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 sacred.

"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 prayers.

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 walk.

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."



Reprinted as an historical reference document under the Fair Use doctrine of international copyright law. http://www4.law.cornell.edu/uscode/17/107.html