Most kids who play high school sports never think twice about whose watching them, what it could mean to the larger world if they win or lose, and what traditions or expectations might be riding on their shoulders.
Even fewer know what it feels like to compete as a symbol of an entire people. When now-college student Rosalie Fish ran for Muckleshoot Tribal School near Seattle, she realized she was not just the face of the Cowlitz Tribe of southwest Washington, but of indigenous people everywhere.
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In middle school, Rosalie liked running with her friends, improving her times, and staying in shape. But at the new tribal high school, things were different.
“They told me, ‘Oh, well, you know, track is a little spotty in attendance. And I said, ‘Ok. That doesn’t affect me.'”
When she went to her first practice, she realized she would be the only runner – all of the other kids were doing field events.
When Muckleshoot attended events, Rosalie said sometimes she wasn’t even invited to run, despite having times that should have easily qualified her.
Once, when she called to ask why, she was shocked at the racist response she received.
“They asked me if I even had a uniform. I guess I was just really naive to the type of racism and prejudice that comes in through sports because I’m white-passing. So I never really experienced that firsthand like I did with having ‘Muckleshoot Tribal School’ on my uniform.”
She experienced similar discrimination and hate while playing basketball and cheering for the boys’ teams in several sports. Once, she found graffiti on a bathroom wall that said ‘Indian Savages’ and ‘Indian Drunks live off the government.’ She couldn’t help but think of what the younger students at the school – including her own siblings – would feel if they saw.
“I think I felt more let down than anything. Almost, like, disappointment – like, ‘This is still something that I have to fight. I can’t believe that this is the way that people still perceive us’ – and maybe sad in the fact that this is something that my younger siblings are going to have to challenge, that these are some things that all of the middle school and elementary schoolers at tribal school are going to have to face.”
She looked at running as a way to prove to everyone else that they were wrong about native people everywhere, so she started doing harder workouts and practicing six days a week. She changed her diet and even ditched friends who weren’t supported of her newfound passion.
At first, she let the internalized discrimination get to her, but as she began to hit, then exceed her expectations, her confidence grew.
“If I go to my next meet and I just biff it, they’re not going to look at me as some kid who wasn’t ready. They’re going to look at, you know, the Native girl who didn’t belong there. And that was really what kept me going is knowing that I’m not just representing myself at these meets. I’m representing my tribe, and I’m representing Indigenous people.”
That was when Rosalie realized that she wanted to run for more than herself – she wanted to use her success, and the fact that people were looking at her, to shine a spotlight on something else.
In the United States, murder is the third-leading cause of death among Native women, and in Canada, Native women are four times as likely to be murdered as their non-Native counterparts.
In recent years, activists had begun to shine a spotlight on this present and growing issue – one that is near and dear to Rosalie’s heart because her aunt, Alice Looney, was murdered in 2004.
“I grew up seeing lots of missing poster signs of Native girls and Native women – or just stories of Native women being murdered. And then it wasn’t until people started talking about it kind of online and in Indian Country Today and these kinds of platforms where I would see ‘missing and murdered Indigenous women epidemic.'”
That’s when Rosalie learned about Native runner Jordan Marie Daniel, who competed in the Boston Marathon with a red handprint over her mouth and MMIW (Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women) painted down her leg.
She dedicated each mile of her race to a different missing woman, the paint meant to symbolize how many of her people had been silenced by violence.
For Rosalie, it was a moment when she stopped feeling hopeless and began to feel as if she could do something to help.
With the state track meet coming up, Rosalie knew she had a chance to have a platform. She messaged Jordan Marie Daniel on Instagram, asking permission to borrow her idea.
“And I said, ‘Of course,'” Jordan told WBUR. “I felt very inspired that she was inspired by me.”
Rosalie was star-struck and freaking out, but it didn’t take long for the two to become close – they called each other ‘sister’ in their languages, and Jordan told Rosalie to reach out any time she needed to talk. And Rosalie did reach out, after running her state races with a red handprint over her mouth, each one dedicated to a missing or murdered Indigenous woman, one of whom was her aunt.
“It was my first time not running for myself. And everybody kept asking me, you know, ‘How does it feel to be a state champion? How does it feel to be up there on the podium with this gold medal?’ And I kind of just wanted to tell them to leave me alone.”
She struggled, though, feeling that winning a high school state championship was frivolous compared to the lives of these women who were disappearing and dying at an alarming rate.
“The whole event – state championships – felt so insignificant to the issue I was representing. I didn’t feel like celebrating. I didn’t – I couldn’t celebrate, and I had run a slower time than I anticipated because everything felt so heavy. And so I went and I messaged Jordan that night and I asked her, ‘What’s going on?’ Like, ‘Is this normal?'”
Luckily for Rosalie, Jordan knew exactly what she meant – she told WBUR that the emotional and mental toll of running races for women who had lost their lives had caused her to stop racing.
“It’s not just the fact that it’s an epidemic; it’s the details of some of the research that I do and finding the names thatI want to run for and who I want to run for and dedicate it to. And it’s those details of what happened to them that are in my head and, you know, it’s creating a very dark environment for me.”
She had to face the fact that her activism was causing her depression and anxiety, and she decided to take care of her own mental health for awhile.
After talking to Jordan, who advised her to remember she was honoring those missing and Indigenous women to the best of her ability, Rosalie felt renewed in her mission. Instead of pushing herself just to win, she went out wanting to conduct herself in a way that represented the missing women with integrity and strength.
“I absolutely still felt heavy when I ran, but I felt more prepared.”
Rosalie is now running track at Iowa Central Community College, she’s still close to Jordan Marie Daniel, and she still dedicates her races to those women who remain so close to her heart.
She plans to continue “until I feel like I don’t have to anymore.”
I think we can all agree that we hope that happens sooner than later, but until then, keep running Rosalie. We’re all cheering you on.