MARQUETTE, Mich. (WJMN) — For many runners, the Boston Marathon is the ultimate accomplishment. For one woman from Marquette, the finish line is just the beginning.
“I don’t even remember what I was feeling,” Shayla Manitowabi-Huebner said. “The last mile, I picked up my pace, I’m like, I’m almost done, I’m just going to finish strong. I saw the finish line and it’s kind of like this strip, I don’t know how long it is. It’s just far enough to like not to want to sprint, but it’s like right there and you just ran like 26 miles, so it’s the last like .2. I don’t know it was just getting closer, and closer and closer. I just kept my pace, and just kept slowly increasing my pace because I just wanted to finish strong.”
As a member of the Wiikwemkoong First Nation in Ontario, Canada, Manitowabi-Huebner was one of three Indigenous women to cross the finish line at the Boston Marathon.
“I came across the Boston Marathon opportunity through ‘Native Women Running,'” Manitowabi-Huebner said. “They have an Instagram where they promote Indigenous women running and just post runners and whatever they post and reposting.”
Manotawabi-Huebner’s history in running started at Marquette Senior High School and moved on to record-setting performances at Northern Michigan University.
Though she had found herself as an athlete, she didn’t really understand who she was outside of that.
“Being of mixed ancestry and having these two opposing sides in history, I was like scared, nervous and kind of afraid to bring up like conversations about being a native and being Indigenous,” said Manitowabi-Huebner. “I’m also adopted, so I grew up with my maternal grandparents. They’re nonnative but they still made me feel like it was OK to be native.”
Not knowing whether she would be accepted, Manitowabi-Huebner hid a piece of her past.
“It was a beaded barrette that I got when I was kind of young because I’ve had it with me for forever,” she said. “I was getting older, kind of like diving into my identity and who I am and I wanted to learn more about this Indigenous side of me. I had this barrette and I wanted to wear it in my races. I brought it and I wanted it to be like that representation, even though I totally didn’t know what that meant yet. Being the only native runner on my team, I didn’t really see any other native runners at meets, but I don’t know maybe there were. I just wanted to wear it and be that visibility and I just couldn’t.”
Years later, through the streets of Boston, her culture and heritage were on full display.
“I kind of decided a couple of weeks before the race if not like the week of or a few days that I wanted to run in prayer and carry medicine,” Manitowabi-Huebner said. “I had my own little journey through what I was running for and as the race got closer, I decided I wanted to run for healing because a lot of our people are healing still from years of trauma. Even my own healing, I wanted to recognize that and my own journey as well. Cedar and tobacco are two of our four sacred medicines and I smudged with sweetgrass before to make sure I was keeping my spirit and thoughts good throughout the whole run.”
It takes personal strength and endurance to finish a marathon. Manitowabi-Huebner knew she wasn’t alone.
“I knew right away that I was going to have to tap into these mental, spiritually and emotionally parts of me. And with the distance this long, a lot of people told me you’re going to have a moment where you’re going to want to stop or you’re going to want to X, Y, Z and you’re going to have to really dig deep and think about why you are doing this,” Manitowabi-Huebner said. “So that advice helped going in, too. Since I was running in prayers, the whole run, I just kept my spirit good, my thoughts good and it just carried me through the line.”
Facing questions about her family, cultural past and generational trauma, Manitowabi-Huebner made a decision to embrace her roots.
“If I didn’t want to learn more about my Indigenous side, I would probably still be experiencing like severe depression and anxiety and self-Identity issues,” Manitowabi-Huebner said. “Growing up, I feel like maybe you can relate a little bit, but peers making comments like, ‘Oh, your hair is black, like, what are you?’ or ‘What’s your heritage?’ I always felt a little bit bad about that. Looking at my eyes and why I couldn’t have blue eyes or different shaped eyes or things like that. Just learning to accept myself more and find beauty in how I am.”
Along the course, she carried the memory of her ancestors who wanted to return home.
“I was like what would it of been like to just run for your life?” Manitowabi-Huebner said. “No mile markers, no feel, you’re just a young kid just trying to get back to your family where you can speak your language and not face abuse. I also thought about the Trail of Tears and all the miles they walked forcefully and not being able to rest. Just thinking about that and those are kind of the thoughts I was thinking about with my prayer, too, like, I’m not stopping and I’m going to keep going.”
Physically far away from her Anishinaabe roots, she said she feels closer than ever and has a better understanding of who she truly is.
“Even though I’m like 2000 miles away from Wiikwemkoong, like where my tribe is, its been amazing to see how my running has brought me closer to the community even though I’m so far away,” Manitowabi-Huebner said. “That’s one good thing about the social media and Native Women Running, this platform that I’ve been able to meet cousins and stuff like that through my running. So, yeah, I want to thank my community, Marquette, and then also my community in Wiikwemkoong and then in Utah where I did all my training.”
Manitowabi-Huebner’s journey isn’t over as she continues to learn and find strength in her culture.
“One of my language teachers — I’m trying to learn Anishinaabemowin — one of our classes he said you can choose your pitifulness or your greatness,” she said. “I guess that’s been really sticking with me since he said that because it’s like, yeah, I guess I could easily choose to be pity and kind of self-doubt or I could shoot for the stars and choose my greatness even if I fail.”
Since crossing the finish line in Boston, Manitowabi-Huebner hasn’t slowed down. She recently traveled to Washington, D.C. with Indigenous Health and Wellness Connections for a four-day program, learning how to achieve her dreams.
Her dream is to start a native youth running program grounded in culture and tradition this summer in Salt Lake City.
“The program will be guided by the four aspects of wellness in the medicine wheel: physical, spiritual, mental and emotion and the healing power of community,” Manitowabi-Huebner said. “We will have knowledge holders, wisdom keepers, community members, and Native organizations to come and speak to our youth. All levels are welcome and running gear will be provided for participants.”
The program is fittingly named Running into Culture.