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Native American Relay Team Catches the Spirit at Ulistac Natural Area

Native American Relay Team Catches the Spirit at Ulistac Natural Area

All life is sacred to Native Americans such as the Ohlone Indians of California, who once inhabited the Santa Clara Valley; including that on Santa Clara’s Ulistac Natural Area-a 40-acre reclaimed natural open space almost in the shadow of Levi’s Stadium. The one-time golf course, continues to be restored to native habitat by volunteers with the Ulistac Natural Area Restoration and Education Project.

Now, the California 500-Mile American Indian Spiritual Marathon running team has recognized Ulistac Natural Area (UNA) as a sacred place of its own, helping to restore and preserve it. The relay team and its supporters met at UNA Sept. 27 for a day of service and marathon training.

The morning began with a welcome circle of fellowship, with everyone learning and singing an Ohlone song honoring butterflies. The relay team was welcomed to Ulistac by UNA project director Dennis Dowling and a handful of regular volunteers who gave the more than 40 adults and children a tour of UNA’s native butterfly garden, sharing their volunteer stories along the dirt pathway.


On the 45-minute tour, Dowling pointed out that the area was once home to North America’s largest mammal, the Columbian Mammoth (an extinct species of elephant), and is now home to the world’s smallest butterfly, the Western Pigmy Blue.

“Butterflies pollinate. That’s life. Butterflies can be spirit helpers and teachers,” says Pablo Viramontes, a relay team member and keeper of the drum, who traces his roots to the Otomi tribe of Mexico.

Native American Relay Team Catches the Spirit at Ulistac Natural Area

While some planted native species in a section of UNA, others made six-mile practice runs. Then everyone shared a meal of soup and sandwiches, and the circle reformed for a closing ceremony with an inner circle of drummers seated around one large drum.

“There’s room for everyone in a circle,” says relay team director John Malloy, an Irishman adopted by the Dakotas because of his work educating children.

“It’s like coming to church-being in a circle and around my elders that I learn from,” says Laxman Drivas, descended from the East Coast Blackfoot tribe and a teacher at Sunrise Charter School in San Jose. “To bring my students here is a blessing.”

“When we’re running or helping the area, taking care of the plants and earth, it means they’re sacred,” says Natalie, 12, one of Laxman’s students.

“You can’t be spiritual unless you have a relationship with the earth,” says Malloy. “Part of my responsibility is to learn the stories of the land and teach them. We believe in the unity of people. We fight issues not people.”

The American Indian 500-Mile Spiritual Marathon Relay Team, which includes people of all ethnicities and cultural backgrounds, began in 1978 and is dedicated to preserving the Native American tradition of spiritual running. Teams of 10-12 runners participate, each runner in turn carrying their team’s sacred prayer staff with its symbolic message that “All life is sacred.”

The 37th noncompetitive, annual run across California will take place in June of 2015. For information, visit

UNA is at 4901 Lick Mill Blvd. Volunteers are invited to help with restoration projects the first Saturday and third Sunday of each month, 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. For information,


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