Before it ends up on Rosalie Fish’s face, it’s just normal paint. No special tradition involved in its origin or meaning in its production. The main necessary qualities are that it doesn’t aggravate the skin it’s painted on, or smear because of sweat.
Once it’s applied, though, the paint becomes so much more. It’s not just a handprint over her mouth; it’s a reminder of a crisis that Fish, a member of the Cowlitz Tribe, dedicates all of her races to.
Next year, Fish will bring her message back to Washington as a member of the UW cross country and track programs. Wherever she goes, she’ll be representing the Native tribes of her home state.
“I just have a personal connection to the tribes in Washington,” Fish said, “I think almost every tribe in Washington has been a part of my development as a person. I’m really looking forward to, and I’m determined to represent these tribes in a positive way.”
Fish first made headlines in 2019 as a senior distance runner for Muckleshoot Tribal School. That’s when she took to the Roos Field track at the State 1B championship with her face covered by a red handprint, and the letters “MMIW” running down her right leg.
The striking messaging stood for something important to Fish, something as serious as life and death; Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women.
The murder rate among Indigenous women is 10 times higher than the national average, and homicide is the third-leading cause of death in Indigenous women and girls aged 10-24 in the United States.
Since fall 2019, Fish has been running for Iowa Central Community College, where she helped the Tritons win an NJCAA cross country championship her freshman year. On Jan. 13, she signed with Washington to continue her career. She’ll begin on Montlake this fall.
Like everything else in the world, Fish’s journey from Iowa back home was affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. She first reached out to UW head coach Maurica Powell last February in a letter which detailed her times, her grades and her work on the NJCAA Student-Athlete Council, but “then everybody kind of came to a halt.”
Fish never stopped moving, though, and she got back in touch with Powell last fall. But this time, the conversations struck her as different than traditional recruiting talk.
“We talked mostly about times, and what we liked as people, what we liked on our teams, and what we liked to see as athletes in general,” Fish said. “I almost felt a little bit that it was not quite that professional, intense experience that most people describe when it comes to the recruiting process. It mostly just felt natural.”
As 2020 came to a close, Fish realized that she needed to make a final decision in terms of her next stop. She felt good about Powell as a coach and about UW as a program for distance runners, but there was one big topic she finally broached in a recent meeting with the Huskies coach. According to Fish, she told Powell:
“I know you already know a little bit about this, but I dedicate my races to Indigenous women. I run with the paint, and I haven’t always been granted the permission to do so and I have to fight for my right to wear paint at the collegiate level.”
Fish was shocked by Powell’s response. So much so that she committed to UW shortly thereafter.
“She told me that she couldn’t even believe that I would have to fight for that right, and if it ever comes down to it, she would fight with me,” Fish said.
Fish’s time at Iowa was an experience of growth and change, not only as a runner, but as an activist, and as a person. On the track, she had to adapt to a much more intense schedule of training and workouts, shifting from a environment where she was the only runner on the Muckleshoot team to running with one of the top junior college squads in America.
As a Native activist campaigning for the awareness of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, living in Iowa, a state with less of a Native American presence than Washington, was a completely different situation to navigate entirely.
“In the Northwest, I felt a little bit more seen as an Indigenous person, and I felt a little bit more visible and acknowledged,” Fish said. “Therefore, I could dive right into the direct factors that impact violence against Indigenous women. As opposed to here in the Midwest, it was kind of more educating on Indigenous peoples in general, and giving that background information”
Fish ended her sophomore fall season with Iowa Central in the NJCAA half marathon championship. She finished in fifth place – second on ICCC – and again ran with a hand print painted over her mouth. After the race, she posted a photo on Instagram, listing out the names of 13 missing and murdered Indigenous women she’d dedicated the race to – one for every mile she ran.
Fish has often said that running for her cause brings an added pressure nearly every race in which she competes. It’s a physical weight she can feel with each step. It’s something she first felt back in the state championship meet in Cheney two years ago. It’s something she spoke about with her mentor, Jordan Marie Brings Three White Horses Daniel – who became the first runner to compete with a painted hand over her mouth at the 2019 Boston Marathon, when she dedicated her 26 miles to 26 Indigenous victims of violence.
Daniel told Fish that she felt the same way, felt the same weight. She explained that it was part of the burden of running for such an important cause.
Two years later, Fish said there has been improvement in the issue of missing and murdered Indigenous women, but that weight hasn’t gone away. Instead, she’s learned how to cope with it more effectively by drawing on cultural traditions. In her last half marathon, she ran with a small red pouch of tobacco, which was ceremonially burned when she returned home. When she runs now, she repeats the identities of the women she’s running for out loud, literally putting the cause out into the world by speaking their names.
“That way, I don’t get trapped in my own head,” she said.
Fish expects that weight to follow her back home to Washington. If anything, it’s going to get heavier, running on a bigger stage and closer to the tribes that helped mold her.
But that’s part of the point.
“I would never quite say that it gets easier,” Fish said. “When it comes to running in the Pac-12, for me it’s really just finding a bigger platform, one of the biggest you can find, to spread this message, and make it so almost no one can ignore the missing and murdered Indigenous women crisis.”
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