Local tribal members taking part in The Longest Walk
By Darin Fenger, Yuma
Sun, MAY 17, 2008
Armed with a tin can rattle in his hand
and the traditional songs of family and tribe in his
heart, a young Quechan man is delivering a message to
Washington, D.C. completely on foot.
Lewis Jefferson, who will turn 21 on
the road next month, started walking east in late March.
That's when the budding traditional singer joined a
small band of folks dedicated to spreading the word
about protecting the sacred lands of native people.
Together Jefferson and his comrades
make up The Longest Walk 2, a historic march spanning
San Francisco to Washington, D.C., that began in early
February and is expected to end in late July.
Jefferson, a member of the local Quechan
Indian Tribe, joined the walk March 22 in Flagstaff.
Since then he's made a few phonecalls back to his grandfather,
a tribal elder who says he couldn't be more proud of
Jefferson's political and spiritual path.
"He is out there representing all
of the Quechan people," said Preston Arrow-Weed,
both an elder and traditional singer. "Can you
imagine carrying the songs of over 3,000 people? There
is a lot of responsibility on his shoulders."
Jefferson, who often goes by the native
name "Mucaw" that Arrow-Weed gave him at birth,
has been singing with the grandfather and other elders
since Jefferson was just a tyke. Elder Milton Jefferson
Sr. recalled: "He would stay up all night and sing
with us, even when he was just 9!"
In videos documenting The Longest Walk
2 young Jefferson can often be heard singing away as
the group proceeds through town after town. "He's
told me on the phone, 'Grandpa I've sang through the
wind, I've sang through the rain and I've sang through
the snow,'" Arrow-Weed said. "He said he's
always worried about the spirit of the people. He says
there are ups and downs, sometimes it seems like they
lose direction or sometimes they lose their goal, but
they always come back again. He always says 'We're going
to make it!'"
Although Jefferson is walking in support
of sacred sites in general Arrow-Weed said his grandson
is also voicing his protest against the Quechan tribe
building a casino on land many elders consider highly
"When he left he told me, 'I want
to prove to the world that Quechans are not traitors,'"
the grandfather said, "He said, 'The Quechan are
not going to give up their sacred land.'"
The Sun was not able to reach Quechan
Tribal President Mike Jackson Sr., who did return calls
to his office. Jackson has told The Sun in the past:
"We will not destroy our heritage for the casino.
We've told our people that from the beginning. We're
not here to destroy our past, but to make for a future."
The Longest Walk 2 follows in the same
footsteps of a similar walk held 30 years ago. The walk
is broken up in south and north routes and is open to
people of any ethnic background who care about the environment
and sacred sites. The event is organized by famed American
Indian activist Dennis Banks, best known for co-founding
the American Indian Movement.
The movement's mission statement sums
up their vision this way:
- "We walk with the message: All Life is Sacred,
Save Mother Earth."
- "We shall walk for the Seventh Generation, for
our youth, for peace, for justice, for healing of Mother
Earth, for the healing of our people suffering from
diabetes, heart conditions, alcoholism, drug addiction,
and other diseases."
"It's important we make people
more aware," said Vernon Smith, another Quechan
elder, who added that a group of elders plan to meet
up with the walkers in D.C. "If we were 20 to 30
years younger we'd be out there, too."
Arrow-Weed responded with the comment
that elders sometimes need to let the younger ones step
up to new duties in order to learn and grow. "There
is a certain time when you have to turn things over,"
Arrow-Weed said. "Now is the time."
While most participants at least aim
to complete the entire walk many people simply join
the journey for a segment of the route or just for the
bit that passes through their community. Arrow-Weed
described how the walkers are often treated, most often
in reservation towns, to a political rally to share
their stories or to spiritual ceremonies for sharing
See the walkers' faces and hear their
stories yourself. Go to www.thelongestwalk.org and follow
along through photos, videos and diaries as the walkers
make their way down the road.
Several other Quechan walkers originally
at Jefferson's side have since returned home. But he's
about to have some familiar faces arrive on the scene.
Three fellow tribal members plan to meet up with the
south route June 10 in Louisiana.
Billy Rea, a 28-year-old traditional
singer, will be marching with his mother, but he says
he'll be out there on the highway with his 2-year-old
son in his heart.
"I'm doing this for my son as much
as I am for my people," Rea explained. "When
he grows up I want him to have his culture and his traditions
because it's going to keep him on the Red Road, on the
right path. I want, when he grows up older, that there
will be sacred lands here for him."
Rea grew up in San Diego, but came to
the Quechan reservation when he was 10 and began learning
traditional ways from his grandmother. Years of drugs
and gangs, however, led him in and out of prison and
he was most recently released just two months ago. But
he says that it's now time to dedicate his life to something
healthier, joining the tribal elders in their fight
to preserve an ancient way of life. Rea added that through
The Longest Walk, he also wants to set a good example
for his friends, both here and back in prison.
"I have a lot of friends and a
lot of them are corrupted, but they are part of our
people, too," he said, explaining that he tries
to include friends in traditional ceremonies like sweatlodges
or singing. "I try to teach them. I take them out
fishing, starting them out with something small. I'm
just trying to teach them the little bit I know."
His friends in prison are planning to
hold sweatlodges in Rea's honor while he's doing the
Yolanda Escalanti, a Quechan woman who
has recently taken to studying traditions with her tribal
elders, is another walker who will soon join Jefferson.
"Our sacred sites are diminishing and they have
no meaning to a lot of people, especially our own younger
generations. We need to change that," Escalanti
said. "This walk is also important because people
say that Native Americans are considered politically
weak. This is our chance to change that and take our
message to congress."
Escalanti and Rea's mother plan to start
training for their long trip by walking at the Quechan
Diabetes Walking Park.
Escalanti isn't a singer or music maker,
so instead of a musical instrument, she plans to carry
something else on The Longest Walk. "I'm going
to carry a picture of my great-grandmother," she
said with clear pride. Escalanti's great-grandmother
was involved in the tribe's fight years ago to save
another local sacred site - Sleepy Hollow. The late
matriarch even took her fight in person to the courts
of San Diego.
"I think if she was alive she would
say, 'You are doing the right thing. Keep fighting for
our land,'" Escalanti said. "So that's what
I'm going do to and they're not going to stop us."