They Walk the Line
Dennis Banks is already on his fourth pair of shoes. On February 11 the Native American activist and author left San Francisco on foot, bound for Washington, D.C. He’s one of the leaders of a 4,400-mile, five-month cross-country trek designed to draw attention to the environmental problems affecting Native American lands and people.
Banks, who farms in northern Minnesota, says his seasons for growing wild rice and tapping maple syrup are shrinking, and that the medicinal plants commonly used in Native American ceremonies are growing scarcer—changes he believes are due to drought and temperature shifts associated with global warming. Banks, who helped organize and lead a similar event for Native American rights in 1978—it was known as The Longest Walk—decided that a 30th anniversary reprise was in order, with the environment, specifically climate change, as the focus.
“The environment is the source of our oxygen,” Banks told a crowd of walkers and onlookers during a stop in Bakersfield, California. “It’s the source of what makes us spiritual, the source of our stories, the source of our heritage, the source of our cultures.” About 140 walkers, divided into two groups, are following northern and southern routes across the nation. As they pass through Native American communities this spring and summer, they’re hearing about an array of local concerns, including the pollution of the Colorado River, the proposed construction of a coal-fired power plant on the Navajo reservation, and the devastation of Houma communities in Louisiana by Hurricane Katrina. In July, when the walkers finally arrive in Washington, they plan to take these stories to congressional offices, agency representatives, and the White House—and press for solutions.
“Seeing the backroads of America, going through reservations, visiting the Colorado River and the Grand Canyon—it’s really inspiring to me,” says Banks, who leads the walkers on the southern route. “It’s inspiring to see that there are still people struggling and surviving.”
The participants range from small children to a cadre of teenage Native American activists to 76-year-old Dakota Sioux runner Emmett Eastman, who has been jogging most of the trip. They hail not only from several dozen tribes but also from many countries, including Japan, Germany, Switzerland, Poland, Russia, Australia, and Argentina. Calvin Magpie Jr., 25, whose heritage is Arapaho and Cheyenne, impulsively decided to join the walk when he attended its sunrise opening ceremony on Alcatraz Island. “They talked about how they were going to walk for sacred sites, walk for our people, walk to encourage everybody in general to work together to do something good for Mother Earth,” Magpie remembers. “I wanted to be a part of something good.”
The daily schedule is grueling, and accommodations range from campgrounds to gymnasium floors, but Magpie says motivation runs deep. “A lot of people with us have never walked much in their lives, but once they get out there, they’re almost in a prayer state—they don’t realize that they just walked 15 or 20 miles,” he says. “That’s what I keep telling them—every step is a prayer.”—Michelle Nijhuis
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