The Marathon and the Mural

Artist Yatika Fields works on mural for Indigenous People's Day at Copley Square in Boston, Massachusetts, on Sunday. (Photo by Aryan Rai/BU News Service)

By Aryan Rai
Boston University News Service

Marathon devotees spilling into Copley Square for the Boston Marathon Expo were greeted with a sight never seen before in any past pre-marathon festivities.

Behind the John Singleton Copley statue, stationed in a modest area of grass, stood a wide banner with the words “Indigenous Peoples’ Day” painted on it. 

The banner was bedecked by the printed figures of people belonging to different Indigenous communities; Tom Longboat of the Onondaga Tribe – who finished the Boston Marathon as a runner-up in 1901 before winning it in record time in 1907, then competing in the 1908 London Olympic Marathon; Jordan Marie Daniel of the Lower Brule Sioux Tribe – a famous runner and activist involved in Indigenous issues; Andrew Sockalexis of the Penobscot Tribe – who finished second place in both 1912 and 1913. And the list goes on.

Photo taken by Aryan Rai.

As the day went on, a group of artists beautified the banner using ink, sketch pens and paint. The white-colored banner with mere greetings and printed pictures soon became interspersed with a large painted silhouette of the two-time winner Ellison Myers Brown, eye-catching graffiti and random patterns dashed across the canvas.

Originally, when the Boston Marathon was rescheduled to take place on Indigenous Peoples Day, backlash over the decision to essentially move in on an already established event. 

Treading a middle ground, members of the Wings of America – an organization assisting Native American and Indigenous youth development through sports – approached the Boston Athletic Association to try and find a way to merge the Indigenous Day with the marathon and reconcile the differences.

Photo taken by Aryan Rai.

“We wanted to have a conversation, and a mural facilitation was the way to do it,” said Yatika Fields, an artist and member of Wings of America. “This is what we want,” he added, pointing to a little girl scribbling at the corner of the mural with blue ink, “Participation from the local public. It is amazing.” 

Fields belongs to the Osage, Cherokee, and Mvskoke Creek Nation. Robert Peters, a former MBTA driver, could also be found assisting Fields with the mural. Peters himself belongs to the Mashpee Tribe from Cape Cod.

Photo taken by Aryan Rai.

By the second day of the expo, the mural had already become a point of attraction. People could be seen clicking pictures, talking to either Fields or Peters and earnestly reading printouts detailing the journey of the people portrayed on the mural.

At one point, Michael Monroe, the grandson of the famous Ellison Myers Brown, entered onto the grassy space at Copley Square. Scanning the mural, his appreciation was made obvious by a wide smile. 

Monroe, a member of the Narragansett Tribe, the only federally recognized tribe from Rhode Island, had his own take on the matter.

“You should consult the people who will be affected,” said Monroe of the association’s marathon rescheduling. “But they apologized, and they have officially recognized Indigenous Day. So that is progress, and that is how it starts. It is a domino effect.”

Onlookers shared the sentiment, too.

 “As white Americans, we need to be educated on the real situation of who owned the land,” said Chris Coughlin, a high school English teacher.

The plan was working. The people found the mural hard to miss, and with each hour passing, new patterns would emerge with contributions coming, from little kids to college students to the senior citizenry. 

The mural would later be accompanied by cut-outs of the Indigenous runners participating in this year’s marathon. 

“I have never seen such participation,” said Dustin Martin, executive director of Wings of America. “We wanted dialogue and representation and the marathon gave us a platform to achieve that.”

Martin belongs to the Dine Tribe from New Mexico, and is also running in the marathon.

In the crowd of onlookers was also Patti Dillon, who secured the runner-up position in the Boston Marathon from 1979 to 1981. A member of the Mi’kmaq community, she was also the first female athlete to sign a professional running contract with Nike. 

“I think it is wonderful to have the marathon and Indigenous Day on the same day. It is nice to have a highlight,” she said. “My goal is to meet as many young people as I can, so that they can look at me and say, ‘Oh my gosh, if she can do it, I can do it.’”

On Sunday, the mural was moved to the Albemarle Park in Newton where it will be put on display as the city honors Indigenous Peoples Day.

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