« Return to this article

for people who care about the West

The Longest Walk 2

  On a chilly day in March, two dozen weary walkers are resting at the Ute Indian Museum in Montrose. In the shadow of western Colorado’s Shining Mountains, surrounded by relics of the tribe who once inhabited the area, the group is taking a two-day break on its five-month journey from California’s Alcatraz Island to the nation’s capital.

After 1,000 miles and a month on the road, the Long Walkers seem to enjoy relaxing in the comfortable atmosphere of the museum, eating pizza as they watch a film about Western Shoshone efforts to reclaim traditional lands. The walkers are young and old, Indian and white. There’s a core group of approximately 30, along with an ever-changing group of supporters, whose ranks ebb and flow as the walk heads east.

Their trek commemorates the Longest Walk of 1978, which began with 17 participants in San Francisco and ended five months later with 30,000 in Washington, D.C. The original Longest Walk halted a congressional effort to abrogate treaties that protect Native sovereignty. It also helped spur the passage of the American Indian Religious Freedom Act in August 1978.

The 2008 walk, which began Feb. 11, is “a cry out to all native people for unity and solidarity,” according to Jimbo Simmons, a Choctaw. It’s split into two different routes. Simmons is leading the northern one, which follows the same trail used by the walkers 30 years ago. And American Indian Movement co-founder Dennis Banks, now in his 70s, is leading the southern route, which passes through Indian land. Both Simmons and Banks are veterans of the original walk.

“Nothing’s changed,” Simmons says. “There’s still a systematic violation of human and natural rights.”

Despite the passage of the Religious Freedom Act, Simmons says threats to Indian sacred sites have intensified. He mentions 15 sites that are threatened or already compromised: Mount Shasta in California, for example, where tribes and environmentalists are fighting geothermal development, and Bear Butte in South Dakota, where bikers, chainsaws and a shooting range have desecrated Lakota sacred areas. At Yucca Mountain in Nevada, sacred to Shoshone and Paiute people, tribes have played a prominent part in protesting a long-planned nuclear waste dump.

Simmons emphasizes that “all life is sacred, all places are sacred. The survival of indigenous people depends not on just one area, but on the entire life system. Our cultural survival is at stake.”

There are as probably as many reasons for walking as there are walkers. For Willie Lone Wolf, a Navajo/Ute who left his construction job in Oakland, Calif., to join the walk as bus driver and drum keeper, the walk is “for our ancestors … our mother, the earth, all life that is sacred, for future generations.”

The hardest part so far, he says, was through Nevada, “the loneliest highway in America.” They were encouraged in this desolate stretch by the local Shoshones and the Paiutes, “who walked with us, fed and housed us, and took care of us.”

For Washoe Chris Fred, who joined in Carson City, the walk is a spiritual journey he undertook to cleanse himself from drinking.

Along the route, Simmons says, the walkers have received “many many medicines, representative of the support and need to protect the earth that people feel.” The medicines include feathers, staffs, medicine bundles and sage. Some of them are arranged on the dashboard of the “media bus,” which contains an audio studio for daily streaming and archiving (www.earthcycles.net), powered by a mix of solar and wind energy and heated with a wood stove.

“When we get to D.C., we’ll create one huge altar,” says Simmons, who predicts that 1 million people will turn out by the end of the march in July, when the walk’s two routes converge.

Simmons expects to see people from around the world, in support of the U.N.’s Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, adopted by the General Assembly in September 2007. The United States joined New Zealand, Canada and Australia in voting against the declaration.

As for the apology to Native peoples recently issued by the U.S. Senate, Simmons says it’s “just words. If they were sincere, they’d give back the land and the livelihoods they destroyed.”

Simmons says the 1978 walk gave him, as an Indian youth, “a sense of identity and direction.” The younger people on the current walk, and those they meet along the way, participate in “holding the vision and moving forward with intention,” he says. “We’re investing in and trusting the younger generation, and depending on them for their advice and skills.”

After Montrose, the walkers move on to Gunnison, then to Pueblo, covering between 20 and 80 miles each day. The act of walking “brings back into focus the traditional knowledge that’s been locked away for generations,” says Simmons. “All of our traditions and ceremonies are based on nature. The walk itself is a prayer.”

The author is the Online Editor for High Country News.