Interview with Crystal Schooner aka Tswast

We caught up with one of the runners from the Peace and Dignity Journeys 2008, Crystal Schooner aka Tswast, in Arizona where she was staying with family while the support van was being fixed. For those of you that didn't read Crystal's article in Vol 7 Issue 2, here's a little background on what the run is about:

CS: If you look at the history of this run, it started in 1990 when a bunch of elders from all over turtle island met in tito ecuador. They had a meeting because the north and south americas wanted to celebrate 500 years of Columbus coming and colonizing our people. The elders were saying "No, we shouldn't celebrate that. It should be the complete opposite of this." They talked about this man's vision to have a sacred run and they also talked about this mayan prophecy that says when the eagle and the condor are united our people will have peace. The eagle representing the northern nations and the condor representing the southern nations, because how we see the eagle is how the people of the south see the condor. And so, the first run was in 1992 and that run was to honor the elders because the elders were the ones that kept our culture alive. The next run was in 96 and that run was to honor the children because they're the ones that are going to go forward and keep this culture alive. The run after that was in 2000 and that was to honor families. And the next run in 2004 was to honor women, mother earth and everything that gives life. This run in 2008 is to honor sacred sites, the places where our people use to pray at.

We have 2 main family staffs. There's a staff that started in Alaska and that's called the eagle staff and that's to represent all the eagle nations of the north. It starts off with three feathers: an eagle feather to represent the north, a condor feather to represent the south and a mac-caw feather to represent central america. In the south, in Argentina, there's a main family staff and it's a condor staff and that staff also has an eagle feather, a condor feather and a mac-caw feather. We started on may 1st from alaska and so we're running south. There are southern runners and they're running from Argentina and they are going to meet us on the bridge that goes across the Panama Canal on november 17. We run towards each-other and those staffs get lifted in the air and they touch each-other to represent the unification of all those nations from Alaska to Argentina. Every community that we go to will add on an eagle feather onto that main staff as a prayer for the family, or for the community or somebody that is struggling with drugs and alcohol, or somebody who is struggling with domestic abuse. So, it's like tying every single one of those prayers together all the way from the north and the south. We also have different communities that will give staffs for the same reason and so we have 200 staffs and I don't even know how many feathers we have. Because we are talking about honouring our sacred sites, every nation that you go to they have a scared site or a couple sacred sites. But it's more than that because all of mother earth is a sacred site. So they're talking about global warming and that gas is expensive and even water. Peace and dignity isn't just for Indigenous nations it's for all nations of the world.

"Peace and dignity isn't just for Indigenous nations it's for all nations of the world"

RW: How did you first get involved with the peace and dignity run?

CS: In 2000, my family was living in Williams Lake, BC and the runners had been on a reserve in sugar cane. We went and I really wanted to run and so I asked the coordinators and they said yes so I asked my mom and she said no, because I was too young. In 2004, the opportunity came up and I decided to run. I started in Alaska and I went all the way to Panama.

RW: I imagine you must have incredible physical endurance and commitment in order to do this run. How has your mental and spiritual endurance been affected by this trip?

CS: Y'know, it's like every commitment. Every long-term commitment that you have will be like that. This run has its up and down and it has its struggles. It’s like every other family because we consider each other family. We’ll get annoyed at each other because there's 12-15 of us that started in Alaska and who are going all the way to Panama. We see each other every day and you have how many different people coming from how many different communities. We have people from Washington, California, Oregon even Mexico. So we come from different communities we come from different homes, we come from different backgrounds and so you put all those people together and you can't expect them to all get along.

RW: Have you noticed participants outside of the Aboriginal community coming out to this event?

CS: Oh yeah, we have Asian people who want to run with us for a couple of days, Caucasian people, all colors of people who want to run, people of all ages. Y'know we have elders that come and run with us. It’s for everyone. This run is a ceremony; it's a six-month commitment to no drugs, alcohol and sex. Although it's an Indigenous ceremony, it's for all people.

RW: It must be pretty amazing to see the land from that perspective of actually running the distance through it. Has this journey changed your ideas and thoughts of nature and community?

CS: It's definitely a different experience when you're out there running. We split the miles so I’ll be out there running and praying and I do try to look at the land and see how things are. We had a tributary run from my nation from my hometown in Bella Coola. I've been on that road many times driving and with my family but running you see a whole lot of different things. You see a lot of beauty when you're running or when you're out there on the land. It’s kind of interesting you say that because we asked some youth, "So what is it like out here in the desert? It's so beautiful out here" (I've been in the desert for almost a month now), and the youth were like, "There's nothing out here". And I'm like, "Really? I just ran through your territory and I’ve seen animals, little rabbits, deer, little flowers, sage and cactus." There’s a lot out here that you wouldn't see if you're driving.

RW: Is there any other unexpected things along the way?

CS: Well this run is inter-tribal. We’re talking thousands of nations. It can't just be one nations way, or two nations way, or three nation's way or whatever. It’s an inter-tribal journey and it's a ceremony. And so we do have protocol. When the women are in circle, they should wear a skirt, or when a woman is on her moon she's not to carry a staff. She can run but she can't carry a staff. To stay clean and sober that's a big thing too, right? Because when we go into ceremony we don't conduct ourselves in that way. It's a lot the same; everywhere we go. You talk to different communities. I’m the only one representing the north from my community. And I’ll talk to these elders and I’ll find similarities in our culture. Whether it is clothing or songs, or stories, or traditions or certain beliefs. It’s a lot the same. It’s really beautiful.

RW: Have the borders been difficult to cross?

CS: Well sometimes it can be difficult. We'll get stopped by the police. Y'know "what are you guys doing?" Although the run has been through there a few times there are still people that don't know about the run. And it's hard because we don't want them to touch our sacred belongings, our medicines, and instruments. We’re talking about third world countries here that we're running through so it can get difficult.

A lot of times we rely on the communities to feed us or to host us, right? A lot of these communities are really poor so they can't afford to feed us. So a lot of times we'll feed ourselves, or we'll feed the community and they'll give us a place to stay. From what I know we're going to see the Zapatista people. They’re a really strong nation. We’re gonna be chilling with Marcos. He’s like the Zapatista spokesperson so a lot of people see him as a leader but he's just a spokesperson.

RW: What are you looking forward to after this run is over?

CS: I'm looking forward to working with the communities of BC and that area. Running is one of our oldest ways of praying. I remember hundreds of years ago we would have runners that would run from one village to the next village to send messages. Or we'd have canoers that would canoe from one village to the next village to send messages and communicate. It’s one of our oldest ways of praying is through running and canoeing on the Northwest coast. One of my goals is to go back home to Bella Coola and to work with my people there and revive our culture and revive our ceremonies and revive our dances and our songs. In that potlatch way. And working with the youth because i think that's how we're going to bring our culture back is through the youth.

There’s this Mayan prophecy that our people are going back to the people of the land. They say in 2012 the world is going to end. I think we're going to run out of electricity and gas. Our water and food is going to get scarce. The only people that are going to survive are the people who are connected to the land: The real caregivers of the land. Those are the only people who are going to survive. The real traditional people and the people that are caught up with materialistic things like fast cars, and big screen TVs and the nice houses with white picket fences, those people aren't going to survive. I want to teach those youth and encourage those youth and encourage my fellow friends and the people of our community. Our people will go back to our traditional ways it's just a matter of time.

Next entry: Interview with Artist Wally Dion