“The Indian Runner” Meets His Destiny
By Del Moon, NSGA PR Specialist
Mark Woommavovah, 56
It’s not that unusual to see a runner carrying a flag or banner in a race. But there was something about Mark Woommavovah’s proud demeanor and spirit as he proudly hosted the colorful flag of the Comanche Nation and charged into the 2023 National Senior Games 5K race in Pittsburgh. We had to find out more.
To our surprise and delight, we discovered that Mark is the elected Chairman of the Comanche Nation, located on the Plains of southern Oklahoma. He is also the author of a popular children’s book, “The Little Indian Runner.” This man has layers.
Mark’s is a truly remarkable story of a prophecy fulfilled, as you will find reading our edited conversation below. Mark was raised by grandparents on his rural native land. His “Grandma Vida” recognized his energy and put him to work running messages from Indian house to Indian house, gathering gossip and stories to share in the community. She also told a very young Mark something that he did not understand until he was an adult: that he would grow up to leave his land, travel the world and return to serve his people.
In junior high school Mark earned the nickname “The Indian Runner.” He is still running today.
Mark obtained a U.S. Army ROTC scholarship to the University of Oklahoma and launched a 31-year military career, traveling the world and running in events wherever he served, from the beaches of Hawaii to Korea, Malaysia and even within Iraq’s green zone – in full Kevlar and flak vest. He also organized Army Ten-Miler running teams on his bases and brought that practice back home when he retired and returned full-circle to OU as the Senior Military Instructor for their ROTC program. One of his teams competed and won silver in the Army Ten-Miler college division. He is still a talent scout and advisor, but his people called on him to lead them.
In 2020, some tribal members urged Mark to run for Chairman. Applying the military discipline and organization he learned, Mark recruited a team that included tech-savvy college-aged tribal members. His social media and in-person campaign crossed all boundaries, and Mark was elected in a landslide.
Learn more about the transformative practices Mark Woommavovah has instilled with his people in our conversation. He is a true leader and role model, focusing on the team and uplifting people’s lives. We are proud Mark comes to Senior Games and are excited that he wants to keep his ‘elders’ healthy. He even plans to officially sponsor a large team of Comanche senior athletes to come to the 2025 National Senior Games in Des Moines, Iowa!
Mr. Chairman, thank you for making time to share your story. Our first question is about your name. What does Woommavovah translate to in English?
The name means ‘One Who Encourages.’
Amazing. It seems you were anointed from birth!
You have another name, Mark. People call you ‘The Indian Runner.’
I acquired that name when I was in junior high. I ran the 800-meter, the mile, the two-mile, and two- mile relay.
You could have gone in many directions growing up in a poor rural area. It seems obvious to us that somebody put you on a straight path as a child.
It was my grandmother. She and my grandfather raised me. ‘Grandma’ in Comanche is Kaku (kah-ku). She told me something that I did not understand when I was a very young boy. She said, ‘You’re going to travel the world…’ [emotional pause]…and that I was going to meet people, and that I was going to come back and serve our people.
Your ‘Kaku’ was a wise and visionary woman.
Yes, sir. After school I joined the Army. Later I went to the University of Oklahoma and joined the Army ROTC on a two-year scholarship. I graduated as a military police officer and left the area for 31 years, served our country and came back to retire in 2019. My first job was teaching Army ROTC as the Senior Military Science instructor at Oklahoma. So, I went full circle, getting commissioned as a 2nd Lieutenant and returning as a Lieutenant Colonel to teach the freshmen class there after three decades. That’s pretty cool!
Then ‘The Indian Runner’ became Chairman of the Comanche Nation in 2021. How did that happen?
It is an elected position. Some friends came to me and asked me to run for office.
What I did was to put together a young campaign team and got a couple of books about how to run a campaign. We all met – I called it war gaming – and dissected the books and went to town. These young people set up our social media platforms, set up our fundraisers like tournaments and meet and greets, and people never knew what hit them. Usually whoever has the biggest family wins, but I won by a landslide.
I tell you, these young, educated Comanches are bringing technology to us, and we’re giving them the ability to exercise their voice.
Wow, congratulations Mr. Chairman! That’s a huge responsibility to represent your people. Sounds like you are bringing change there.
Yes. When we came in, I asked leadership and the full-time staff if we had a vision or mission. They weren’t sure so I said we don’t. It had to be short, concise and must bring our people together. I had the first part: Comanche Strong, and the people came up with the second part. Our vision is ‘Comanche Strong- Stronger Together.’
And it has brought our people together. Any time I go to a meeting or event I yell ‘Comanche Strong!’ and everyone shouts back, ‘Stronger Together!’
Just to be clear, Mark, is there a Chief of the tribe plus the Chairman?
The Chairman is the Chief. We are set up with a Chairman, Vice Chairman and Secretary-Treasurer, plus four business committee people that run for election. I am the only full-time staff member of this group. We have monthly meetings and an annual general council meeting that we call ‘The Peoples Meeting.’ We are a sovereign nation, so we govern ourselves – we have everything from fire, police, court, every program and food distribution among our departments and divisions.
Of the 17,792 Comanche members, 7,000 live within the jurisdiction of the Nation which covers several Oklahoma counties. The others we call Non-Locals, and here’s what I tell them: No matter where you live, you are Comanche.
The Army provided you with the opportunity to travel the world. Did you run everywhere you went? Was it competitive running?
Yes. And no matter where I was stationed, I would always get our soldiers involved and start battalion and company running clubs. We entered 5 and 10ks, half and full marathons and I coached all of the teams. Our physical fitness tests improved, and their health improved because we added fitness and engaged our Army nutritionist so they would be eating right.
