It is still dark when Waylon rises. As the first rays of sunlight peer over the hills, he ties his shoes, adjusts his headphones, steps out into the dusky morning.
He runs mile after mile, reflecting on life: thinking about his community, thinking about all that he has endured. And as he runs, he grows stronger in mind, body, and spirit.
He is a runner, he is a fighter, he is a warrior—he is indigenous.
For Waylon Pee Pahona, founder of the group Healthy Active Natives and a Native Hope COVID-19 Fellow, running and other forms of exercise are more than just physical fitness.
Running as Therapy
A Hopi and Tewa/Maricopa who grew up on the Hopi reservation, Waylon was sexually abused at the age of 9, witnessed his father accidentally kill a 3-year-old child at age of 12, and revived his mother from attempted suicide at the age of 16. He left the reservation when he turned 18. At a breaking point in 2007, Waylon attempted to take his own life.
Waylon's outlook on life changed when he was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and running became his therapy.
As Waylon expresses it, as originally quoted in Native Max magazine:
"Some days I would cry tears of joy and other days I would cry tears of sadness, thinking of all the negative things that I had overcome in my life. Crying has become a part of my running and my therapy. It [has] made my mind strong and it [has] made me the person I am today. I realize that I am now a runner and apply it to all of my life’s issues; if I’m feeling well I will run, if I know my family and friends are in pain, I will run and pray for them."
Pahona's Work with Healthy Active Natives (HANs)
The Healthy Active Natives (HANs) movement is about total wellness, the healing and strengthening of mind, body, and spirit through an active and encouraging community. The group has created a place for all Indigenous/Native people to come together in health and wellness, not just physically, but emotionally and spiritually as well.
Founded and created by Waylon as a Facebook group in 2012, HANs has grown tremendously over the last five and a half years. The group now has over 75,000 members, and Waylon spends his time traveling and speaking at reservation conferences and events, encouraging Native communities, especially the youth—hearing their stories of struggle and strength.
To Waylon, this space of support that empowers indigenous people is important because it helps Native Americans embrace their history, their culture, and their power as a people.
"As indigenous people, we cannot get caught up in the western ways of life and approach to working out. If you look at fitness as a chore it’s disempowering, but understanding that we are warriors is empowering. Physical wellness is deeper than just fitness. Mental wellness is the foundation." -Interview with the American Indian Republic
In 2018, he took HANs on the road, visiting Native communities throughout the Midwest and leading conversations about the importance of wellness.
Now, a 2020 COVID-19 Native Hope Fellow
Today, in the midst of our pandemic, tribes, like many underserved populations, are fighting for their lives with limited resources, funding, and support. This ongoing problem will not be solved overnight. In the meantime, there are lives at stake.
For Waylon, these days, serving his people as a warrior looks a little different.When the COVID-19 outbreak hit the Hopi Nation in Arizona, Waylon knew he had to help. The Hopi Nation is isolated and still lives traditionally on their land in the middle of Navajo Nation. Their water supply is laden with arsenic and uranium, and fresh water is hard to come by. As a Native Hope COVID-19 Fellow, Waylon is able to use fellowship funds to deliver clean water to his people during lockdown.
Transformation, by and for Natives
The Native Hope Fellowship Program is designed to empower creativity and leadership in Indigenous Peoples and their communities. The initiative creates and supports opportunities and funding for individuals to develop their vision and improve Indian Country. This year's Native Hope Fellows include special COVID-19 Fellows (like Waylon) who receive tools, resources, and capital to help their communities fight the virus.
Native Hope believes a collaborative effort across Nations with relevant and respected Fellows brings a positive impact throughout Indian Country while promoting a stronger cultural identity. Our Fellows' creative wisdom and level of commitment to their communities and people advances a broader understanding of Native cultures, perspectives, and journeys.
Our Fellows are ordinary people doing extraordinary things across Indian Country. Their voices and testimonies are helping Native people re-discover their dignity and warrior strength, transforming a narrative of hopelessness into one of hopefulness.
Want to know more about how you can support the efforts of Waylon and other Native Hope Fellows?