A group of Native Americans walking across the country — from Washington, D.C., to Alcatraz Island in the San Francisco Bay — made it to Indiana last week.
The group, on a mission to support native sovereignty, joined in a pipe ceremony in Richmond, a news conference in Indianapolis and a powwow in Lebanon before moving on toward Brazil and West Terre Haute.
John Parsons, a member of the Beaver Clan of the Five Nations from upstate New York, is among the walkers.
"I'm walking for those who can't, for our ancestors, for the land – Mother Earth — for the water and for the future, so that our children will have the right to live freely, the way we were meant to when we were placed here by the Creator," he said. "It's time for us to tell our story."
Their story is one of broken treaties, discrimination and loss — of their land, their culture and their identity as native peoples. But perhaps the bigger story is that they haven't succumbed to the federal government's attempts at assimilation — or extinction, as many view it.
"It's good to spread the word that we're still here," Parsons said. "In schools, they teach that we were exterminated, that we don't exist anymore."
They are walking across the country to verify their existence. Having already covered more than 500 miles, the small group of Native Americans has completed approximately 20 percent of their journey. Carrying their staffs during the day, they stay together at night, sleeping in campgrounds or at the homes of supporters.
This walk, which reverses the route taken by the original Longest Walk in 1978, began on July 15with a sunrise ceremony at the Washington Monument. Arrival at Alcatraz is anticipated on Dec. 21and will be followed by an Indigenous Sovereignty Gathering on Dec. 22.
Along the way, they pause for spiritual gatherings like the one planned at the Cahokia Mounds in Illinois next month and the Indiana gatherings in which they participated.
According to Le Roy Malaterre, an American Indian Council chairman emeritus of Ojibwe descent, holding a traditional powwow is one way to promote understanding. Awareness and understanding were part of the original message of indigenous sovereignty that the current walkers hope to bring back to the forefront.
American Indian Movement leaders Dennis Banks and Bill Wahpepah staged the first walk in 1978 as a response to legislation introduced in the United States Congress that, according to AIM and others opposed to the legislation, would have destroyed American Indian sovereign rights and abrogated U.S./Indian treaties. To raise awareness, AIM supporters walked across the country, gaining support along the way until their numbers swelled to 10,000 by the time they reached Washington. The American Indian Religious Freedom Act, a bill protecting the rights of Indians, passed soon after.
"The original walk was an affirmation of indigenous sovereignty in response to legislation," said Michael Lane, a Menominee who took part in the first walk and the current one. While the intention of the first walk was to send a message to Washington about indigenous sovereignty, this walk, Lane said, "is about bringing the message back to our own people and allies. It's about honoring the original peoples of this land."
The walk supports all indigenous peoples and nations in their struggle to affirm sovereignty through maintaining traditional spiritual beliefs; protecting sacred sites, traditions and their cultural heritage; halting exploitation of the land (tar sands development and new pipeline projects are prime targets) and ending the exploitation of indigenous women and children. It emphasizes the spiritual foundations of their sovereignty as talked about in The Longest Walk Manifesto of 1978.
"The walk helps us spread the word that our sovereignty is not based on federal recognition. It is inherent; it has always existed," Lane said. "It's an important message."
Sovereignty is a way of life, explained an Ojibwe woman on the walk. "I feel strongly about getting back to the way Creator intended. The walk is to bring back balance."
Borrowing from Birgil Kills Straight's 1973 speech about the meaning of sovereignty to explain the purpose of the walk, Albert Running Wolf Ortiz, AIM Indiana-Kentucky chairman, said it's a "rebirth of dignity and pride" and a spiritual movement to connect the realities of the past with the promises of tomorrow.
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