Three years ago on this date, in a tree-shaded cemetery near the highway south of White River, we said goodbye to Nyal Brings, my friend and one of the finest middle-distance runners I’ve ever seen.
One image I remember from that sweltering August afternoon was of two young men who ran behind the hearse from the community center in Horse Creek across the river valley to the graveyard. The distance is something like two or three miles, with a rather challenging hill midway, but the runners braved the conditions, showing their respect for the Lakota man being returned to the river valley where he grew up.
Nyal was a runner, yes. He won a state championship in high school for Todd County, won titles and honors for the University of South Dakota in the late 1950s, and continued to train and run for the rest of his life. The tall, lean runner with the long strides and pistoning arms was a familiar sight around Chamberlain, where he lived much of his life as he taught and coached young people from the Crow Creek and Lower Brule reservations.
He talked with me several times in his later years about his plans to compete (and when Nyal said compete, he was thinking “win’’) the half-mile run at the Senior Olympics. Cancer had other plans, and that last planned race was never to be. Instead, two young runners honored him with their race behind the hearse.
For all of his success as a runner, Nyal Brings was much more. Raised in a home where Lakota was the spoken language, he didn’t begin to learn English until he went to a boarding school at age 9. He quickly showed a mastery of academics, catching up and graduating with his high school class and excelling in courses at USD.
More than that, he began Lakota language instruction in the schools where he taught. He had to develop his own materials, and he was able to pass along his knowledge of both the language and the culture of the Lakota people. He was the first Lakota president of the Dakota Indian Foundation. Throughout his life he worked eagerly with young people. He developed a Nyal Brings Scholarship to encourage young native people to further their education beyond high school.
But Nyal was much more than even those achievements. His commitment to excellence and his soft heart for young people inspired generations of native and non-native young people, including his granddaughter. Jordan Marie Daniel is a runner like her grandfather, but she’s also gaining national attention for her advocacy of native causes, including that of missing and murdered native women.
Daniel, who lived her early life on the Lower Brule Reservation, ran for the University of Maine. Like her grandfather before her, she realized that running could be a platform for raising social awareness. While Brings worked quietly among the young people of his home state, Daniel has taken on national causes. One of her early efforts involved a two-mile Run for Water Rally as a pipeline protest in 2016.
Last year when she ran a half marathon in San Diego, she painted a red hand on her face and the red letters MMIW (Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women) on her legs. The red hand across her face symbolized breaking the silence about the violence happening to native women across the United States.
She did the same thing at the famed Boston Marathon this past spring. She also picked the names of 26 different missing or murdered native women and prayed for each of them, reciting a different name for each of the marathon’s 26 miles.
The red hand and painted letters drew attention from other runners and the spectators along the race course. She was asked several times about the meaning of the letters, an opportunity for her to talk, as she told one reporter, “about what this epidemic is in Indian Country, that’s happening right under their noses, in their community.’’
Like her grandfather before her, Daniel is running and making a difference. I have a hunch that somewhere Nyal is smiling.