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for people who care about the West

Native Americans walk the talk across America


Native Americans began their 3,600-mile walk across America at Alcatraz Island Feb. 11, and soon they’ll conclude in Washington, D.C. I’ve accompanied them on the Northern Route, co-hosting a Web radio program as they crossed the freezing Sierra Nevada Range, plodded through a hailstorm in western Utah and walked over the cold Rocky Mountains of Colorado.

The Longest Walk 2 commemorates the Longest Walk of 1978, which began with 17 participants in San Francisco and ended five months later with a gathering of tens of thousands in Washington, D.C. It helped block a congressional effort to annihilate treaties that protect Indian sovereignty, and also helped spur passage of the 1978 American Indian Religious Freedom Act.

Thirty years later, walkers cite a variety of reasons for taking to the roads and talking to people in towns across America. Many say the walk is a group prayer for the protection of sacred Mother Earth and tribal sovereignty. Michael Lane, who came from New Zealand with his family for the 2008 walk, was also on the 1978 walk. “The purpose of the walks is to carry the message of the inherent sovereignty of Indian people,” he said.

Along the way, the walkers have offered prayers for healing. The number of walkers ranges from 40 to 60, with more joining in some towns. At the site of the Sand Creek Massacre in eastern Colorado, where Cheyenne and Arapaho families were shot and butchered, the walkers gathered for dawn prayers. During one of the morning prayers, Marty Chase Alone, a Lakota, offered a ceremony to release the lingering spirits and wipe away the tears. “You can go home now,” he said.

As we walked, I felt this was still the West I loved, but it was not the West I expected to find. The region seemed under huge pressure to develop its natural resources.

In Holcomb, Kan., a power-plant expansion was dividing the people. In this town where a family was murdered and later portrayed in Truman Capote’s book, “In Cold Blood,” a storeowner said some people support the plant because a slaughterhouse had burned down nearby, resulting in the loss of 3,000 jobs. When asked about air pollution and the risk of disease to residents, he said what many who listen to the corporate public relations officials have said, “It will be the cleanest power plant ever.”

When the walkers camped in Syracuse, Kan., it rained for three days and made a lot of locals happy. The recorded rainfall here had been zero, and we were told it must have been the presence of the walkers that broke the drought. All along the way, people offered feathers and sacred items for the sacred staffs carried by the walkers.

I was onboard the media bus across the West, an audio studio for daily streaming and archiving (www.earthcycles.net). The Earthcycles bus, owned by Govinda Dalton, is powered by solar and wind energy and heated with a wood stove.

Overall, the Long Walkers have found an abundance of grace and generosity from the communities we passed through, from the ceremonies and meals of the Miwok in Shingle Springs, Calif., to the efforts to save the sacred places by the Paiute, Shoshone and Washo in Nevada. The Longest Walk was showered with hospitality by Navajos and townspeople in southern Utah, the staff at the Salt Lake Walk In Center, community members in Denver, staff at the Ute Indian Museum in Montrose, Colo., and all across Kansas. At the School of Natural Order in Baker, Nev., there was regeneration, and in the heart of Utah, in the towns of Scipio, Richfield and Green River, we felt the solace of generous spirits. The Kickapoo in Kansas offered a place for a five-day rest.

It was in Greensburg, Kan., that another dimension of the West opened up to the group -- the force of a tornado to rip apart a town. Debris was still piled high nearly one year after the tornado struck on May 4, 2007. Still, there was hope and abundant love in this town as the people were rebuilding “green,” focusing on solar and wind power.

As the walk across America nears its end, it does so as a movable prayer. As Jimbo Simmons, a Choctaw, put it, “The act of walking brings back into focus the traditional knowledge that’s been locked away for generations.”

Brenda Norrell is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). She is a reporter and radio producer and her article on carbon credits was just selected by Project Censored as one of the 25 “most censored” of 2007-8.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].