...and He Ran 330 Miles to Prove It
In 1864, the U.S. Army forced 10,000 Navajo to march through the desert to internment. Edison Eskeets ’86 retraced the steps of his people. | 15 min. read
As predawn light colored the eastern Arizona sky, Edison Eskeets walked alone toward the south rim of Arizona’s Canyon de Chelly and gazed out at Spider Rock. He stood a slight 5'9" and 135 pounds, his long, brown hair streaked with gray. Bare-chested and wearing a kilt and moccasins, Eskeets, 12 days shy of his 59th birthday, briefly studied the 800-foot red sandstone monolith. He glanced across the layered canyon walls, toward the brightening pinkish-orange horizon, and in silent reverence, took in the ancient, sacred landscape, its meaning, and its significance.
Over a century and a half earlier, at Canyon de Chelly (pronounced də-SHAY) and the Southwest’s surrounding Four Corners region, more than 10,000 of Eskeets’s ancestors, Navajo men, women, and children, were subdued by the U.S. Army. A series of forced marches followed, with the Navajo traversing 350-plus miles on foot to a desolate landscape, now east-central New Mexico. Once there, the Diné, as the Navajo call themselves, were imprisoned. Hundreds perished during what became known as the Long Walk; several thousand would die in the brutal conditions experienced during a four-year internment.
Today, Eskeets planned to honor his people’s Long Walk with a run that roughly retraced their steps. (His adjusted route would accommodate modern roads, and allow his support van to ride along.) While many Navajo prefer to never speak of that era, Eskeets’s life’s work—a cross-country and track coach to Native students, teaching them Navajo art and history, and celebrating Diné culture—guided him otherwise. “The Navajo people suffered before, during, and after the Long Walk, but we survived,” he says. “We still have our language, our traditions, our creativity. My run is an acknowledgment of their survival, and the hope that this never happens again.”
Over his lifetime, Eskeets had completed four ultra-distance spiritual runs in recognition of Navajo culture, and on this chilly May morning, his final run would cover 330 miles in 15 days. “Of all the people I know, Edison has the best understanding of what matters and how we relate to one another,” says Matt Hannifin, a former science teacher who worked alongside Eskeets. “Part of his wisdom has to do with understanding how one’s path can change, even for people who have very little to start with.”
Edison Eskeets was born in 1959 on his parents’ farm 20 miles northeast of Gallup, New Mexico, in the dispersed rural community of Springstead. His parents, Louis and Bessie Eskeets, had no formal education, and the family home lacked electricity and running water. Eskeets, the fifth of seven children, was kept out of school to help his mother tend the farm until age seven. “That meant I had a late start in English, because we only spoke Navajo at home,” he says. “I was always behind, even in college.”
From a young age Eskeets was constantly on the move, covering several miles a day tending the family’s sheep and goats at an altitude of nearly 6,500 feet. “When I was about five, I got this notion in me that ‘there’s something out there,’” Eskeets says. “That became a vehicle, a driving force—to see what’s out there. I still live by that.”
Thanks to those farming miles and the altitude, at 15, Eskeets was sized up as a natural distance runner by the Gallup High School cross-country coach; he reluctantly agreed to run a three-mile time trial with the team. Eskeets blew the field away, finishing second. Suddenly, he was a varsity cross-country runner, his school days lengthened by practices and meets, hitchhiking home most evenings.
After finishing 10th at the 1976 New Mexico state cross-country championships his junior year, Eskeets and his teammates were sidelined the following year when Gallup High’s coach left the school. Unable to compete, the promising runner went unnoticed by college programs, and Eskeets shelved the notion of higher education—until a call came from Jerry Tuckwin, cross-country and track coach at what was then Haskell Indian Junior College (now Haskell Indian Nations University) in Lawrence, Kansas. Tuckwin offered Eskeets a spot on the team and the opportunity for a tuition-free education.
“At first my Mom said no, because I was supposed to be at home, helping take care of things,” Eskeets recalls. “Every few days I’d go back to her and say, ‘You know, this would be nice—I can try it.’ Lo and behold, in one of those conversations she said yes.”
In August 1978, Tuckwin made his annual swing through northern Arizona and New Mexico, driving a small Haskell bus and collecting new student athletes from various tribal lands. “I picked up a few kids at Window Rock [Arizona, capital of the Navajo Nation],” Tuckwin says, “Edison was there with just his little bag and jean jacket, looking apprehensive.”
Saying goodbye to his mother, Eskeets promised her he’d return to live in the Southwest. It wouldn’t happen for more than a decade.
Family matters: Eskeets with his 97-year-old mother, Bessie; his sister, Irene, at left; and his daughter, Emry, at right. The little girl in the foreground is his brother’s granddaughter, Yanabah Pallares
On the beautiful
trail I am,
with it I wander.
In beauty, it is begun.
In beauty, it is finished.