Meet the Native women runners hoping to spark change at the Boston Marathon

(From left to right) Shayla Manitowabi-Huebner, Sam Noyce, Angel Tadytin and Rocío Villalobos will represent Native Women Running at the 126th Boston Marathon. (Graphic and photos by Native Women Running)

By Emily Tan
Boston University News Service

The running community has long been touted as being accessible to individuals from all walks of life. But a closer look at the demographics of its members and industry leaders, as well as of those represented in running-centric media, would suggest otherwise. Too often, runners of color are sidelined in favor of white runners. With the Boston Marathon coming up, a team of Native American women runners is hoping to change that narrative. 

Verna Volker (Navajo), Angel Tadytin (Navajo), Sam Noyce (Navajo), Shayla Manitowabi-Huebner (Anishinaabe/Wiikwemkoong) and Rocío Villalobos will represent Native Women Running at the Boston Marathon, marking the online community’s first time at the race.

The team’s entrance will add to the Indigenous community’s enduring legacy at the 126-year-old marathon, which has seen Thomas Longboat (Onondaga) win in 1907, Ellison Myers “Tarzan” Brown (Narragansett) win in 1936 and 1939, as well as three-time runner-up Patti Dillon (Mi’kmaq) become the first American woman to break the 2:30 barrier.

The marathon weekend began with a land acknowledgment read by Michael O’Leary, chairman of the Boston Athletic Association board, on Friday before the Fan Fest. Another will be read by Tom Grilk, president and CEO of B.A.A., on Monday prior to the start of the race in Hopkinton. This is the second year the Boston Marathon will kick off with a land acknowledgment, following last year when the race took place on Indigenous Peoples Day.

Tadytin, who is part of Native Women Running’s leadership team, hopes that land acknowledgments will find permanence in the annual marathon.

“Even that tiny piece just recognizes us, and we’re so unrecognizable,” she said. “It’s actually sad that it’s come to that. So yeah, I feel like that is important, and they should do that every year.”

Native Women Running was founded by Volker in 2018, after she noticed few who looked like her in running-centric media. The runner and mother from New Mexico created an Instagram account to highlight Native women runners, with the goal of creating and normalizing that representation. The online community has since grown to more than 28,700 followers.

“It’s great to actually have a central place to find each other and feature one another and cheer each other on,” Tadytin, 38, said.

The Boston Marathon team, which was formed from an application process opened to the community on Instagram, is the second team Native Women Running has put together to participate in races. The team will be fully sponsored by Amazon.

Native Women Running previously organized its first running team to participate in the Antelope Canyon Ultra Marathons in Page, Arizona. Tadytin, who is from Page, brought together Native women who were running the race, and Volker sponsored them.

“Just that added support and representation seemed to propel that whole race to a whole ‘nother level of not only completing it, but doing it with great motivation for your community and recognition for your tribe,” Tadytin said.

Apart from meeting all the Indigenous runners at the Boston Marathon, the team is excited to move Native Women Running from social media to real action.

“The impact we hope to make is just to normalize that we also are at the start line and we all deserve a spot at the start line,” Tadytin said. “A lot of times when there’s not enough representation, it looks like we’re not part of the mix. But we really are. We want to be able to amplify that.”

Indigenous women runners face an uphill battle. For one, the odds are stacked against Native women to even survive. According to the Coalition to Stop Violence Against Native Women, Indigenous women face murder rates more than 10 times the national average. For two, traveling across the country and registering for races form a financial barrier Native women have to overcome.

“A lot of times the barrier is, we are the only one,” Tadytin said. “We are the only person of color or Indigenous person there that it just feels kind of unsafe, uncomfortable.”

The tokenization of Indigenous runners also remains a problem in the athletic community, as Native runners often receive offers to participate in races from organizations with white leadership teams, Tadytin said.

“It would be great to hear from a Native that works in that program,” she said. “Instead of having to educate from ground zero, you’re being offered this hand by someone that kind of knows your history or just a little bit about how different it is for you.”

Outside of the running scene, Native Women Running advocates for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women (MMIW) and organizes annual virtual runs to raise funds for the cause. The community also stands behind Every Child Matters, which brings awareness to Indigenous children who have died at boarding schools. For Tadytin, Native Women Running serves as an educational platform.

“We’re not only just educating our own people and those that may have lost their connection with their tribes, but everyone else in the country,” she said. “A lot of times, running and teaching go hand in hand, because a lot of the teachings, while you’re running, relate back to that.”

Looking into the future, Tadytin hopes to see the Native running community receive more offers to participate in races. And Volker is currently working on getting more Native women runners represented at these events.

“We want a Native woman at every start line, at every race,” Tadytin said. “How great would that be for not only Indian Country, but for all of America to see a Native woman, to see that we’re still here. Sometimes it’s hard to believe that people actually think that we’re not here.”

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