Inside the Art of the Indigenous Prayer Run


For better or worse, the two never have. It’s not for lack of trying. On a prayer run one winter day in 2021, Teyana happened upon a bright red missing persons poster, nailed to an old tree. She was shocked to realize she recognized the face: the gleaming eyes, the kind smile. Maya Millete—Teyana’s Chula Vista neighbor, someone she had passed before on the trail—had vanished without a trace. After years of praying for far-off cases in Indian country, in those vast expanses of the mountainous West, an identical tragedy had struck practically next door.

As the gears of the justice system ground glacially on, the community sprang to action. “We did searches every single week,” Teyana says. “Grid searches.” Alone and in groups, Teyana combed through the mountains and lakes that surround San Diego. Primarily, she did so running. There was a practical element here just as much as a spiritual one. Runners could “cover vast amounts of land with a hydropack on our back and offer prayers while we’re doing it… and do these searches for the families” who might otherwise be left to rattle the cage of dismissive authorities all on their own.

One night, a fresh plot of dirt appeared disturbed in the nearby Sycuan reservation. With permission from the tribe, Teyana and a friend showed up with shovels. They dug—fruitlessly, traumatically, but they dug. “You’d be amazed at what you find there,” Teyana tells me, without elaborating. Whatever it was, it was never Maya. Presumed dead, her remains have not been found to this day.

Last summer, when she stumbled upon the tall man in the workboots, Teyana wasn’t on a grid search. She had simply risen with the sun and her dogs, as she had so many other mornings, and began carrying prayers up the mountain. Of course, it was only after countless hours of searching for Millete and others, only when her guard was down, that she would find a body. The irony blisters, harsh as the California summer sun.

III.

Bodies are all around us now, dotting the trail every few yards, though the untrained eye wouldn’t know it. We meet at night, at the green burial ground where I’ve been employed since last January. A small wooded acreage south of Asheville, NC, we bury our clients unembalmed here—the way it had been done, as Teyana and Norm would say, since time immemorial. We let native vegetation overtake the grave mounds, headstones are flush with the earth—especially in the dark, you’d be hard-pressed to recognize you’re in a cemetery at all. I have to point this out to them, in fact, and note the link: my job is to bury the dead, theirs to exhume. Teyana cites the optics of two Indians meeting a strange white man in the woods at night. She and Norm crack jokes that they, too, might be about to go missing. The phrase “ax-murderer” is used.

I had hoped to join these two on a run at some point. My exercise resume historically veers more Norm than Teyana: I bought my first gym membership just last year, begrudgingly haunting my local Gold’s treadmill with a pair of cobwebbed VivoBarefoots that a hippie roommate loaned me in college. (Given that the shoes were practically rotting off my feet, I could certainly feel every footfall.I figured Teyana would approve.) By the time we do meet, though—the two pulling up in their packed-to-the-gills Toyota 4Runner, tipi poles strapped to the roof like luggage—it’s dark, and we seem to have misplaced our headlamps. I’m spared. Instead of a run, we meander through the boneyard trails at an easy pace. We talk for hours, eventually settling on a bench overlooking a restored wetland. Norm stands and leans on the backrest, accidentally snapping off a sizable chunk of the mealy wood; Teyana perches atop it, tapping her feet incessantly on the bench seat, trying to keep warm. The constant movement unties her sneaker. Teyana is mid-homily when, without a word exchanged between them, Norm leans down and takes her shoe in his hand, pulling the laces tight.



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