She Ran from Alaska to Argentina
Nina Serrano interview from La Raza Chronicles/KPFA
Vanessa Quesada – Run for Peace and Dignity – is an Indigenous Chicana who participates in the San Antonio Peace and Dignity Journey, the Esperanza Peace and Justice Center, and the Society For Native Nations. She has recently returned from the amazing Peace and Dignity Journey, a seven month prayer run that happens once every four years from Alaska all the way down to Argentina. The ceremonial run began in 1992, to fulfill the prophecy of the eagle and the condor, which reconnects peoples from north and south.
They carry sacred staffs from different first nations communities, praying for a different theme every four years.
Here are some edited text excerpts from my La Raza Chronicles/KPFA radio interview:
Nina Serrano: Vanessa Quesada, you passed through different borders and different countries. How did these official states respond to this journey? Have you received support from them?
Vanessa Quesada: One of the things about the prayer run is that we’re reuniting all of the nations. In that way, we’re bringing territories together that often span different nation-states. There have been some challenges in the past, including in 2016 when we ran through Nicaragua. Right there on that border between Honduras and Nicaragua, we were stopped because their election which was happening one week after the election in the United States. They were not accepting and not open to any groups of any sorts that also had people who were coming from the United States. Anywhere else, for that matter. We weren’t the only group that got turned away.
This is the first time that we’ve ever had this problem. In the 24 years that we’ve been running and that we’ve been carrying this prayer, we’ve never come across this problem. This is something really new. That’s alarming. It’s something that, in 1992, the elders already had this vision for us to carry this prayer as a prayer run and not to get involved in any kind of politics or pushing any agendas.
At this point in time, everything is starting to collapse together. Those questions are arising again of becoming a non-profit organization. How are we going to maneuver and clarify with language that these nation-states or these borders can understand? They’re really, at the end of the day, political constructs, right?
Nina Serrano: Yes.
As you go from country to country, territory, territory, region to region, how is woman leadership viewed and accepted or challenged?
Vanessa Quesada: It was challenged from Alaska down. To be honest they were the greatest challenges and definitely in Central America. There are certain places in Mexico and in Central America where women would not run by themselves. Women were cat-called, lured into the jungle, followed, given a hard time and things like that. Luckily, along the way, some of those things happened just in the time when a runner was being picked up with a van, or one of the runners just had this intuition to go check on that runner. All of these things came up.
There’s definitely a heaviness all the way down around the femicides still. A lot of people think Chiapas or Central America and Honduras are one of the most violent places in the world right now. Also, every single community, all the way from Alaska down, and all through Canada people told us stories of their missing and murdered indigenous women and men as well. This is really something that’s severely underreported that a lot of us don’t even have an idea of how many people are actually being disappeared, being murdered.
It’s really up to us to reinstate this communication amongst us that is away from the political constructs of the media, the corporations and of what they want us to know. We really need to reconnect in a way that’s genuine to our roots, our indigenous languages, and being able to also find other ways.
We talked about borders, about breaking down these borders. That’s not the world that we want to live in. As the youth, we want to be able to use the waters between our cultures. For example, there’s a really great group in between Mexico and Guatemala that are really using the strength of the water and their culture to bring together all the different Mayan pueblos, to really destroy the borders, come down with the borders and not recognize those borders. To remind ourselves that as indigenous people, we’ve been able to cross into different territories and take care of our territory the only way that we know how without being stopped, without having a passport, without any of these documentations that are now required. We have that task of being more creative, of being able to connect and listen, not only to the land and the elements but being able to remember how to do these offerings to the land because that’s where all those messages, and that’s where our wisdom is kept; our songs and everything.
A lot of people say that our language and our culture are disappearing. It’s not true. We met this elder, Cree elder, he only spoke Cree in Manitoba that said, “The land, she keeps all of our teachings, all of our wisdom. At any point, if we wanted to remember something, all we have to do is leave our offerings and give of our heart, whether that’s in a song, whether it’s a prayer, whether it’s tobacco. Whatever the medicine that you’ve been taught is, that’s what you offer. Only then can you receive.
Nina Serrano: What about the healing aspect of the work you do. What is the role of healing? While you’re telling us that, could you also share how you yourself learned some of this?
