From the left: Arlene Espinosa (Paiute); Robin Bueno (Oglala Lakota); Stephanie Mushrush (Washoe Tribe of NV & CA); Melanie Cain (Jicarilla Apache/Santa Clara Pueblo); George Funmaker (Ho-Chunk/Dakota).

Running to Save Oak Flat

Gale Courey Toensing

When the Los Angeles Marathon 30th Edition kicked off today at 6:55 a.m. PDT, among the 25,000-plus runners were five Native Americans who are running to save an Apache sacred site from destruction by an international mining company.

Stephanie Mushrush (Washoe Tribe of Nevada & California) and four friends from the Los Angeles/Alaska Native Community – Arlene Espinosa, (Paiute); Robin Bueno, (Oglala Lakota), Melanie Cain (Jicarilla Apache/Santa Clara Pueblo) and George Funmaker (Ho-Chunk/Dakota) – will perform the classic 26.2-mile race as a spiritual dedication to protect Oak Flat, the Apaches’ sacred land in southeast Arizona. The friends are professionals in social work, family and marriage counseling and mental health, serving the urban Native community.

Oak Flat is particularly meaningful to the San Carlos Apache Tribe, because it is part of the tribe’s aboriginal territory. The 2,400-acre ceremonial ground which includes ancestors’ burial sites, was given away to a foreign mining company for a massive underground copper mine in a land swap bill that Sen. John McCain slipped into the must-pass National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) in December. The NDAA is the annual military funding bill. President Barack Obama signed the bill on December 19.

RELATED: San Carlos Apache Leader Seeks Senate Defeat of Copper Mine on Sacred Land

Although the bill is technically in effect, the San Carlos Apaches have established an encampment on the land and have vowed to fight the transfer of their sacred place through grassroots, legislative and legal actions and by an educational campaign to raise awareness about the irreversible damage such mining excavations cause to Mother Earth. In early February, hundreds of people from all over the country gathered at Oak Flat for weekend of payers and ceremonies to protect the sacred place.

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RELATED: Hundreds Gather at Oak Flat to Fight for Sacred Apache Land

Mushrush attended the Holy Ground Ceremony, as the gathering was called, and it changed her life, she said. “I had experienced difficulty in getting started in training for the marathon and was inspired by my Apache friends; for example, Twix Ward completed all 44 miles of the spiritual march [from the San Carlos reservation to Oak Flat] in his moccasins; Native hip hop artist, Quese IMC, drove 16 hours on Thursday and marched 17 miles on Friday,” Mushrush said.

Within a day of arriving at Oak Flat, Mushrush had decided to dedicate her Los Angeles Marathon run as a spiritual one for Oak Flat. She spoke with San Carlos Apache Councilman Wendsler Nosie Sr., who supported her decision.

“I returned to Oak Flat the following weekend to support the effort and pray again with the Apache and allies. Since my dedication, others in the Los Angeles’ American Indian Community Council have joined me. We not only hope to strengthen our purpose in running, but to also spiritually support Oak Flat and other sacred lands, with our prayers,” Mushrush said.

Since running is a long-standing tradition for Natives, it only makes sense for the group to dedicate and focus their spiritual run on Oak Flat and other sacred places, and also to spread awareness about Oak Flat throughout the Native and allied communities, Mushrush said. “We take on our role as messengers. During the day, we work together in helping and empowering American Indians in the mental health setting; overall, we are members of the Los Angeles urban Native community, doing our best at living between two worlds.”

The friends are running in the Los Angeles Marathon today, as part of Los Angeles' American Indian Community Council, an official marathon charity partner.

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