Native American leaders called for peace, unity, reconciliation and hope throughout the country Saturday afternoon at Haskell Indian Junior College, lighting a sacred fire that will be carried by runners across the country starting today.
About 150 people gathered around the Medicine Wheel Earthwork south of Haskell's campus to watch the ceremony, the prelude to the Flame Spirit Run, which was to begin at sunrise today from the site.
Four runners from Haskell were to light torches from the fire this morning and carry them in four different directions.
Each team of runners will carry a torch bearing the same flame that runners for UNICEF carried around the world in 1986.
THE RUNNERS will take the torches east to the United Nations in New York City, south to the Mexican border, north to the Canadian border and west to the California border and then north to Vancouver, British Columbia, and then to Alaska.
Bill Mehoja Sr., former tribal chairman of the Kaw Nation, and national chairman of the Flame Spirit Run, explained that the theme for the run is "Unity Among Nations, Hope for the Children."
"When the runners go through different parts of the country, it will bring an awareness to the people of our country that they must be in unison, be in cooperation and be understanding," he said. "We are a multicultural country and we want to have a cultural awareness of Native Americans."
Mehoja said the public has not understood Native Americans, their traditions and their heritage.
"We feel we have much to offer, both in the environmental, civil and economic areas," he said. "We can make a great contribution, by following the concepts Indians have had."
HE SAID Native Americans hope to break down stereotypes prevalent in the United States.
"We're not the stereotype that we have been portrayed as in movies and on television as savages and marauders," he said.
He said the runners will be predominantly Native Americans, but other cultures also will participate. Members of Haskell's track team will carry a torch east to Washington, D.C., and then on to the United Nations building in New York City for a closing ceremony.
A late $5,000 donation by Blue Cross/Blue Shield will make it possible to complete the New York leg, organizer Melicent Boysen said.
During the ceremony Saturday, two Native American leaders, Leon Shenandoah, chief of chiefs of the six-nation Iroquois confederacy, and Jake Swawp, a chief of the Mohawks who is founder of the "Tree of Peace Society," led the gathering in a clockwise direction around the Medicine Wheel, entering the center from the eastern spoke.
WITH THE assistance of Dan Wildcat, who chairs Haskell's natural and social sciences department, the leaders lit the fire in the center of the wheel.
Before the ceremony began, Thomas Banyacya, a Hopi who has been interpreting for his elders since 1948, also prayed within the Medicine Wheel.
Banyacya also told the gathering about Hopi prophesies. He said he has a message of peace he has been given to carry out to the world to warn of the impending dangers of nuclear war described in Hopi prophesies.