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
“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
“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
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
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
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
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
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
“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
“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
“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
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.