Walking with a message

Longest Walk 2 unites past and present in Navajoland visit

By Candace Begody, Special to the Navajo Times, MARCH 27, 2008

Flagstaff – Cultural genocide, centuries of warfare against Native people, constant threats to tribal sovereignty and forced relocation – plus blisters, poor diet, homesickness and daily and nightly bodily aches and pains?

Well worth it for those on the southern route of the longest Walk 2, a trek of nearly 3,000 miles on foot to promote harmony with the Earth and social justice for Native people.

“We have a purpose,” said Nathan Leroy, Oglala Sioux, as he rested at the El Nathan Conference Grounds in Flagstaff. “I see what’s been done to my people.”

“My people were put into a grave in the winter,” said Leroy, 49, referring to the Wounded Knee Massacre in December 1890 at Pine Ridge in South Dakota where he grew up. “(The whites) lied, they stole. They were liars and thieves just looking for a place to live.

“They tried to take the beauty of the land – the birds, the water, the land, the mountains,” he said. “They tried to steal that from us and kill us.”

After a short pause and a few breaths to calm down, Leroy added, “But we can’t communicate that in a negative way anymore. We need to negotiate better. There is a better way.”

For Leroy and about 100 others, that “better way” includes this journey, which began Feb. 11 at Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay.

The Longest Walk 2 has two routes – a southern route led by American Indian Movement co-founder Dennis J. Banks, and a northern route led by Jimbo Simmons, Choctaw. Both are veterans of the first walk, held in 1978.

Each will cross 11 states before converging July 11 in Washington, D.C., where the group will discuss threats to the sacred sites, environmental pollution and social injustice. The trekkers also will commemorate the 30th anniversary of the first walk.

The 1978 walk began with 17 people and ended with nearly 30,000 supporters swamping the steps of Capitol Hill.

The activists drew attention to and some say stopped –11 pieces of legislation that would have abolished treaties that protected the rights of Native Americans.

They also helped persuade Congress to pass the American Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1978, which pledges to preserve and protect the right of Native people to practice traditional religions.

The act marked the first serious challenge to more than a century of federal policy aimed at converting all native people to Christianity.

Walking the land – it’s the greatest thing we could ever do,” Leroy said. “I’m walking for my ancestors. For what they have given us – the ability to go to school, to receive health care, to have opportunities they never had.”

Those on the northern route, now passing through Colorado, have been pushing their way through snowstorms and camping in frigid conditions. Those on the southern rail have enjoyed warm, sunny days, but also encounter plunging temperatures at night.

“We are on the extreme opposite but no one came out expecting some kind of discomfort,” said Klee Benally, Flagstaff camp coordinator. “We are walking on Mother Earth, with Mother Earth and to protect Mother Earth.”

Benally, originally from Forest Lake, Ariz., was just 3 years old during the first walk, but he has personal experience with forcible relocation as his family was displaced by the Navajo-Hopi land dispute.

“It was very scary,” he recalled. “It was hard to see my grandparents crying and suffering because of loss of land and everything else.”

Today’s walk connects the line between human rights and the environment, Benally said.

“We have a duty to protect Mother Earth,” he said, “but we are also walking with the message to clean up Mother Earth.”

A sun dance held Friday on the San Francisco Peaks attracted a crowd of over 120, closely watched by the police and Forest Service rangers worried about a potential clash with operators of the nearby Arizona Snowbowl ski area.

But the garbage-strewn area spoke louder than words.

“It’s very unfortunate and disrespectful,” Benally said. “If they wanted (the Snowbowl), they should be caring for the mountain. This is our church. This is where we come to pray.”

Benally said as the sun dance celebrants headed down the trail, they picked up at least 12 large bags of trash within just a couple minutes.

“We could have stayed up there all day,” he said. “There was just much, much more.”

The Longest Walk 2 is attracting international attention, with participants coming from Japan, Mexico, Australia and Europe.

“They are shocked to hear and see that we are still denied our basic human rights,” Benally said. “They are alarmed that we have to fight to have our voices heard and respected.”

In addition, Benally and the other walkers are not forgetting those who have internalized their abuse.

“Our own people are killing themselves with drugs and alcohol,” he said. “People need to know that they are sacred and precious beings.

“We can all be healers,” Benally added. “We can carry our corn pollen and restore balance and harmony.”

The group is scheduled to enter the Navajo Nation at Leupp, Ariz., this weekend, and plans to spend about two weeks in Dinétah before continuing on to the New Mexico pueblos.

Information: www.longestwalk.org



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