A few summers ago, while researching for Seeking the Center, I read a number of books about sport in Native American/First Nations cultures. (If you're a member of Goodreads, you can follow me there and see what's on my bookshelf.) American Indian Sports Heritage by Joseph B. Oxendine, in particular, stresses the centrality of sport to Native life and belief, as does Tom Vennum in his American Indian Lacrosse: Little Brother of War, which I wrote about here.
I'm reading Year in Nam, now, Leroy TeCube's memoir of his experiences serving as an infantryman in Vietnam in 1968 and 1969. TeCube is Jicarilla Apache, and in his book he often reflects on the role his heritage played in his actions and ultimate survival. In light of my earlier research, I found the following passage especially interesting. It weaves together TeCube's memory of a traditional tribal relay race with a life-or-death race to cross a bridge under enemy fire in Vietnam.
As I ran across the narrow bridge I had a flashback to my youth. On September 15 of every year my tribe has a traditional relay race between our two clans. The outcome of the race determines the type of year ahead. Depending on which clan won, there would be more wild game or crops. This race gives my people an idea of how to plan their activities for the year to come.
The relay race is on a racetrack three hundred yards long and about ten yards wide. Head runners are determined at a preliminary race the day before. Before the race starts, elderly men paint the runners in an aspen kiva, conduct prayers for them, and run down the track blessing it. When they finish the race starts with the head runners running at a full sprint down the track. When they reach the end of the track another set of runners runs back. This goes back and forth until a clan gets ahead by a full length of the track. When that happens the clan in the lead wins the race. If the runners from each clan are evenly matched the race could take several hours.
I had participated in the race several times. It could be very deceptive, especially going in an easterly direction. That is because in that direction about three-fourths of the way down is a slight rise that looks like the finish line. If you are not aware of the illusion your energy is expended when you reach this point, and you have to continue on with heavy legs. Elderly men holding aspen branches give you words of encouragement and whip you on the legs with the branches for added strength. It works. You find the burst of energy needed to take you to the finish line
I was now about three-fourths of the way across the narrow bridge. My legs were heavy from carrying my pack. I thought of the elderly men in our traditional race. In an instant, just that thought gave me the encouragement to continue. I ran off the bridge on the other side and took cover next to the trail. After catching my breath I fired toward the wood line. Out of the corner of my right eye I could see the others running the same race. Eventually, we all made it across without a casualty.
As TeCube describes, the ritual relay race has spiritual and practical dimensions, but also serves as a way to build and inspire courage and determination. It would be interesting to know whether, traditionally, the race was in any way considered to be, like American Indian lacrosse, a "little brother of war," or if it just worked out that way for TeCube in this instance. In any case, it was a treat to, unexpectedly, come across this intriguing recollection.