The Sacred Hoop Run: 500 Miles of Prayer

A discussion with two Lakota about the importance of the journey in prayer and sacrifice.

ICMN recently interviewed two members of the Lays Bad family, whose father, Ramsey Lays Bad, was a co-founder of the Sacred Hoop Run. The annual event’s purpose is to help mend the Sacred Hoop of the Oceti Sakowin, the Seven Council Fires of the Tetonwan Nations, and all the signatory tribes of the 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty. This year’s run kicks off today, June 28, 2017.

In every step, the run is both prayer and sacrifice for the Lakota men and women runners who circumnavigate the Wakan He Sapa, the Sacred Black Hills. It is a five-day journey that takes them through rain, sometimes hail and thunder, and blistering heat. Still, they run, with hearts serene and meditative. Their cause is humble and merciful. They would agree that they pray also to help unify and purify relations between Native and non-Natives who call the He Sapa home, but this does not lessen their desire to restore these ancestral lands to their rightful owners.

I caught up with Randy Lays Bad and his brother, Gary, in a gravel parking lot at the Common Cents store in Sharps Corner on the Rez. With the 35th Annual Run a few days away, they were kind enough to sit down and fill me in on the Run’s past, present, and some of what they hope for the future.

I so appreciate you guys taking the time – and the gas – to meet with me. Randy, could you help give our readers a little background on how the Sacred Hoop Run came to be?

Randy: Basically, this run started in 1983. Our Dad, Ramsey Lays Bad, who passed away back in 1995, was one of the founders of this run – along with Dave Archambault, Birgil Kills Straight, and the late Laban Red Owl Sr. Many others supported the run; like Milo Yellow Hair, Julie Hernandez, and Ted Standing Soldier Sr., these were some of the people that came together.

How old were you when they first got it going? What was the initial goal?

Randy: I would say about 11 or 12. What motivated them was they wanted to bring all the districts of Pine Ridge Reservation together. First, they wanted to create a team, and the team they came up with was called the Lakota Track Club. This was to be a regional organization, and the one designated to complete the run every year. At first, two young Lakota men from each of the nine districts on the reservation would be chosen for the run. That’s changed now. Lakota women and girls are included, too.

Could you detail the cultural and spiritual importance of the run?

Randy: Our elders taught us when we were very young that if you look up there’s a spiritual racetrack in the sky. Even now, on a clear night you can see it. My Dad used to say a long time ago the Black Hills used to be down in the ground, with just little black outcroppings of rock here and there. We had the winged, we had the two legged, we had the four legged … also there was the ones that slither. But at that time there was no control amongst these animals about which animal was going to be the dominant one.

So they sent the winged in the four directions to seek out all of these beings to come together for a meeting. After they gathered, they said: ‘Okay, we’re going to settle this once and for all.’ They marked a path around the little rock bluffs. Then they said ‘Go!” Immediately the one that slithered was trampled under all the other animals. So right away there was blood shed on the ground.

They raced around the Black Hills, and while they raced the dinosaurs came, too. The ground trembled so hard that it started splitting. Underneath, the lava was still asleep. But when they started shaking the lava became ukini. We say ukini – that means it awakens and becomes alive. The rocks split, and as the two-leggeds and the four-leggeds continued to race around the Black Hills this lava kept coming and coming. But the animals didn’t care, they just kept racing. Meanwhile, the rock was rising and rising, and in the middle there was Pe Sla, the heart of the Hills.

Pe Sla was the volcano, and so it came up. When it erupted it spewed over all the animals and killed them. To this day, we don’t know who actually finished or even won the race. That’s the original Lakota oral history that was passed on.

So the Sacred Hoop Run is deeply connected to Lakota creation stories?

Randy: Yes, very much so. We run around the Black Hills because of the connection we Lakota had with Unci Maka, Mother Earth. But we lost that. So my Dad and all these people said, ‘We need to bring people together in our way, in a traditional way. 1983 was the inaugural of the Lakota Track Club and the return of the race around the Black Hills. The purpose, then and now, was a unification run that would help ourselves and other people better understand our way of life.

Are there other important meanings for the Sacred Hoop Run?

Randy: Yes, that we never forget who we are so we can more wisely move toward the right future. The most important thing is to never forget your identity. As we move forward – because it is part of who we are – we have to fight for the land that was given to us because in our heart it belongs to us. Because it was taken from us, we run on the Black Hills to let people know that – hey, the land belongs to us. The mineral rights underneath? They belong to us.

How important was this run for your Dad?

Randy: When he was alive, every time he took part in this run he talked to all the people around him about treaty rights and mineral rights. He talked to the children, the future generations, to connect them to our past so as they move forward they can connect their history to their present circumstances as well. He saw that today, in this contemporary world, we have a lot of suicide, we have broken families. He saw that Lakota people are changing rapidly. We can’t stop change, he said. But, even though in some ways we have to change, we must still keep that connection to who we are. That way our young men and women will have somewhere they can go to change a bad lifestyle.

