For around an hour on a cold, brisk Friday in February, the First Assembly of God’s church parking lot in rural Dove Creek saw the most action it’d probably seen in years, as cars swiftly pulled in, sandwiches were exchanged and runners eagerly drank water.
It was a small pitstop, just off U.S. Highway 491, in a rather large endeavor: a four-day, 232 mile prayer run that stretched all around the Four Corners region to raise awareness and pray for missing and murdered Indigenous women.
According to the race’s designated map, the runners had started the day before, on Feb. 24, in Montezuma Creek, Utah, and then they’d spent the day running to Blanding, Utah.
That’s where they were coming from when they stopped for lunch in Dove Creek, on the second day of the prayer run. They’d stop for the evening in Cortez, then wake up and make the trek to Beclabito, New Mexico. On the final day, they’d run back to Montezuma Creek.
Quickly, participants began emerging from their cars, which held license plates from each one of the Four Corner states and some far beyond. Many of the cars held large, taped-on signs with handwritten or printed lettering that read, “SLOW DOWN FOR MMIWP RUNNERS AND WALKERS.” Some had missing people posters plastered around them.
The participants, some who were runners or walkers, and some that were there to drive along, gathered around the snowy, dirt parking lot as Chiara Amoroso, the event’s co-organizer, passed out drinks, sandwiches and cupcakes.
Outside of the run, Amoroso works on community outreach at Native Search Solutions, an organization that works with advocacy groups by giving them technological and service resources in their search for missing Indegnous people and helps liaison with law enforcement agencies by navigating them in the investigative process, she said.
The parking lot’s crowd waited as the last runner of the stretch, Gladys Morris, ran into the lot. Morris had traveled for the run from Dolores, after participating in the inaugural Four Corners prayer run in August, she said. She’d come to raise awareness for missing and murdered women, and also because she’s a lifelong runner who loves the sport, she said.
After Morris came in and lunch was eaten, the event’s other co-organizer and founder, Martina Maryboy, emerged from her car with a notepad and called the crowd around her.
“All right, there’s 35 miles left,” she shouted to the crowd, referencing the distance from the pitstop to Cortez. “How do we want to do it?”
It was at these pit stops that the next legs of each stretch were assigned. Since the event spanned four days, different people showed up for different portions of the relay, Maryboy explained. By waiting to assign the legs until directly before each stretch, they could be sure to include everyone who had shown up, she said.
After Maryboy knew who intended to cover that portion of the run, she split up mile-marker ranges. The runners got more miles than the walkers, since they could cover it more quickly. For each stretch, runners were assigned anywhere from four to six miles, Maryboy said.
Maryboy explained that unlike a traditional relay, the runners and walkers would complete their legs simultaneously. A car would be assigned to provide coverage to the runner or walker, who would trail behind them on the side of the road, with their hazards on. Hence the signs.
Maryboy had started the run after participating in a few similar prayer runs in California and Arizona, she said. She noticed a lack of prayer runs for missing and murdered Indigenous women in the Four Corners region, which is home to a lot of reservations, namely her own, the Navajo Reservation, she explained.
She said she’d also seen a moving video on Facebook from the niece of Ella Maye Begay, a 62-year-old Navajo woman who has been missing since mid-June.
“We’ve got to do something,” she said she’d remembered herself thinking. “We need to put some sort of awareness out.”
After a successful Four Corners prayer run in August, she decided that she’d hold them every six months rather than once a year. Aside from that and the May 5 National Day of Awareness for Missing and Murdered Native Women and Girls, she’d observed the world going quiet about the issue, she said.
“Why wait a whole year, when our people are constantly going missing?” she said, as she described the decision to hold the run again.
The reality is just that grim: the murder rate of women on reservations is 10 times higher than the national average, and the third most common cause of death for Native women, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
A report by the National Institute of Justice found that four out of five (84.3%) of Indigenous women surveyed had experienced violence in their lifetimes, and more than half (56.1%) have experienced sexual violence.
96% of the victims of violence in the study described their perpetrators as non-Native American.
Throughout the weekend, different people would share why they thought these numbers were so high, many of the perspectives coming from their own lived experiences.
Manuel Heart, the chairman of the Ute Mountain Ute Tribal Council, said part of the issue is a lack of law enforcement agents on the tribal reservations. He spoke about his own tribe, stating that for the 600,000 acres that belong to the Ute Mountain tribe, there are only five or six officers.
With this, there’s a lack of protocol around the search and rescue process, and there are barriers that make it sometimes difficult to cooperate with the non-tribal law enforcement, Maryboy and Amoroso both said.
There’s very few tribal nations that have their own Amber Alert or Elder Alert systems, Amoroso said.
Brandy Martinez, a participant of the prayer run, added that there’s also often long wait times in between when a person goes missing and when they’re reported missing.
“If we have someone out there searching within the first 48 hours, we are 75% more likely to find that person alive,” she said. “That just shows you how vital it is to get people out there as soon as possible.”
And beyond that, Amoroso, Maryboy and Heart all stressed the lack of media coverage in these cases.
Heart and Amoroso both expressed frustration in the disparities between the law enforcement and media response in the recent Gabby Petito case, a white woman who went missing and whose remains were found in Sept. of 2021, versus the response when it comes to an Indigenous woman.
The solutions to the issues are multi-faceted, and require a coalition of organizations, law enforcement and reservation resident support, Martinez said.
One solution that Martinez, Maryboy, and Amoroso focus on is education and support for Indigenous peoples. Maryboy co-founded an organization, Look For Me, and Martinez is the community outreach director for the organization.
Look For Me provides family and survivor support for missing individuals, aids in emergency response and provides preventative education and violence protection for tribal members, Maryboy said.
“Where I really want to take this is to the adolescents, the teenagers,” Maryboy said, on the future of her organization. “They need to be really careful with who they really communicate with on social media.”
She said social media is often where a lot of this starts.
The run would go on for the next two days, ending on Feb. 27. Each night, they’d stop at a church local to the area, have a big dinner and stay the night there. In the morning, they’d circle around and give blessings to their hosts, offering them gifts of gratitude like bundles of sage and patches that showed designs representative of tribal unity.
That was one of the things many of the participants said was beautiful about gathering for an otherwise sorrowful cause– the unity.
On Saturday morning, the runners stopped in Towaoc, where they were honored and blessed with cedar and eagle feathers by a Ute Mountain Tribe Elder. Together, the runners all walked into the grounds of the ceremony, dressed in red and carrying flags representing their tribes, advocacy groups and icons.
Then, they were off again, running along highways nestled against snow-covered mountains, next to sage bushes and dirt plains that seemed to stretch further than the eye could see. In many sections of the run, they were among the tribal reservations that many of the runners belonged to.
Many of the missing and murdered women belonged to them, too.
“We picked a run because we use our feet as prayers,” Maryboy said. “A string of prayers.”