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Concrete Corner and The Spirit Run

D.A. Walters © 2012
hummingbird symbol

It sounds like our shoes press against sand paper as we run. It’s a scratch, scratch, scratch noise one makes beginning the coarse work of smoothing something specific, the kind of rhythmic and consistent determination of quality work. We produce little dust over a tightly packed dirt ground of hot, soft sand.

     Hopi and Apache run in front of me, but beside each other. Hopi carries the medicinal staff and wears no shirt. He is dark and tanned and has many tats, some prison tats, some not. His long hair hangs centered in a pony tail down his back. Apache wears the standard issued tee shirt – white. I follow, scratch, scratch, scratch. They are younger than I, strong runners, running this lap at this moment longer than I, for I joined them in the end of their length and not a word is said. There is only the continued rhythmic sound of our making contact with the ground.

     I just began my run. My breathing is increasing, my heart flutters, my upper legs feel heavy and deadened, and they struggle to keep up with the demand. They don’t want to work. If they were my children with their own mind, they would sit and cry. But I make them go.

     We start a veer to the right, into the sun, westward. There are no clouds and there is no breeze. It is hot and still. Still we run. The sweat rains down from Hopi and Apache’s shirt is soaked. I feel the sting of my own sweat begin to push its way out. The sun beats down on my face like fierce heat from a roaring fire. I bow my head in humility of its authority. If I were a child, I would quit and drink soda somewhere in the shade. I make myself stronger and prepare for a long run. I am an adult; I am disciplined and respected.

     It is late afternoon in the bowl of the desert in south central Arizona. It’s been over one hundred and ten degrees for six days straight. It is late August and still we run.

     There are four feathers that hang from the medicinal staff in Hopi’s right hand. They are eagle feathers. They dance and flutter about in front of him to the sound of our sand-scratching shoes. Alive, sometimes I think they move like they are alive.

     The bend of the oval shape track we run on rakes in a north direction and the sun begins to cook our left side, my male side. We proceed on this straightway of the track as a team. Apache says something to Hopi, but I don’t hear it. My crying children below are distracting me. They cause my heart to race faster, and I feel empty in my chest. I know making them go is best for us. I concentrate on keeping up with Hopi and Apache. It seems that they have picked up the pace, or am I falling behind? I push myself a little bit harder and I regain my place. It takes longer than I expected, and much more effort.

     We come to the other bend in the track on the north side. It treads us past the other inmates by the tennis court, the handball courts, the workout stations and the weight lifting cages. Scratch, scratch, scratch. We run. The pace seems faster and quicker as I struggle to keep up as we arc around the baseball field. There is the common noise of inmates, cursing, laughing and watching that bears down on us. I feel it. We come to the start line. Other native inmates sit under a shaded table and one counts us on a notepad.

     “Chief," we are called. How did this originate? When was it that we have become labeled again? It is my understanding other races refer to this word out of respect to address a native when not knowing their name. But then again some of our own call each other this. Usually it is one of the younger ones. The older natives respect the word "Chief" too much to call another’s attention with it, or call themselves into such a position. It’s the old way. I prefer the old way.

      We pass the table of natives heading southward on the other straightway where the track treads parallel to the fence. "Medium Security" details that such a fence be established around the prison to keep us in. It’s a deadly fence. Was it this way in Fort Sumner? Every day I see this fence. I know it so much that I don’t see it anymore. I look beyond its man-made crudeness at the Creator’s majestic mountains miles away and to the blue sky above, toward my home. I watch the white tail hawks soar and acknowledge the few doves who seem to fly near to check up on me.

     Sweat begins to fall from my brow. My ankles are straining at the sides; they feel a pull and stress. If they were my short rez-dog “Uh-oh," she would be sniffing and whining at the front door wanting to go out. My heart is racing; it’s a flutter of baby feathers disrupted by quickened gusts of spirit. They begin to collect together and adjust to the demand I put on it. My children below obey my authority; they now pout about quietly in their own way and tend to the task: spiteful obedience. There is a knot forming in the pit of my stomach. It feels like a knot: twisted, tight, compressing, wrenching. I take a deep breath.

     Hopi continues with Apache at his right side. Scratch, scratch, scratch. There is no break in stride, we run. The eagle feathers dance below the hand of Hopi as we pass the other inmates walking against us on the track. It’s a crowd of white, grey, and brown passing colors. They step aside out of our path. I get the sensation we are going downhill. The heat from the sun bakes our right side; my female side.

     Hopi and I are common in that we come from the same region. Apache and I are common in what we choose to do "on the outs." The three of us are lumped together by our conviction in a court of justice, aggravated assault. We share in certain preferences in life and we take our time in here together, yet individually. It is a downfall or a setback for each one of us here, behind this towering fence and the guards circling beyond. How can it not be? If I look closely, there are firearms mounted in their truck. We’ve seen them drawn out at one time or another. It’s their power to keep us or kill us. Still we run.

