For a sport that by nature should be accessible to all, running has long struggled with issues around inclusion.
“I didn’t see myself in running,” explained Verna Volker from the Navajo Nation, who launched Native Women Running in 2018, at first as an Instagram account. “The stories of Native runners were very far and few. I simply just wanted to give everyone a platform and just share stories,” said the former teacher.
Since then, Native Women Running has grown into a community of more than 30,000 on social media, with the mission to increase visibility in the running world for historically excluded runners.
By creating this space, Volker has created a movement that she describes as a sisterhood. The advocate helps create teams across the U.S. and Canada around race events. “There is a barrier sometimes to races and their costs, so I ask race companies to give us registrations for free,” she explained. “We are often overlooked because Native women make up such a small percentage, when in reality, running is so engrained in our culture. It’s been powerful to create this representation online, but now also in person and at actual races.”
Now, brands are taking notice. At the end of 2020, Hoka reached out to Volker to become an ambassador — a moment she describes as deeply emotional. “I bawled my eyes out,” she said. “I always talk about how running is perceived as the skinny, white, blonde, fast woman. It’s really easy for companies to do that, because that’s what people want. For Hoka to ask me, I was blown away.”
Volker’s steadfast mission to increase representation is what attracted Hoka, said Ashley Mayes, director of global brand communications.
“The running industry has a long way to go in recognizing Indigenous communities and amplifying Indigenous voices,” Mayes said. “It’s part of our commitment to amplifying underrepresented communities. Verna is a passionate runner who is not only talented but also endlessly inspiring to other runners.”
Other companies have joined to support Native Women Running as well, including REI and sock brand Lily Trotters.
Last year, The North Face also provided the organization with a grant to help further its goals through its Explore Fund. Eric Raymond, director of social impact at The North Face, said, “Their work aligns with our focus to open the aperture on exploration. We’re inspired by how they nurture a community of Native women runners on and off the reservation.”
Through such partnerships, Volker is able to provide equipment for marathon runners, transportation and other needs when it comes to races. She also plans to use The North Face grant money to fund an internal ambassador program that will feature pockets of women who are representing Native Women Running throughout North America.
But inclusivity in the running space doesn’t start and end with one person and one brand deal. “More brands need to step up. Plenty of Native women want to be in these spaces and want those opportunities,” Volker said, sharing a list of what makes an ally: building real authentic relationships, going beyond a land acknowledgment, providing Native runners a platform, exposure and scholarships while respecting Native culture, traditions and worldviews.
She added that for Native runners, the sport isn’t only about competition. Culturally, it can stand for resiliency and healing. “In my personal journey, I’ve had a hard childhood. I’ve lost parents and my three siblings. In my races, or in my running, I always run for them. We take on more of a spiritual sense through our culture. We run not only for ourselves, but many times, for our community.