Courtesy Lays Bad Family/Newspaper clipping of Sacred Hoop runners at the American Indian Movement’s Wounded Knee Memorial in 1998.

What effect has the run had on all these young Lakota runners down through the years?

Randy: We take all these kids away for five days and make them run around the Black Hills. By the time they come back to the reservation and to their communities, many of them are changed; their ways of seeing things are deeply changed. Physically, mentally, emotionally, they have found a better way, and they pass this on to those around them. And it’s all because of this run. Five days of the Sacred Hoop experience takes these kids to a place where they say: ‘Hey, let’s make something of ourselves.” It creates something inside they bring back to our people, and it is something very positive.

Gary (Randy’s younger brother), how often have you run the Sacred Hoop?

Gary: Since it started – this Wednesday will make it 35 times. Randy and I both have run in every one. When Dad became a part of it, we became a part of it. “Always family,” we get that idea from him. Two of his other sons, our brothers, one (Dennis) who isn’t with us anymore, were part of the first group of runners that were chosen. It was such an honor because it was for the people. We struggled back then, and because the elders knew about all the struggles that were coming, they wanted to take something that was within our people, run around the sacred hills, and give it back to them in a positive way. Because Dad knew the run was always going to be a struggle, he would say to Randy and I: ‘You’re going to be a part of this, you need to be a part of it, because you’re going to see what good is going to happen from this run.

So there was a sense from the beginning that Sacred Hoop Run was going to be important?

Gary: The elders knew something was coming; they never explained it, but they always came together, and they always prayed on it. They knew that something would come from this. And it would always be positive, if we stayed positive. That’s how we grew up in it.

Now, on our part our nephew – Gary Jr. is one of them – and we have another nephew, Renzel, and my two daughters, Jessica and Topanga, they grew up on this run. Somehow they were able to hold onto that staff, and they became a part of this circle that we always talk about. They are running, every year, for the people.

It seems like, after 35 years, you and Randy are now in your Dad’s role in passing the run on to the next generation.

Gary: Yes, Once again, it is always about family, both its teachings and its experience. On this run there are also many other families doing the same thing. Like Wesley Yellow Horse from Oglala, he brings his family down. There are others, they bring their families. We are always trying to teach and invite – especially our young men because they’re the ones who are going to become leaders in the future. We want them to become mentors; we want them to become good husbands and fathers. Another reason we want young men on this run, too, is because the teachings that are passed from generation to generation are so important. Not to be leaving our young women out, but we see today our young men and how they are struggling. We want to bring that warrior mentality back to where they understand they have a responsibility to the people: the women, the children, the elders. There’s a much higher calling, and we try to bring back to these young ones the same teachings and traditions that were passed on to us.

How do you prepare young Lakotas who are running “The Hoop” for the first time for the inevitable suffering?

Gary: We always invite the elders to speak to them. They tell them we make a big circle, a hoop, with our path. And we always explain to them how important the hoop of the Oyate is for us. But, as in the beginning, it’s still a struggle for them today. The way we talk to our kids is the way our elders always talked to us. When we were younger, we always heard about how ‘the hoop was broken.’ But then the elders would always tell us: “Every time we come together, the hoop is right in front of us. When we’re together, it’s always mended, and when we’re on the run together, it’s mended. But when we break apart, the hoop is broken again.

The path around the He Sapa is always the same, could you speak to that?

Gary: On the run we stop at sacred places and important sites. Fort Robinson, where Crazy Horse was killed, Beaver Creek, Devil’s Tower and Bear Butte. They all have spiritual and historical significance. Now we’ve brought it to Pine Ridge Village, which will be our starting point. We want our people there to be a big part of it, even if it’s just for one day.

We used to go through Angustora (the southern tip of the He Sapa, and an important traditional migratory campsite), and then start further south at Oelrichs. Now, we go through White Clay because of the powerful negative effect it has had on our people. When we ran through White Clay the last time the young one’s that came with us actually saw what it was doing to our people. A lot of them started talking about how they could change, not only themselves, but change our people, and what they could do for them.

I know it can’t be summed up in a few words or sentences, but could you tell our readers what you’d most like to leave them with about the Sacred Hoop Run?

Gary: This run is something more than just running. We are kiiyanke – we’re running for something. We never tell our young ones who are running: “This is what you’re doing.” In a spiritual sense, they’ll find what they’re running for – the reason. It will meet them out on the road.

That’s where Randy and I have found it year after year. Both of us are language and culture teachers in school; we teach history in the classroom, but we want our young runners sweating and praying over those 500 miles to know they are a part of history – and they are living it when they run each of those five days in June.

Randy, Gary, you’ve been way generous with your time. Wopila tanka**, and I wish you every good grace for this year’s Sacred Hoop Run.**

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