During the NCAA recruiting process, runners typically discuss things like training expectations, academic majors, and team dynamics with a prospective college coach. But Rosalie Fish, who currently runs for Iowa Central Community College, was looking for a different kind of support; the Cowlitz Tribal member wanted to know if she could count on her coach to be an ally.
Since her senior year of high school, the 20-year-old from Auburn, Washington, has dedicated her championship performances to missing and murdered Indigenous women (MMIW)—a crisis in which Indigenous women on some reservations are murdered at a rate more than 10 times the national average, Justice Department data finds.
Before Fish decided to commit to the University of Washington, she had an open conversation with program director Maurica Powell. Fish said they discussed her work as an activist and the additional support she might require from her coach.
“I let [Powell] know that here on the NJCAA level, I’ve had to fight for my right to wear the handprint at races and that my coaches needed to be a part of that fight with me,” Fish told Runner’s World. “I asked her if she would be willing to take my side if it ever came down to that, and she let me know that she would absolutely support me when it came to running for Indigenous women.”
“I’m super excited to have the opportunity to represent all of the tribes in Washington,” Fish said. “There’s almost 30 diverse tribes in the state itself, and honestly, almost every single tribe in Washington has impacted who I am and how I’ve grown up. And so I’m really honored to get the opportunity to positively represent the tribes at the Pac-12 [Conference] level.”
Finding a source of empowerment
Fish was inspired to raise awareness through running after watching Jordan Marie Brings Three White Horses Daniel run the 2019 Boston Marathon with a red handprint and MMIW painted on her body. The Kul Wičasa Lakota runner marked each of the 26.2 miles with a prayer for an Indigenous woman who was a victim of violence, which gave Fish hope when she needed a boost.
“I was facing some discrimination as a native runner [when I was a senior at Muckleshoot Tribal School],” Fish said. “I wasn’t being entered into some competitive meets, even though I had reached the qualifying time. And when I asked why, the answer would be something along the lines of ‘Well, I’ve never heard of your school before,’ so I had already been feeling a little bit isolated and lonely.”
Watching a fellow Indigenous woman use running as a form of activism empowered Fish to take action. “It reminded me of the power that we have in our communities and the power that sits within our identities and who we are as native people, and it made me realize that I never wanted to go back to feeling isolated, alone or powerless again,” Fish said.
In May 2019, Fish ran the Washington state track meet with a red handprint painted over her mouth and the letters MMIW written on her leg, and won the 800, 1600, and 3200 meters, and finished second in the 400 meters. She devoted each event to an Indigenous woman who was murdered in the epidemic—Alice Looney, Jacqueline Salyers, Renee Davis, and Misty Upham. Looney is Fish’s aunt.
While the crisis has made Fish feel helpless at times, runners like Daniel have shown her opportunities to use her voice and ultimately provided hope for the future.
“Running can be a platform and a form of empowerment,” Fish said. “I think that helped me climb out of those low points for sure. They showed me that you can do something about it because feeling powerless is probably the one thing that’ll stop you in your tracks and keep you there.”
‘It’s not political, it’s being human’
In the fall of 2019, Fish joined the track and cross-country team at Iowa Central Community College in Fort Dodge, Iowa. From the start, she wanted to keep raising awareness for MMIW at the NJCAA level, and Iowa Central head coach Dee Brown said he expected her to approach him about continuing her activism—an initiative he welcomed.
“It gives other people a little more courage to open their minds and think about what else is going on in the world, to think about what else could I do? How else could I make a difference?” Brown told Runner’s World. “I really respect that.”
In the beginning of her freshman season with the Tritons, Brown and Fish worked together to ensure that she wouldn’t be violating any NJCAA competition rules by dedicating her races to MMIW. When they approached the coaches association and the sports committee chairs, they were initially met with some resistance from the governing body, and they had to clarify that Fish’s initiative would not be a political statement. After much discussion, Fish was cleared to run for MMIW at the NJCAA championships.
“It’s a part of my identity that I cannot change,” Fish said. “I can never change that I’m Indigenous, and I especially can’t change the fact that myself, my family, my community is impacted by the missing and murdered Indigenous women crisis. To me, that’s not being political. To me, that’s being a human.”
With a red handprint over her mouth and MMIW written in red paint on her right leg, Fish finished 35th overall and contributed to the Tritons’ team title at the NJCAA Cross-Country Championships on November 9, 2019. After the race in Albuquerque, Fish posted about the MMIW crisis in New Mexico, which leads the nation as the state with the highest number of cases at 78, according to a 2017 study from the Urban Indian Health Institute.
A domino effect
In her two years at Iowa Central Community College, Fish’s activism has also encouraged other athletes to run for causes that are important to them. Brown, who said he’s never seen any athletes use running as a platform for activism prior to Fish in his 25 years of coaching, noticed a male runner from another school racing with a red handprint over his mouth and MMIW written on his body at the 2020 NJCAA Half Marathon Championships.
“It was pretty remarkable and maybe not so coincidental to see that. Whenever you do something like that, I’m sure Rosalie would say the same thing, you’re not expecting to turn millions of heads, but if you can just get one person’s attention and that one person will get one more person’s attention. It’s that little domino effect,” Brown said. “I’m proud for her … People notice these things and they want to be around someone that’s standing up for other people.”
On March 6, Fish, Nadesha Wallace, Lilia Alvarez, and Chloe Lenoir won the distance medley relay at the NJCAA Indoor Track and Field Championships. During the race, each runner wore masks and body paint that read #MeToo.
According to Fish, using sports as a vehicle for activism is an opportunity that athletes should embrace. “I think it’s almost essential that athletes acknowledge the roles that they play as leaders,” Fish said. “Whether they want to be or not, they are role models and they are providing, I would say, representation of what is acceptable. There are so many people who look up to athletes. … I think it’s essential that we acknowledge our platform in that.”
As a member of the NJCAA Student-Athlete Council, Fish is also advocating for Indigenous communities off the track. In February, she proposed that the NJCAA partner with Rising Hearts—an Indigenous-led grassroots organization committed to elevating Indigenous voices—to implement the running on native lands toolkit for competitions. At Iowa Central, she is majoring in human services, and she hopes to get into the school of social work at Washington. After she graduates, Fish would like to pursue a career helping victims of violence in Indigenous communities.
Looking ahead to the next chapter of her running career at Washington, Fish said she’s expecting a challenge. But she’s honing her confidence by focusing on how she can serve MMIW victims and their families.
“It’s not really about myself anymore,” she said. “It’s about what platform can I use, and if I have the opportunity to run at a platform like the Pac-12, to run with the handprint and reach that many people, there’s no way that I can’t take it.”
Taylor Dutch is a sports and fitness writer living in Chicago; a former NCAA track athlete, Taylor specializes in health, wellness, and endurance sports coverage.
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