     Scratch, scratch, scratc…

     "Chief" blends us together and we group ourselves under an inappropriate label once again. Its been in use for how long? I doubt it can be extinguished or "expunged" as they say in court: words, word, words. Every time I hear "Chief" in here, I think of "Tonto."

      We come to the bend on the south end of the field. My children are growing and growing stronger. The baby feathers still struggle to organize in my chest; it’s now a blend of small bursts of their energy in different directions and various colors. Sweat is starting to drip from and around my face. It stings my eye. I wipe at it with my hand, careful to not break the stride set by Hopi.  It taxes me. My breathing is still out of rhythm with everything I’ve committed my body to. It ties the knot in my stomach even tighter, and it reminds me of a thick braided rope. We begin the southern arc.

     I think of my celly, O’odham, he’s leaving this prison tomorrow. He’s going home. Back to a world he left broken by his use of alcohol, drugs, and criminal mind. He says he wants change. He looks and acts changed. He’s saying all the right words. His family is coming back together. Soon he will be with his wife and children. He wants to go strong from here; he wants to stay strong. I want him to be strong. So we had fast – four days in prison without food. I would never have believed this was in store for me. I prayed. He prayed. My mother asks, “People pray in prison?” It’s a rhetorical question. Still we run.

     Scratch, scratch, scra…

     Are we going uphill? I feel I’m falling behind again. I scramble to regain my place. It causes Uh-Oh to whine and yap at me. The baby feathers flutter about creating fewer but larger colors. My breathing, so erratic! I recapture my position behind Apache as we finish the southern arc and start north leaving the fence behind us.

     I saw a dead bird caught by the razor wire of that fence. It was just four days ago near the sweat lodge, when O’odham and I completed our fast and entered the sweat. The brothers began this run that day. The grandfather stones rebuked me. My bird hung upside down. Its right wing snagged on the barb at the highest point. How it must have struggled to free itself before it gave up, desperate! I can’t help but think about how freedom can be seized relentlessly, and this fence dangles a new reminder before me. Still we run.

     Scratch, scratch, scra..

     We pass the baseball field and the handball courts to a few compliments from other inmates. “Chief!” The table of natives counts us again, then back to their own business of talking, laughing, and watching. The heat feels so much more intense since I began and I am dripping with perspiration. I notice how uneven the ground is. There are rain water grooves running the length of the track on this side. We run over them like giants from another world, heading south again.

     Hopi and Apache are in step together, pace, breathing and heartbeat I suspect. I struggle and appreciate the sensation of descent. I take this short time to focus on my body – it’s still so tired from the fast. We enter the southern arc. The feathers in my chest are starting to settle into a brisk cool fanning of my body within, as if they have collected and formed into a beaded fan, like my father keeps in his gourd box. I feel the strength of my children below. They will make me proud and they will thank me later. I let my dog out the door, her tail is up and she walks on her toes, she’s an inside dog. My breathing,so unruly! It causes a nauseous state of mind. I take a deep breath and bow my head again in humility to the late afternoon sun. Its hot like a fever, unrelenting and unforgiving. Still we run.

     Scratch, scratch, scr..

     Hopi and Apache share a laugh, not breaking stride. I see my feet as I concentrate on my breathing. My shoes. I bought them when I first got here fifteen months ago. I have nine more to go. I think they’ll last for they are still in good shape. Thinking of my shoes always makes me think of doing time; my time and others'. Knowing a man who has ten years left, or twenty, ninety, life and then three life lifetimes here is an unassuming experience. I know of a man with three hundred and eleven years to go. I am appalled with the idea that this life on the inside is all that is left for him, or them. Prior to coming here, I never considered those of us inside. I’m ashamed. My dismay is deepened knowing that it can still happen to me, or to my children. Then I think of home.

     My wife. Though I talk to her every day, I haven’t seen her in three months. I love her and I miss her. I dream of her often. My children. I have not seen them in seventeen months. But I am blessed, and grateful that I still have them. Some bothers haven’t had a visit from family in years, or their family abandoned them and moved on, selectively forgotten. "Chief" steps up and we become family; it is understood we are brothers on arrival. Prison doesn’t break our spirit’s desire to be native; instead, we band in the way native people do – and we run together like this.

     Scratch, scratch, scr..

     We leave the southern arc, the male portion of this sacred circle and head north. I feel the strain on my body from the gradual ascent in the track. The perspiration drips from my chin. The fan in my chest makes sweeping motions to begin to cool my body. Uh-Oh is outside sniffing about, ready to cause trouble. I see her through my living room window. My children look to me with determination in their eyes. They are ready to go the distance.

