“Running is a lifelong friend.” That’s how microbiologist Dr. Lydia Jennings describes the sport she first embraced as a teenager at boarding school. She calls it her “best relationship” with herself. Like all relationships, it has its ups and downs, but it’s a central part of her life not only for physical and mental health, but as a tool for scholarship, environmental activism, and to be present in her community. It’s taken her to the Boston Marathon, on a 50-mile run to honor Indigenous scholars, and across 135 miles of the desert Southwest to change the way that we think about the literal and metaphorical skin of the Earth.
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Lydia is a citizen of the Pascua Yaqui tribe, which is based out of Tucson, Arizona, but she grew up in the Tewa lands of northern New Mexico and Santa Fe. As she was preparing to go to boarding school, her brother and sister, who were both runners, encouraged her to take up their sport. “I was like, ‘No, that sounds boring,’” she recalls, “and they were like, ‘No, you need to run; everyone in the family does it and we’re good; Grandpa used to run.’” She was unconvinced, but when she got to school and realized that running was one of the few ways to get off the campus, she decided to give it a try.
She discovered that she had a knack for running and enjoyed the community, and had an “amazing” coach, who was a director of Wings of America. He taught his students “about running being this whole intention, so yes, it’s physical; yes, you want to be the fastest that you can be; but also it’s building a relationship with the land and with the communities and it can be a spiritual practice,as well.”
Lydia’s school experience was a positive one, in stark contrast to the atrocities associated with so many Indigenous boarding schools. She’s felt a kind of “survivor’s guilt” as a result, but it’s made her recognize that “Indigenous-led is really the future and it should have been the past, but it really is the future. We can take something that has so much trauma, but when it’s Indigenous-led and there’s that cognizance and awareness, it can be a real place of beauty.”
She went to college on a running scholarship, and found that the culture was very different from what she had known in high school. “It wasn’t a good run unless you were, like, vomiting at the end, right? That kind of coaching mentality; you have to push yourself and be the fastest and not listen to your body. It became less about me and that relationship I have with the land, with my teammates, and more about being the fastest and constantly thinking about your competition.” She got injured and had to return home, trying to figure out who she was if she wasn’t a runner.
As an Indigenous person, she leaned into her community, and also “really fell in love with science.” Those two passions led to her completing her Ph.d in environmental science with an emphasis on mining reclamation, and minoring in American Indian Policy. She graduated in 2020, and since her graduation ceremony was canceled due to COVID-19, had to find a different way to celebrate. She decided to run 50 miles across the Arizona desert, through an area potentially threatened by mining, and documented it in Run To Be Visible.
Lydia wanted to raise awareness not only about mining and how it impacts Indigenous people, but also about the Indigenous scientists who inspired her work. She dedicated each of the first 49 miles to one of them, and the final mile to the Indigenous scholars of the future, for whom she raised just under $10,000 for scholarships.
“At the time [in 2020], all of these really critical conversations were happening about who are heroes, who are the founders that we celebrate in our fields of study, which are typically old white men,” she explains. “There have been many Indigenous scholars who have contributed throughout time to the theories of science and many times they’ve been co-opted by some of these same old white men that we celebrate. There wasn’t any kind of resource of Indigenous scientists, and so I wanted to create what didn’t exist at the time, and also be able to think of the past but also build for the future, and that’s the part of raising money for future Indigenous students who are struggling.”
Lydia recognizes that “each step that we take, there’s all of these people who have supported us to get to the place where we can take those footsteps. And so I think that’s the part that I really carry within me, it’s all the people, it’s even all the non-human relations that have helped support me: the lands that I run with, my dog who supports me, the foods that I eat, the animals that have sacrificed themselves so that I can eat and be strong in the way that I am today when I run.”
She says “the lands that I run with,” rather than “run on,” because we’re part of that ecosystem. Last year she and two other soil scientists, Karen Vaughan and Yamina Pressler, ran 135 miles for a project called Will Run for Soil. They took six days in order to observe the ecosystems with which they were interacting and filmed their journey. “If you’re interested in soils and how they play in climate issues or even just this appreciation for soil as more than something that grows our food, that’s what this film is going to be about,” Lydia says. It should come out in 2023.
This year Lydia ran the Boston Marathon to raise awareness of “land back,” a movement that’s important in addressing climate change issues. “I wanted to highlight land back because I think people hear that and a lot of people think, ‘Oh, the native people are going to take all the land away from us’ and that’s actually not what the case is,” she says. “The land back movement is about re-fostering relationships with ecosystems. And part of that re-fostering is native people having the right and abilities to be able to manage their own ecosystems in ways that they have historically been disenfranchised from doing. And so there’s this land back movement for native people to get their land back to be able to manage it in the capacity that is culturally appropriate.”
Despite the many challenges that the environment and Indigenous peoples face, Lydia remains optimistic about their resilience. As an educator, she says, “One of the things I love in teaching is kind of planting those seeds of hope in students. There’s a lot to be despairing about, but there’s also so much to be hopeful about, and I think working with youth is part of what really drives that hopefulness.”
Deo Kato’s Running for Real episode
Chris Mosier’s IG post of Seattle Pacific University graduation ceremony
Thank you to Legacy of Speed, Paceline, and allbirds for sponsoring this episode.
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“Thank you” to Lydia. We look forward to hearing your thoughts on the show.