Jose Cortez lifts his pant leg up to reveal a swollen, pulsing shin dressed in a tensor bandage.
The 68-year-old has embarked on an unconventional retirement endeavour: carrying messages between indigenous groups across North America by foot.
Cortez is part of a small group of “peace runners” meeting with 200-300 communities from Chickaloon, Alaska to Panama. As they embarked on their journey earlier this month, a simultaneous team of runners set course from the opposite end of the continent, at Tierra del Fuego, Argentina.
Both teams hope to meet in Panama six months from now. There they will gather in ceremony for four days, sharing the concerns and hopes of indigenous people across the Americas.
Every four years since 1992 the Runners for Peace and Dignity have spent six months or more lacing up their shoes for the cultural unity of the original peoples of the continent.
Currently a small team of six – including Kwanlin Dun’s Justin Smith – are headed southbound along the West Coast while another group will be running through Montana to cover the eastern side of the continent.
The small groups are dependent on indigenous communities to host, house and feed their weary bodies along the way.
Like the others he is running with, Cortez didn’t expect to be running anywhere from 15 to 200 kilometres a day for six months. The Arizona native with roots in central Mexico spent his career working the corporate grind of radio and TV.
“In reality you represent a certain people, but as you go along you notice there are so many similarities. You share your culture and it all seems to become intertwined into one huge picture. And this was the dream: one people, one continent,” he shares.
The run means different things to everyone. For Cortez, he is running in the place of a close friend and originator of the project, Gustavo Gutierrez, who passed away in an accident at which Cortez was present.
As he sits in the Kwanlin Dun potlatch house on a rest day, he says the swollen legs are nothing next to the power in hearing the similarities across diverse communities.
“Promoting our culture and stories will help ensure our legacy as indigenous peoples lives on,” he says.
Each of the runners carries a different staff out of the total of around 75, which are distributed and cloaked in 13 handmade blankets. The staffs are covered with feathers – eagle and condor feathers are of particular significance.
“The feather bridges all gaps, from South America to the Arctic,” says another runner, Daniel Mejia, as he points to one of the staffs.
He is pointing to one of the newest members of the collection, adorned with a long black and speckled feather. This staff was passed on to the runners from a small Arctic community.
Mejia is from the Central Valley California, with Caxcan, Chichimeca and Spanish roots. This is his second time running.
He said each staff is unique, sharing a purpose and message from the indigenous community where it came. Each morning the runners gather in a circle and go up to a staff that they feel they should to run with.
“Each has its own spirit,” Mejia says. “Every one has its turn.”
Organizer and runner Vanessa Quezada explains that another staff, enveloped with dozens of feathers and a red flag, recently travelled from Vancouver to Saskatchewan, connecting in ceremony with families of missing and murdered indigenous women.
“Every family with a story of a loved one gone added a feather to the staff,” Quezada says.
Anobel Gutierrez, an organizer and the daughter of Gustavo Gutierrez, explains that the road from El Paso to Juarez has many missing women, just like Canada.
“It’s all over. That’s what this is about, healing and sharing that our struggles are the same.”
Another staff carries the struggle of suicide. Gutierrez says they use it to celebrate and pray for life. Yet another is used to pray for “well-briety” and sobriety, another common struggle.
She herself became involved by accident. Her father, as a tireless founder of the project, desperately needed an extra hand. She was using drugs at the time but still came to help.
“I found myself two months later in Mexico City. Because of this run, my daughter had a better life. She got to see a different life. And so did my son.”
“We have so much healing to do for our children, elders and all those behind us. So we do this so that they remember who they are and where they come from. So that they don’t get lost in this crazy, crazy world that we live in,” Gutierrez says.
“Because that’s easy to do.”
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