The Modoc Ancestral Run has been taking descendants of Modoc people to native lands of historical and spiritual importance for the past 11 years. This year, for the first time in 150 years, the Modoc people slept on the top of The Peninsula, the first piece of land the Modoc creator made when constructing the world, according to the people’s history. Monica Yellowowl is the founder and run leader of the Ancestral Run and joins us to share details on how this year’s run was different from previous years.


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Note: The following transcript was computer generated and edited by a volunteer.

Dave Miller: From the Gert Boyle Studio at OPB, this is Think Out Loud. I’m Dave Miller. Last weekend was the 11th annual Modoc Ancestral Run. This year, it was a two-day, 85-mile relay. This isn’t really a race or an endurance event just for the sake of it. It’s a spiritual act of reclamation, a chance to forge a deeper connection to the ancestral homeland of the Modoc people. As Monica Yellowowl, the run leader and the founder of the relay put it, “We move through these lands with intent, strong intent, ancestral purpose. There was a great effort to exterminate the hearts of the people, and each step a runner takes proves it was a failed attempt.”

Monica Yellowowl, welcome to Think Out Loud.

Monica Yellowowl: Thank you for having me.

Miller: Where did the idea for this run come from?

Yellowowl: The idea for the run came from the Creator himself back in the summer of 2009. I had attended my first spiritual run in the Pit River ancestral lands, that was my dad’s homeland. And I left that run really having been embedded with deep thoughts about land connection and the significance that it held to identity and to health. That’s what I saw on that first spiritual run that I ever went to.

And it started getting me to think deeper about my mother’s homeland, up here in this territory, the places that I grew up. And so from the summer of 2009 into the fall of 2010, I spent a lot of time out in the hills, along creek beds, driving way up into the mountains, diving in lakes, really seeking direction and guidance, asking the Creator directly for support and vision. And one by one, the signs begin to come. And they were very sequenced, which made it very obvious that my prayers were being answered. And so by the time November of 2010 rolled around, we were able to produce the first run.

Miller: How do you decide where the run should go? My understanding is that the route has changed over the years.


Yellowowl: Good question. So initially when I was praying for the run itself, and asking for this guidance from the Creator, I was going into specific locations. And the Creator is so profound. Even through dreams and even through being on the land and having particular occurrences happen, it began to show me the run route the first year. So the run route was really laid out through all these revelations that, when they happened, it was just like no denying, the spirit was there, and the Creator was answering prayers.

The run route the first year went up through the lava beds and up into the Medicine Lake Highlands, and came back around and ended up the stronghold. So I always think that first year, and every year after that, was really led by the Creator.

So year two, we had a different route, and we started to run along the war sites where people would have been during times of duress and distress and war, and really helping ourselves to lay down a lot of strong prayers where a lot of pain would have happened.

And then just back in 2016, there were some really profound things that happened while we were in ceremony near Fort Klamath, near the area where our leaders were hung. Two of these incidents occurred maybe about two months apart, but they were so profound, and there was no denying in the moment that we were being shown something, that that’s how I decided that we needed to start running from Fort Klamath. Because it was so powerful, we started running from Fort Klamath, and we’ve been running from Fort Klamath, through the mountains and the valleys and along our rivers for the last few years.

And then this year was just a little bit different because we lost our run matriarch, Charlene Jackson, she was our elder on this run, our Modoc elder that provided a lot of guidance for many of us. And so we wanted to honor the route this year by embedding so much of her teachings about land connection, and the spiritual world, and the gifts of our ancestors and their knowledge and our sacred narratives. We wanted to embed her teachings into our run route this year and be very intentional about the places that we were going to travel this year.

Miller: One of those places I understand was known as The Peninsula. Before we talk about what it was like for you to sleep there one of the nights, can you explain the historical significance of this site?

Yellowowl: The historical significance is in our sacred narratives. Sometimes the larger community doesn’t necessarily understand that tribes have their own creation stories, just like organized religion has the stories about, God created the world in seven days and such. Tribal nations have their own creation stories and their own sacred narratives about why we are and how we are, and how our landscape looks the way it does, and the purpose of it, etc. And so The Peninsula, in our sacred narratives, is one of the first pieces of land that our creator made when he was creating the world for the Modoc people. And so it’s a very significant place, a place where spirit power, the spirit of our creator lives, at that site. You could find the spirit of the Creator at that site. So The Peninsula is very important to us.

Miller: Can you describe what it was like to sleep there and to see the sunrise from there?

Yellowowl: I was trying to put this into words before and I think all I could come up with was, I really have no words to describe how I feel right now.

When we arrived that night after running through the day, it was really strong winds coming through that area. The north and the south winds are very powerful things that have spirit connected to them. So that’s what I thought of immediately. And then when we got up there and started looking around, there’s big mountain lion tracks all over up there, the mountain lion being one of our powerful mythological animals. Even before that animal became animal form in this world, the mountain lion is mentioned in many of our mythological stories and our sacred narratives. So to see the presence of that animal there...

Around midnight, the wind just completely died. It was like the most peaceful feeling I could ever describe having. And waking up, and greeting the sun from that point was, arm in arm with like nine other relatives…

It’s hard to describe because your people haven’t been there, because of colonization. People haven’t been there doing those things for like a well over 100 years. And so to be taking up space in power places like that, which our sacred narratives say these are made for you, you come to these places and you say your prayers and you sing your songs, and the Creator will answer you. You could just feel it when you were there. And to be descending off the top of The Peninsula and see your loved ones, your run family, the descendants down there waiting for you, and how it touches them when they see that cultural revival actually happening in the moment. It’s so hard to describe.

Miller: Your day job is the behavioral health manager for the Klamath Tribal Health and Family Services, meaning among other things that you deal with drug and alcohol abuse or mental health issues. Do you see a connection between your day job and this run?

Yellowowl: In a million ways. In a million ways. What we understand about our sacred narratives is that, at one time we owned our own health care, and our own healthcare was completely dependent on each other’s spiritual connection to the Creator, to the landscape, all of those things. And when colonization began to happen, and the reservation period happened, and those practices were banned, and we were not able to visit our sacred places to gain that power to heal one another, then we were at a loss. Our health is so tied to our homeland. It is. Everything about us is to be tied to our homeland.

I see this run doing so many things. We used to go to take groups of young kids to the lava beds, to tour the war sites, and it was never a good feeling when we went there. But 11 years later, I hear that people talking about when they go down to that area, there are no longer seeing it through the lens of pain and trauma and war, but they have 11 years of profound memories of their people, alive, and running through these nooks and crannies of their homeland, and connecting, reconnecting, and putting Modoc songs into the air. It’s like we’re writing a new narrative for our land with this pain. That’s what we were doing at Fort Klamath.