Sunday, August 17, 2008

Native Americans Walk to D.C. for Political Boost

August 15, 2008

Native Americans Walk to D.C. for Political Boost

A recent five-month, 8,300-mile journey across 26 states gave Native Americans a chance to voice the concerns of tribes across the country -- and to launch a coordinated movement to intensify the community's presence on Washington's political radar.

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 sovereignty.

"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 basis.

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."

The 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 litigation.

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 million.

"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."

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