Vanessa Quesada: Healing is not necessarily the purpose of the run. I would say it’s more of a byproduct of what happens. As we are praying and being so much more in contact with all of the elements, with the air, with the land, with the water, with the rain. Often, we’ll sleep wherever people sleep in that community, whether it’s a teepee or out on the ground on a tarp, in homes that still have the earth, what we call now “earth floors”, just on the land. Being able to experience that every single day and being in a deep spiritual space with people and being able to open up in this way really makes us more sensitive to those message from the land and from the staffs that come through the people in different communities.
Within that, we become more sensitive to the strength of our sacred places where our ancestors and our families would go to pray. They’re really strong places that have power, that have strength, that have healing capacities, that we recognize now as healing because of different minerals through the springs or the sheer makeup of the land and of the soil, the content and the minerals, all these different things that now science is proving why our ancestors did what they did, when they somehow already knew.
My healing has been able to come back to my community with a completely new set of eyes and being able to communicate with my heart with the land. I want to connect with the elders to learn the medicines of the land, to learn about the traditional foods, to learn about why is it important to carry these traditions, to carry these medicine ways. That also implies for us a responsibility to carry so much healing that can happen within our own bodies, but also for the land just by going together and doing a ritual and praying and signing.
I’ve seen in my community where our birthplace of the waters was going dry in 2012. We were running for the water and one of the women had offered a few of the drops of the water from there before it had dried up. We started. We felt that call and we started to give more offerings. In that process, seven years later, it’s flowing again. All these things that we don’t realize are possible, but there are still medicine people that know how to call upon that spirit of the water to come back. What we need to do is to make sure there’s a balance because all these things that are happening now, the fracking, especially in Texas. We have fracking, we have detention centers and they’re layered. We have women and children that are being incarcerated just for trying to cross a border and they’re being fed this water that’s coming from the fracking wells and that’s coming from the surface water. It’s completely toxic. It’s flammable in Southwest Texas. It’s something that is just growing horrifically. We’re starting to see earthquakes from it. We’re starting to see all these things happen in response to these chemicals that are being shot into the land to pull out the gas. It’s horrible and it’s something that not a lot of people are aware of.
Same thing when we’re running in Canada. You’re running down the highway and there’s this curtain of trees. Then, you start to see these signs and then you look beyond, just behind the small thin tree line, it’s a fracking site. In BC, I remember running and seeing that.
The corporations are trying to keep it tucked away or in places that people don’t realize you can’t see it, but in West Texas, right now where my grandparents live, my cousin passed away from a brain tumor three years ago and he worked on one of those seismic sites. He got a brain tumor. I started talking to some of the women that were working there taking care of him in the home health and in the hospice centers. They said, “You know what? If we had double the amount of hospice centers, it would be full of brain and lung cancer patients from all the chemicals that are blowing up.”
This is the world that we’re inheriting. This is the world that we’re leaving for our children and for our grandchildren. It’s up to the younger generations to work with the older generations, the more seasoned and wise generations to hear the stories, to learn the stories to really know where we are and what’s going on around us. It’s really important to know what’s happening and how sacred our land is, how sacred the air is and why we need to become protectors. We need to move in peace, but also to demand dignity for the things that we do because we are not accepting a world that’s uninhabitable. We need to take care of ourselves and we need to care of all of that which gives us life.
With that, it’s a strong time right now for us to really be training and to be more creative, to find more creative solutions that are natural and bring us back into balance, but also to have that strong voice to demand it and to be able to play by those political construct rules and to know the laws. We need to be educated. We need to know how to stand up for ourselves and how to show where the holes are for science and all of these other things so that we can also prove that our indigenous sciences are just as strong and even more timeless.
Nina Serrano: Wow. This is overwhelming. I’m so glad you’re here to tell us these things. They’re profound, they’re moving and they’re inspiring. Thank you so much. It’s been a pleasure.
Vanessa Quesada: Thank you.
Nina Serrano: Un placer.
Vanessa Quesada: Igualmente. Muchisimas gracias.
Nina Serrano: Vanessa Quesada from the San Antonio Peace and Dignity Journey, the Esperanza Peace and Justice Center and the Society for Native Nations. Thank you. Gracias.