hard as the beginning was, it pushed her forward and showed her that she can do something she never thought she could do: she could run. Slowly that mile became two and she began to recognize something else – someone else. As the miles increased so did her awareness of herself. She found a passion; she found a new journey.
NWR represents a group of strong resilient Native runners. It’s a rare gift when a social media group somehow feels like a family, but this is exactly what Verna created. The space she holds and brings forth is one of beauty, strength, pain, and resiliency. Women share personal stories of joy and affliction. They share adoration of the land on which they run on. Inspiration moves throughout the group, they encourage each other, they push each other. But more importantly they support one another.
A passion that is especially uplifted by this group is advocacy and awareness of Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women (MMIW). The numbers of stolen sisters are staggering – our women and girls are being taken from us at an alarming rate. Native women are murdered at a rate of 10 times higher than other ethnicities and it’s the third leading cause of death for beloved family members. The majority of these murders are committed by non-Native people. Due to the lack of communication between state, local, federal, and tribal law enforcement, it’s difficult to begin the investigation process. We can’t begin to tell you about the violence that our women face. And it’s not just on the Reservations, it’s down the street – in urban neighborhoods, and in suburban homes. What’s also staggering is that 84% of Native/Indigenous women will experience violence in their lifetime. Violence against Native Women is everywhere. Verna and NWR raise a voice for the voiceless. May 5th is the international day to honor our MMIW and dsVerna created a virtual run to honor our missing and murdered sisters. It was powerful to witness the vast number of supporters, who wore red and came together to honor our women and children.
Through NWR, Verna expresses her greatest hope: to create more visibility for Native runners. And not just one runner, but all runners. To learn more about NWR, visit their website, www.nativewomenrunning.com and follow them on social media, Instagram and Facebook, @nativewomenrunning.
Verna is featured wearing the Bondi 7.
Photography and blog content provided by Jaylyn Gough.