Indigenous Peoples Day Newton committee sees ‘huge symbol’ in rescheduled Boston Marathon

The Boston Athletic Association has decided to postpone this year’s Boston Marathon from April to October due to the pandemic. But the date they chose – October 11 – is also Indigenous Peoples Day in Newton and Boston, which lie along the marathon route.

The BAA apologized for scheduling the marathon on an important day for many and pays tribute to the late Ellison “Tarzan” Brown, a member of the Narragansett Tribe of Rhode Island who won the race twice in the 1930s and inspired the name “Heartbreak Hill” to describe the most iconic – and feared – section of the course.

Indigenous Peoples Day Newton Committee members Chali’Naru Dones and Darlene Flores join WBUR’s Rupa Shenoy to reflect on the process leading up to this year’s rescheduled marathon.

The highlights of this interview have been lightly edited for clarity.

Interview Highlights

On the creation of the Newton Committee of Indigenous Peoples Day

Chali’Naru Dones: Darlene and I got together and with other city officials and other Newton residents and natives, native residents, native people from everywhere, to write letters, send them around town and testify at the hearing. . So, yeah, it was definitely a fight. It was not easy. This is something that has been going on for several years.

On the committee’s reaction to the Boston Athletic Association postponing this year’s marathon to Indigenous Peoples Day

Darlene Flores: We were like, “Why are you doing this on the same day? Some people are now going to be split on whether they want to attend the Boston Marathon or participate in the Boston Marathon versus…supporting an Indigenous event. Especially when the city of Newton [was] at first saying they couldn’t support both events. So they basically said, “Sorry, the Boston Marathon replaces Indigenous Peoples Day. Hold your event on a different day.” And that’s when a call went out to say, “You have to come together, create a working group…so that they really understand that we are united on this and that we are not just one small minority, we are not just a thing of the past.”

Chali’Naru Dones, co-founder of the Indigenous Peoples Day Committee in Newton, performs a song of healing as artist Robert Peters paints a mural depicting the Boston Marathon’s Indigenous history near the finish line at Copley Square. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Robert Peters paints part of a mural depicting the Aboriginal history of the Boston Marathon near the finish line in Copley Square.  (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Robert Peters paints part of a mural depicting the Aboriginal history of the Boston Marathon near the finish line in Copley Square. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

On the symbolism of the marathon falling on Indigenous Peoples Day and potentially overshadowing efforts to draw attention to colonialism

Chali’Naru Dones: Huge symbolism. We came together so that we could have a solemn celebration in thanksgiving, in mourning to remember our ancestors.

Darlene Flores: Yeah, a lot of people…deliberately leave us out of the history books, and it was on the basis of a Eurocentric agenda that civilization began after the European invasion. And that’s not true.

On the BAA apologizing and taking action to recognize Indigenous Peoples Day, including an acknowledgment that the race takes place on what was once Indigenous land

Chali’Naru Dones: Yes, they made a public apology. But it all started with the Newton Indigenous Peoples Day Committee to make it happen so that all Indigenous peoples everywhere would be recognized, honored and respected.

Darlene Flores: I think the BAA has definitely opened up, and they really understand the importance of not just doing land recognition on Indigenous Peoples Day, but land recognition every time they run on aboriginal lands, because they run on aboriginal lands. And it’s huge, you know? We suggested that they have an Aboriginal on their board. To help prevent… things like this from happening in… the future. Could they have done more? Could they still do more? Absoutely.

Robert Peters Jr. outlines what would become the image of Ellison Brown, one of two Native Americans to win the Boston Marathon, near the finish line in Copley Square.  (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Robert Peters Jr. outlines what would become the image of Ellison Brown, one of two Native Americans to win the Boston Marathon, near the finish line in Copley Square. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

On Ellison “Tarzan” Brown, the Narragansett tribesman who won the marathon twice – including in 1936, when he passed a white runner from Arlington named John Kelley on what became known as from “Heartbreak Hill”

Darlene Flores: Heartbreak Hill is not this huge hill that people run in the marathon, and it’s a huge hill – no, that’s not the situation. Heartbreak Hill is called “Heartbreak Hill” because when Kelley walked past Ellison “Tarzan” Brown here, right in this area, he kind of… patted him on the back like, “Ha ha ha… I pass you by.” And I guess that just gave “Tarzan” Ellison Brown the energy to go, “Oh yeah? It’s not happening.” And what he did was he literally passed him and took first place. So Kelley walked in [fifth].

So what are they doing here in Newton? They erected a statue of [fifth]-place winner. They did not erect a statue of Ellison Brown, the first place winner. And that for me is really? Like, it’s a slap in the face. No one knows what Heartbreak Hill is. Heartbreak Hill is when a white man got his heart broken, and that’s too bad. And we talk a lot about how to solve this problem? You know, the story. How can we… get someone who won first place to be seen? … So there is a lot of work to be done. And we are here to do the job.



Correction: John Kelley came in 5th place in 1936. He won the year before and ran in 61 Boston Marathons in his lifetime. The post has been updated. We regret the error.

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