Art & Culture

Prayer Run and Storytelling Celebrate Indigenous Culture

Indigenous and nonindigenous people run from Mission San Juan Bautista to Indian Canyon. A fundraising storytelling event followed at Indian Canyon.

“Owooooah, owooooah, owooooah” sounded as Kanyon Coyote Woman Sayers-Roods called to bring the Prayer Run participants scattered around Mission San Juan Bautista together for circle (gathering in a circle for ceremony).

Participants in the July 14 event had come from near and far, with several people from San Francisco and the North Bay, a Lakota from South Dakota, and a young man from Iran. The group of runners were of Native American, European, Middle Eastern and Eastern ancestry. Cory Hairy Shirt, a Lakota man from Texas, explained why he was there and why the event is important to him.

“Being Native American we have always been oppressed by the higher-up people, it is always good to be able to participate in things where you can re-learn your roots and things like that, that help you identify who you are,” he said.

The run is held every year on the second Saturday in July to honor indigenous people of the mission who, in the early 1800s, when forced to live and work at Mission San Juan Bautista, escaped that life by running to a refuge near the ciénegas (wetlands) of south San Benito County.

The refuge, known today as Indian Canyon, is “the only federally recognized Indian land along 350 miles of coastline between San Francisco and Southern California” said Ann Marie Sayers, tribal chairperson of Indian Canyon. The run honors those individuals who made it to the canyon as well as those who didn’t. There is no record of those who ran, those who survived, or those who died along the way.

As with all Mutsun Ohlone ceremonies, the prayer circle prior to the run began with a smudging of white sage, passed to the right from person to person until it returned to the beginning. The running staff, a scared running stick made of wood, was purified and blessed during the prayer ceremony, after which, the ancestors were honored.

While runners were able to seek refuge in a car along the route, the running staff was held by a runner at all times, leading the way for approximately 18 miles, from Mission San Juan Bautista to Third Street, to Highway 156, to Union Road to Ciénega Road, to Indian Canyon Road, and on to Indian Canyon.

As the runners took to the streets with vigor and purpose, some of the younger warriors, ages 5-9, rode bikes along the way. Though they too sought refuge from the strain at times, they remained fierce.

When the runners arrived at Indian Canyon they were physically tired yet mentally invigorated. Each received a sage smudge and rested before entering the sacred arena where dancers would later perform. Kanyon Sayers-Roods met the runners at the entrance and ran with them to the arena to the sound of cheering and hooting.

Expressing gratitude and welcoming all to Indian Canyon and the day of spirit, Ann Marie Sayers opened the storytelling—Indian Canyon’s annual fundraising stage of the event.

After leading the group in prayer to the four directions, Sayers said that although we are a nation founded on, among other things, religious freedom she said, “The American Indian did not get the right to practice their religion until 1978 with the American Indian Religious Freedom Act, so I open [Indian Canyon] up to all indigenous people who are in need of ancestral lands for ceremony.”

Kanyon Sayers-Roods followed by performing traditional songs and expressing the importance of culture, of understanding the past, and how our ancestors are part of the present.

The first storyteller to engage the gathering was Johnny Moses, a Tulalip man from Washington State and Vancouver, BC. He told stories of his grandmother, bringing her to life in Indian Canyon. She was a strong, proud woman who instilled a sincere identity in Moses and allowed him the freedom to grow into who he is today. Apparently she swore a lot too, and those were the first English words Johnny learned. That later got him into trouble in Christian boarding school.

“I wanted to speak English, I didn’t know the words were bad,” said Moses with a cheeky grin.

Storytelling is important to indigenous people throughout the United States. Cory Hairy Shirt enlightened the gathering with Lakota and Cheyenne stories of creation. He also told the group why the dog is sacred to his people and why dogs are always found in Lakota camps. With passion, Hairy Shirt told this story:

Long ago a woman wept for her children, they were dying. She asked the Great Spirit if he would save them. She told him she would sacrifice herself for them. As she stood by the side a cliff she heard a voice behind her, “Don’t do it.” She turned around and saw a dog. “I will take your place, but you must kill me” the dog told her. He instructed her how to do it and how to feed his being to her children. She did as he said. That night, taken by exhaustion she fell into a deep sleep. The following morning she awoke to the sound of children at play, to the sound of her children at play. From that day the dog has been sacred to the Lakota.

Indigenous dancers Calpulli Itzpapalotl, Obsidian Butterfly of Tepic, Mexico, enriched the group with music and dancing. Their colorful customs, steady drum beats and natural moves engaged the circle surrounding the arena. They invited the gathering to join them in dance. Most of the group entered the arena forming a tight circle. The circle moved outside the arena and danced clockwise around it before entering again to follow the lead in dance. The circle left the arena and the dancers performed their finale.

Several people were honored during the ceremony, including four individuals who have worked closely with Indian Canyon.

Tom Bishop of Indian Canyon presented an elderberry clapper stick—a percussion instrument made from a hollowed tree branch—to Marcella Ortiz to the east and honoring the Cooper’s hawk, Marissa Gonzalez to the north honoring the raven, Angela Ontiveros to the west honoring the condor, and Liz Gonzalez to the south honoring the hummingbird.

The ceremony ended with Scott RedHorse honoring Ann Marie Sayers for all the work she has done for Indian Canyon and the indigenous people who live or visit there.

There were many messages shared on this day. Sayers-Roods, daughter of honored host Ann Marie Sayers reminded this year's guests, “We are all people of this land.”  


For more information on Indian Canyon:



Carmel de Bertaut

Carmel has a BA in Natural Sciences/Biodiversity Stewardship from San Jose State University and an AA in Communications Studies from West Valley Community College. She reports on science and the environment, arts and human interest pieces. Carmel has worked in the ecological and communication fields and is an avid creative writer and hiker. She has been reporting for BenitoLink since May, 2018 and covers Science and the Environment and Arts and Culture.