UD Ambassador Ashleigh Thompson is a trail runner, PhD student and member of  Miskwaagamiiwi-zaaga’igan (Red Lake Anishinaabe Nation). Ashleigh is committed to telling the stories of Native culture and sharing Indigenous perspectives, particularly on running.

This story covers intergenerational trauma – an unfortunately too common affliction affecting Indigenous peoples – and how running has helped break the cycle in her family.

“Do you think Alta will have a lift open that I could take to see the wildflowers?” my grandma asks me, hopeful. An avid gardener and appreciator of nature, my grandma has savored flowers since I can remember.

“I’m not sure,” I tell her. “But you could take a short hike to see them.”

“I don’t know about that,” she tells me, disappointment coating her words. “My ankle has been bothering me lately…”

My heart sinks as I think of the walking it would take to reach the meadows at the ski resort. To me, the terrain is easy and distance miniscule. Yet for her, the hike would be an ordeal.

Ever since I left for college, her aging has accelerated. New aches develop in different parts of her body every few months, macular degeneration is slowly taking her eyesight, and headaches are a common occurrence. The pain she experiences is difficult for me to witness, but the physical impediments that stop her from doing the things she loves are what break my heart.

My first 5Ks were with my grandma. She didn’t run but walked them at a brisk pace, her 5’10” frame making it hard for me to keep up. It was because she entered me into races when I was little I developed a love for running. Later, that love for running evolved into necessity.

Ashleigh lines up for a race as a young girl

Ashleigh lines up for a race as a young girl

When I went to college, I took my first classes taught from an Indigenous perspective. For the first time, I learned about intergenerational trauma – the cumulative emotional harm of a person that results from historically traumatic events (e.g. war, genocide, abuse) perpetrated on a community and passed from parents to children in a vicious cycle.

After learning about intergenerational trauma, things about my family started to make sense.

I realized that my maternal grandparents were victims of the boarding school era, who – like countless Indigenous individuals across North America – were sent to Indian boarding schools where their Ojibwe identity and language were beaten out of them. Like many other Native people, they numbed their emotional and physical abusive boarding school experiences with alcohol. I also began to understand that this trauma was passed onto my mother, who was sent into foster care at a young age as a result of her parents’ alcoholism. Further, I recognized that my grandparents’ traumas, as well as the trauma my mother faced in the foster care system, was a contributing factor to her substance abuse issues. And, it was because of this cycle that my brother and I were also placed into foster care because my mother struggled with addiction, just as her parents had.

Ashleigh Thompson

Luckily, my father’s mother, helped my family to break this cycle by taking my brother and I out of foster care and becoming our guardian. Within a year of living with my grandma, she registered us for our first kids’ races.

In high school, I ran on my cross country team for fun. In college, I joined my Division III team so that I could become a better runner. Yet, it was during my early twenties that I realized running wasn’t much of a choice anymore.

Rather, I ran because when I didn’t, those intergenerational traumas became heavier and harder to cope with. However, when I was running regularly, I was emotionally capable of coping with them. When I was running, I was healing myself.

People told my grandma that she shouldn’t take us in, that she should enjoy her retirement, that she should keep on solo traveling to see the world.

Ashleigh (left) with teammates at the recent Stagecoach 100 relay

Ashleigh (left) with teammates at the recent Stagecoach 100 relay

Instead, she didn’t listen and gifted me opportunity, running, and a chance to heal. So, although I can’t stop her aging, I do what I can.

I take a run on the trails among the cactus blooms and use her child-like wonder to marvel at the flowers, the sweet light hitting the mountains just so, the birds singing to each other. I breathe the sweet, creosote-scented air.

You see, although she’s losing her vision and strength, she gave me mine.