     I prepare for the quickened pace through the narrow passage of inmates by the game ball courts. The eagle feathers below Hopi’s hand strike out here and there with each step we make. My shirt is damp on my chest and my long hair sticks to the sides on my face. The heat is enormous! Even the pigeons and ravens stand in the long shade of the towering field lamp posts. I find it a portentous sight.

     As we pass though, the loudspeaker shouts, “mainline, mainline..” and we come to the beginning again, to start my third round. In the sweat, we call the third round the "medicine round." O’odham ran the sweat four days ago, and gave me one of his eagle feathers at daybreak today. He did this out of respect, gratitude and for my suffering with him, for him; he shook my hand and said thank you. I felt honored. The table of natives counts us again and we close the female portion of this sacred circle. I enter the medicine round.

     Scratch, scratch, scratch..

     Hopi looks back to me over his right shoulder. “One more” he says, and then he returns his focus forward. It is understood then that I carry the staff next. “Ok," I respond, surprised that I’m not so out of breath anymore. My breathing has found a delicate rhythm. The beaded fan in my center briskly paints cool colors throughout me. Uh-Oh is stirring the pot of dogs outside, chasing nothing for brief periods of time; she tries to interest them in joining her. I feel the strength and stability that my children provide me as we stomp over the canyons of rain water erosion and the tiny life we don’t know heading south. I take a deep breath and Jesus comes to mind.

     He was from a tribe of people and He was not white. People tend to forget this, indirectly or not. My wife taught this to me and He too, was imprisoned. I remind myself that these walls, chains, and locks captured and killed Him, yet He lives again. My lesson is that I am not the great somebody, only 48872-051. I too will live beyond this desert experience, with hope, faith and prayer. Yes mom, we pray. The answer is ambiguous. I have never prayed so much in my life. I believe we all pray in here at some point. It is a place of dangerous unknowns. Still we run.

     Scratch, scratch, scra..

     Jesus demonstrated something most important to me, salvation from self, that there is the right and correct way to do things all the time, even when everything and everybody is contrary to it. For so long I have let my emotions drive my choices; it’s a common burden. It’s this pedantic persuasion that brought me here, to my own concrete corner; a brick walled bathroom with a locker for all my possessions and a window to the northwest.

     I give thanks for that window though. I can see the San Francisco Peaks. It’s one of the four sacred mountains I know, and it reminds me I’m close to home. I never have been confused about my direction until I came here. I believe it is intentionally designed that way. This is not my home.

      We enter the southern arc again and I keep my head up and my position true. Though the sun’s heat may burn my face, it will be only a short time. Apache is pointing with his left hand in a southwest direction. Hopi looks over. My attention follows but I do not see what they do, then they burst out laughing. The eagle feathers stab about the air and my breathing is rhythmic and shallow. The rope knot is loosening. I think of my past.

      My colleagues, my profession, and my work. I did so much. Still, I am here. If it can happen to me, it can happen to you. Your desk, your lavish office or your status won’t keep you from here. I will tell you there are seven hundred and three cinder blocks built for everyone, anyone, at any given time. They keep you and count you; they really do – every six hours. Sentence doesn’t care about all your good. Sentence is the rattlesnake bite, the drop of venom in its prey. Did you know the rattle snake follows the scent of its own venom? When the venom paralyzes, the snake comes to swallow. Be safe and step mindfully, for all of us in here have been bitten. Still we run.  

     Scratch, scratch, scrat..

     We turn north and the ascent begins. The fanning in my chest is now short quickened strokes from an unseen hand, like an effort used to make charred embers red hot. My chest is lightening and my breathing deep, rhythmic and unabated by the incline. My children begin to laugh once again; they have grown, their voice deeper. They are strong and carry me willingly. Uh-Oh runs in circles stretching her little black body; she is excited. Her white tipped tail wags with fortitude and her white socks are a blur. There is no longer the nausea or the knotted rope, but a cocoon of home in my stomach. With sweat pouring off of me and the heat pounding me, I keep my place behind Apache and keep my pace with Hopi. I let it all go now:  my anger, resentments, frustrations, depression and self-pity. The pass through the game ball courts shows a collection of every kind of man with his secrets there. My strength is arriving and the power of it falls into me. I am ready.

     As we near the start line, Apache falls away to the right slowing his pace, I move up. Hopi extends his right hand toward me as I move in near him. Apache stalls to a walk behind us. I take the staff in my left hand and Hopi declines to a walk. I move away from them alone. I am counted by the table of natives and I close the northern arc. There is only the sound of my own feet as I organize myself.

     Scratch, scratch, scratch..

     I move the staff to my right hand. I choose to carry it on my female side in honor of my mother, for the resentments I held against her throughout my life and for her resentments toward her parents. Definitely I am my mother’s son, no matter how many times I try to leave home. I have finally learned that to move forward is to let it all go.

