For more than 1,000 years, men from Taos Pueblo’s Red Willow tribe have run the Santa Cruz Foot Race in May and September, pitting those from the north side of the river against those from the south side. The race has no winners or losers. Rather, it is a religious ceremony and a kind of prayer for those who live on pueblo lands.
Runners congregate at either end of the race path. They wear multi-colored loincloths and ribbons wrap some of their braids and ponytails. Feathers adorn other jet-black flowing tresses. Wispy feathers cling to their skin, painted in geometric patterns of white, ash, and clay.
Runners of all ages travel two-by-two. Bare feet slap the dusty path. Few men break a sweat in the chilly morning air. A steady gaze and single-minded focus etch their faces as chests heave, legs pump and hundreds of neighbors and visitors watch.
The women signal approval and encouragement with high-pitched trilling sounds that split the air – sounds as old as the race itself. Village elders flank the path, waving small leafy branches behind the passing runners, like gatekeepers at a horse race. One tiny participant hesitates to run through the noisy crowd, so a gray-haired village elder takes his hand and runs with him to the finish line.
Individual runners pass the enraptured crowd once, twice, three or four times before they stop. As the last runner finishes, participants from both teams gather for a celebratory procession through the pueblo.
An original, longer version of this piece entitled A Timeless Ceremony appeared in Potpourri, A Magazine of Literary Arts, Summer 2003, and won Honorable Mention in the Writer’s Journal Travel Contest.