I also was the coach for Army Ten-Miler teams and ran with those teams. We took teams to Washington, D.C., to compete in the Army Ten-Miler, which is the largest in the States.
How long were you doing that?
Oh, I was in the Army Ten-Milers until I retired. Even after that, at OU I organized the OU ROTC Ten- Miler Team with our ROTC cadets. In 2019 we took a Ten-Miler team to D.C. to compete in the college division, and believe it or not, they came in 2nd on the big stage! We also organized the Sooner Battalion Running and Triathlon Club.
Your current position must not leave you time to continue as an instructor.
I am still the Leadership and Talent Scout for them. I bring them referrals, usually high school student athletes.
Before we go further we want to acknowledge you are also known as an author of a children’s book called ‘The Little Indian Runner.’ Tell us how it came about.
I was training an Army Ten-Miler team in Waikiki, Hawaii. I used to go to Barnes and Noble to read and I heard this giggling from the back of the store. It was a children’s book reading. It was amazing to see the enthusiasm and seeing them react to the teacher. I immediately called my wife and said, ‘I’m going to write a children’s book.’ She goes, ‘OK. What are you going to write it about?’ I asked her, ‘What do I love?’ and she immediately said, ‘Running!’ [Laugh]
I got online and did research for how to self-publish and how the process worked. And here’s the way I wrote the manuscript: On my runs I would put 3×5 index cards and a pen in a plastic bag and stuff them in my shorts. When I thought of something I would stop, take out a card, make notes and put them back in my shorts. Then I sat at the computer and drafted the manuscript.
My grandma was an inspiration for the story. I used to run house to house delivering messages for her before we had land lines in our rural community. Of course, I got the messages wrong half the time! [Laughs] But you will see the book opens with him running through his tribe, and he sees his grandma, his friends, his uncles and aunties. I brought our Indian foods into the story, and we end it with a modified version of the Lord’s Prayer.
We dedicated the book and are donating some proceeds to my nephew, Lucas Owens, who has autism. Every year we also sponsor the Peace Walk for Autism with t-shirts and banners.
Mr. Chairman, yours is an incredible history already, and you are still a young man. You’re also very busy, so please tell us how your attention turned to Senior Games.
I read about it online when I found out about the National Veterans Golden Age Games, which only veterans can compete in. I haven’t competed in those games yet because I first wanted to represent our state and the Commanche Nation, so I entered Senior Games. I don’t like to talk about myself, but I took first place in the 5K and the triathlon at the Oklahoma Senior Games, and that took us to the National Senior Games in 2022 and 2023.
What’s more important is that I am bringing in other senior tribal members who are now participating. I’ve invited other tribes who are now getting involved. In fact, one of my Kiowa brothers just finished first in the triathlon in the Oklahoma Senior Games.
You are being a true role model.
Here’s what I learned from the military: Everyone watches the leader. That’s why I lead from the front. I’m at every walking event, every running event, every biking event. Since I came in, we have used our community grants to put on 5K runs and spirit rides, and we formed a group called Comanche Road Warriors. They have a Facebook page. We also formed a group for our seniors called the Wisdom Warrior Walkers Club. We walk regularly and go to the mall when it’s cold outside. We give them goals and incentives. Last year it was to walk 100 miles and if they met the goal, we would give them a banquet. We had 22 elders complete their 100 miles, and some completed 150, 200, even 300 miles. We fed them and rewarded them with FitBits so they can track it. [Raises voice] Ohh, that was the best feeling in there because we had the elder center staff show them how to use the technology!
Sorry, I get excited talking about this.
No apology necessary!
Let me tell you what has also happened. They are able to control their diabetes and blood pressure now. They’re healthy and not sitting in front of the TV all day.
So here is my plan for our Nation and the other tribes who live in this area: There are good golfers, runners, softball, basketball and pickleball players here. We are going to put teams together, we’re going to find sponsors for them, and we’re going to go to the Senior Games.
You mean to the Oklahoma Senior Games?
We are going to compete at the state level so we qualify for Nationals. We are going to invest in them and find sponsors for our seniors.
WOW! That is true leadership. It was an inspirational moment when we saw you running with your flag in our 5K. Now you will have company!
People around the state, and even at the federal level, call me ‘The Running Chairman.’ I run with my flag at every event. I always carry our colors. Always! Because I carry the weight for my people. [Emotional Pause] I carry the flag for those who can’t run. [Pause] I run for those who can’t walk. [Crying] I carry it for our veterans. They show up at races and cheer me on. It’s because of our colors, it’s not me. They don’t salute the person, they salute the flag. We are Comanche.
Now you have us emotional, Mark. Your heart is in the right place, and you are highly successful because the military prepared you for what was to come.
Absolutely. 100 percent. I’ve taken those military values and processes and I’m injecting them into our sovereign nation. I’m not being over-military; I changed the words. For example, what we called an After-Action Report in the Army is called Event Review.
It’s also a lesson in the power of teamwork.
First, I let our people know it’s not I or me, it’s us. WE are doing this together. They just happen to have a leader who is motivated and enthusiastic, a leader who will support them and listen to their ideas. I’m the Chairman that they can approach.
We have a team now, a positive team that’s making a difference in building connections in our local community, and partnerships that we haven’t had in the past. All I am is the vehicle to move it forward. In that vehicle are key leaders who understand the meaning of inspiring and motivating people and giving them the tools they need to be successful.
We are Comanche Strong, Stronger Together!