     There is a hummingbird where my heart used to be. It is baby blue with a white face and black wing tips. Its chest is splashed with black and white spots that diminish in size and disparity up and under its eyes. Its wings are a blur of hazing black lines and its tail feathers are fanned out, black tipped. Brilliantly alive, my hummingbird hovers about the way hummingbirds do: pause, inspect, move, pause, inspect, move. A magical and torrid spirit.

     My children are independent adults working together, sharing the experience and the work. They are strong and I am grateful for their spirit. Uh-Oh chases the crows outside, running, stretching and jumping into the air at them. She is small; her endurance is big but it will not last for very long. She is happy and careless. It is good to know her this way and to remember.

     The staff twists in my hand from the life the eagle feathers give it. They dance before me with each step. The hummingbird finds my cocoon of home and carries it from the pit of my stomach to the spot where my soul is harnessed to my body, in the center of my mind. Its actions are so quick, I do not realize it’s happening but it's like that of light, of lightning, brighter than the sun.

     Scratch, scratch, scratch..

     Then it happens; I see a vision. There are dark storm clouds about, swift and changing. It’s a magnificent view; they form threats and danger, shifting shapes and positions. Lightning strikes within the depths, creating flashes of white here and there. The storm clouds roll and spin, blue, white, black, and yellow. There is a dark figure behind all these clouds, passing from the left to the right and back, quickly. This figure is on the left side of my vision; it is a man, a man in hiding. The clouds protrude out toward me as he slides behind it back and forth, like a child playing under a blanket. I try to see him, but he is obscure. I sense the future.  It is the temptation to anger and manipulation that waits for me in my future. It is going to be greater than I expect it to be. I ask what must be done.

     The southern arc; hummingbird alive.

     Scratch, scratch, scratch…

     From the right a vision of the moon appears, full and bright. There is an image silhouetted in its brilliance. The image is a woman with a weaving loom, she sits and works. She is calm and persistent and motherly. Her nature inspires the river of wellness in me to rise and overflow. The moon is set in front of the storming clouds and the woman in front of the moon. It is my mother. The answer is with my mother.

     As I begin to approach the northern arc, the passage by the community of inmates, a whirlwind forms quickly from my left. It spins and runs from the tennis courts straight into me – the eagle feathers pull the staff alive in my right hand. The whirlwind takes the vision and dissipates into the free air.

     The northern arc; hummingbird alive.

      Scratch, scratch, scratch..

     “Chief!” I pass by the table of natives; they count me again on their notepad.  It’s the Spirit Run of 2012! Each year we collect to express the existence of our native spirit by organizing and committing to self, and we run. This we do ourselves, not because we have to, but why do we run?

     I used to think that it was to show our desire for sobriety and a balanced way of life. But now I know it’s about maintaining a connection with the earth, the sky, the living beings, and each other. Our spirit is not broken, it drives us to endure in spite of our circumstances; for there are many situations that led us here and they are hard to listen to and difficult to understand.

     We run because we belong to a group of people whose spirit cannot be suppressed but compels us to recognize our native heritage. We run for all those we hurt and to dissipate our rage, to forgive those against us and to forgive ourselves. We run to become strong and connected. We run for mercy and leniency from Judge Hate Good, whose courtroom is located in the Town of Vanity. We run because when I was young, the Catholic nuns pulled me aside, held my long hair and discussed cutting it while my parents were not around, as though that would make me change.

     Even though we are in here, surrounded by this fence, our feet on the ground, our hair in the wind, the sun and rain falling on our heads, we run. Because we are indigenous to the whole continent and endogenous of the native spirit, we run. Because we are connected to the ground below our feet, to the air in and around us, to each other and every living entity around, including the tiny life we don’t know in rainwater erosion, we run.

     It makes sense to me now. “Chief” becomes us. It is the makeup of all the native brothers in all the jails and prison across this country. It is the headsman of us behind lock up; it is the responsibility for ourselves. One can hear the discipline of it in the songs and prayers at the sweat. I can honestly say that Chief has helped me and I have helped Chief. Thus, I am grateful to be counted by a table of natives on a notepad during this run, for my contribution is more than sharing a sense of belonging between us brothers. It is about finding my path in the new me.

     Though I have become a believer in Christ – everything about me is native – Navajo, Pawnee, and Otoe-Missourian. I cannot ignore that. The value in me is deeper than I thought or cared. I am His creation and He has fashioned me this way for a purpose. Yes, I am a new creation! I have allowed Someone in me to rise who has the strength and love that I could not find on my own all these years. Each day I am learning to be more grateful for this opportunity to know these brothers in this way. And I understand that for me, it had to happen this way. I accept it.

     Later today in my concrete corner, I will think of home and family again, it is inevitable; but then Chief is here too. It is in this way we can still be ourselves and not become lost to the chaos of the prison realm and its values.

     Hummingbird alive!

     -Navaho -

Anna Lee Walters and Native American Literature 2024

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