Native Americans Walk to D.C. for Political Boost

Thirty years ago, Native Americans completed the first
Longest Walk across the country, arriving in the nation’s capital on July 22,
1978. Organized by Dennis Banks, the co-founder of the American Indian
Movement, the first walk helped derail potential legislation in Congress that
would have abolished more than 371 treaties critical for Native American

“They were the visualization and actualization of
concern throughout Indian Country about the negative polices that would affect
all Indian life,” said Suzan
Harjo, who was a special assistant for Indian legislation and a liaison in the
office of the secretary of the interior at the time. “It helped to
send a message to the people who wanted these 13 anti-Indian bills that they
best not move in those directions because people cared about it – the [President
Jimmy] Carter White House cared about it.”

The leaders of this year’s Longest Walk 2 organized the
California to Washington, D.C. trek with the aim of forming a commission on
Native American affairs to communicate their needs to Congress on a regular

In February, Longest Walk participants began their trip in
San Francisco, choosing different routes for their trip East. Some pursued the
northern route across such states as Nevada, Utah and Colorado, while others
headed south for New Mexico, Texas and Louisiana.

As they visited tribes along the way, the marchers added
concerns to their “Manifesto for Change.”

The Longest Walk 2 culminated with a symbolic meeting and
march in Washington on July 11. The chair of the House Judiciary Committee,
Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., received the 30-page manifesto demanding attention
to such issues as destructive development on tribal lands, protection of sacred
sites and availability of health care.

“It has demonstrated to
us in the Congress that climate change, social injustice, and a broken health
care system are challenges that demand real solutions in the here and now,”
Conyers said in a statement after receiving the manifesto.

The new commission aims to press the Judiciary Committee to
have hearings on issues that concern Native Americans, many of whom live on
remote reservations.

Alex Ewen, author of the upcoming
“Encyclopedia of American Indians in the 20th Century,”
attended the massive rally on the steps of the U.S. Capitol in 1978.

“From the perspective of an
activist, you can see the history of Indian people as a struggle,” he
said. “You can see where the pieces fit together, like the Longest Walk of
1978, how it’s so different from this one and see why and how much things have
changed in 30 years.”

struggle back then was against a governmental push to “change this
relationship with Indian people … to assimilate Native people and not deal
with Indian people as Indian people but as ordinary citizens,” Ewen said.

Back then, Dennis Banks sought
to “stimulate young Indian people to do something and give them
self-esteem,” Ewen recalled. “So he created walking and running teams
across the country to try to get young people who have many social problems —
drugs, suicide, low self-esteem, alcoholism, which is endemic to Indian
country, high drop-out rates — involved. What Dennis has been doing is to
encourage young people to have some reason to live.”

Dawn Sturdevant Baum, an attorney with the Native
American Rights Fund, said Longest Walk 2 raised issues common to many
indigenous peoples, particularly ones tied to changes in the environment, which
carry an impact regardless of the different cultures, languages, histories and
legal concerns of many tribes.

“Environmental concerns, climate change — those
kinds of things are close to the hearts of all of us Natives in this region,”
Baum said. “By virtue of being here in this land for a long time we’re
quite connected to it in all kinds of ways.” As a result, NARF has dealt
with cases involving water rights for commerce and fishing, and climate change

Native Americans have gotten better at lobbying
Congress over the decades, Baum said, but “whether we convince anyone is a
different story.”

Part of the challenge may lie in the size of the
Native American community nationwide. The federal government recognizes 569
American Indian and Alaska Native tribes. According to the U.S. Census Bureau,
Native Americans accounted for one percent of the population in 2006 at 4.5

“Sometimes it’s hard to get attention,
especially of Congress people who don’t have very many Natives in their areas
and aren’t necessarily tuned in to these issues,” Baum said. “So we
have a huge problem with getting attention from the mainstream media and
getting Congressional attention that we need to make changes in our
communities. We have high rates of poverty, health care problems, very low
education rates, substance abuse — all kinds of things that we need desperate
help with.”

For most of the Longest Walk 2, participants braved rain,
snow and desert conditions. But, said Margaret Morin, who joined the walk in
Bakersfield, Calif., “when you see the elders and people coming together,
you forget those things.”

Some people joined the walk at the last minute. Marie
Little Moon said she heard about the Longest Walk 2 at the Sacramento Native
American Health Center, but didn’t decide to join until she saw the group at
the capitol steps in Sacramento. It was her first foray into activism.

“There was something different about this one —
protecting mother earth and learning more traditional ways from my people,”
Little Moon said.

Native organizations hope such energy will translate
into more involvement and positive results.

“It takes all levels of activism, from
grassroots marching across the country to very professional governmental
commissions and reports to sometimes litigation,” the Native American
Rights Fund’s Baum said. “I think we need to stay active on all levels to
be successful.”