Runners from the Winnebago Tribe reach their destination, the Nebraska State Capitol in Lincoln, on January 29, 2018, after a two-day run from the reservation in the northeast part of the state. They ran to raise awareness about the plight of missing and murdered indigenous women. Photo by Kevin Abourezk

Sacred run raises awareness of missing and murdered Native women

Runners from Winnebago Tribe complete 100-mile run in Nebraska

From sacred fire to state capital
By Kevin Abourezk

They ran to bring understanding.

They ran to fight violence.

They ran to light a fire.

Six runners from the Winnebago Tribe jogged across gravel, asphalt, snow and ice along eastern Nebraska this week to raise awareness for the plight of missing and murdered indigenous women.

Just six runners traversing most of the length of Nebraska in two days and one night in temperatures as low as 12 degrees Fahrenheit.

As the weary runners reached their destination, the Nebraska State Capitol in Lincoln, on Monday afternoon, they let out war whoops and yelled: “Mni wiconi” and “No XL” and “no missing or murdered indigenous women”! “We made it,” one woman said.

“We did it,” another woman answered.

Runners from the Winnebago Tribe, from left: Aric Armell, Amelia Whitewater, Jasmine Harden, Jared Frazier and Trisha Etringer. Not pictured: Greg Smith. Photo by Kevin Abourezk

Aric “Dusty” Armell, a citizen of the Winnebago Tribe, organized the run also to celebrate the completion of a sacred fire that he lit on the Winnebago Reservation on January 1, 2017.

The 43-year-old planned to extinguish the fire Wednesday evening and take coals from it to the Flandreau Reservation where the Santee Sioux people plan to light a fire of their own, incorporating coals from Winnebago’s fire.

Armell said he lit the fire in order to help create unity within the Winnebago Tribe and provide a place for people to visit any time of day or night to say prayers or talk with fire watchers. He said the fire has helped reduce division and crime over the past four weeks, and he’s hopeful many tribes will light their own sacred fires in the months and years to come.

“We’re seeing a lot of our drug- and alcohol-related incidents go down,” he said. “We’ve seen prayers that were answered the very same day.”

He said relatives of Native women who have been murdered or are missing have visited the sacred fire in Winnebago, and he decided to honor them by running more than 100 miles to the State Capitol.

“We ran from the sacred fire all the way to the State Capitol to bring awareness just to that topic,” he said.

Jasmine Harden carries a sacred staff as part of a run from Winnebago to Lincoln, Nebraska, this week that was held to raise awareness about the plight of missing and murdered indigenous women. Photo by Kevin Abourezk

Amelia Whitewater, 42, a Winnebago citizen, said she took off time from her work as a casino security guard to join the run because she wanted to help create a better world for her three daughters.

“I would feel the same if one of my daughters came up missing,” she said. “I would want support and someone to do the same for me.”

Despite struggling with heart problems, Whitewater continued to take turns carrying a sacred staff from Winnebago to Lincoln.

“It hurt a few times, but I just pushed myself to keep running,” she said.

The Lincoln Indian Center and members of the Lincoln Native American community hosted a reception and meal for the runners at the center Monday night.

Several runners spoke during the event.

Aric Armell, a citizen of the Winnebago Tribe, speaks during a celebration at the Lincoln Indian Center in Lincoln, Nebraska, on January 29, 2018, held to honor a two-day run from the Winnebago Reservation to Lincoln that Armell organized. Photo by Kevin Abourezk

Jasmine Harden shared the story of her niece, who struggled with meth use and was sold for sex by her husband.

She said her niece’s husband alienated her from her family, and eventually Harden lost touch with her niece, though every few years she hears from her niece or receives a photo of her.

“You could see her beauty deteriorating because of that meth and what was taking place,” she said. “That meth has a lot to do with the murdered and missing women and children.”

Trisha Etringer, a Winnebago citizen, said she was motivated to continue running this week after thinking about the many Native women who are forced to leave abusive relationships.

Greg Smith, a citizen of the Winnebago Tribe, takes part in a sacred run in Nebraska on January 29, 2018. Photo by Kevin Abourezk

“That gave me the motivation to keep going, to keep pushing,” she said. “There are women out there who don’t have the choice of just doing the run to raise awareness. They have to. They have to run away, and some of them don’t make it.”

She shared the story of an aunt who moved to Los Angeles who was forced into prostitution and was never heard from again.

“It’s a very real issue that’s going on,” she said.

Etringer said it’s important for Native women to protect each other and ensure abusive people don’t prey upon them.

She said she’s concerned about the potential construction of the Keystone XL Pipeline in eastern Nebraska, and the potential for “man camps” – camps established to house pipeline construction workers and others – to be set up near her reservation. Those camps too often are places where Native women are murdered or assaulted, she said.

Armell said he envisions sacred fires being lit within Native communities across America in order to bring unity so that tribes can fight issues like sex trafficking together.

“The fire’s going to get brighter,” he said. “These sacred fires bring communities together, but the next step is to bring tribes together.”

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