FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. – On March 21, indigenous spiritual leaders, environmental groups, tribal officials and community members welcomed more than 100 participants of the Longest Walk II.
The Longest Walk II is a five-month journey that began in San Francisco and will finish in Washington, D.C., bringing attention to environmental protection and Native rights. It marks the 30th anniversary of the original Longest Walk of 1978, which resulted in historic changes for American Indians.
”We’ve crossed 18 mountain ranges. We have walked 980 miles to be here,” said Dennis Banks, co-founder of the American Indian Movement and lead coordinator for the southern route of the Longest Walk II. ”Thirty years ago, a walk took place across this country and one of the issues that we brought before members of Congress was the issue of the San Francisco Peaks, the holy mountain. Thirty years later, we are still concerned about the destruction and the violation of the holiness of this mountain.”
A sunrise prayer gathering was held on Arizona’s San Francisco Peaks, where Snowbowl, a small private ski resort, has been attempting to expand and make snow from treated sewage effluent. More than 13 indigenous nations hold the peaks holy and are unified in resisting the desecration of this sacred site.
Following the ceremony, the walkers proceeded down the mountain, picking up trash on their way to Flagstaff City Hall for a news conference and rally. Representatives of the Save the Peaks Coalition, Sierra Club, ECHOES, Black Mesa Water Coalition and C-Aquifer for Dine’ addressed the issues facing their communities and voiced their support for the Longest Walk II.
Shelby Ray, a 16-year-old representative of Youth of the Peaks, expressed her gratitude and encouragement to the young walkers, saying, ”We need more youth to speak out and take action for the environment and our rights.”
”The Longest Walk II is a spiritual walk for the protection of our Mother Earth,” said Jeneda Benally, a volunteer with the Save the Peaks Coalition. ”We are honored and blessed to welcome and host everyone who is on this historic journey. From the holy San Francisco Peaks to Black Mesa, Yucca Mountain, Bear Butte, Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Shell Mounds and many, many more, the Longest Walk is here because we are still struggling to protect our cultures and land.”
”This movement is a healing of our communities,” said Kelvin Long, director of ECHOES, a Flagstaff-based indigenous rights organization.
”The continued desecration of sacred sites in America should be an affront to all people of conscience everywhere,” stated attorney and congressional candidate Howard Shanker. ”Native Americans have no First Amendment Rights regarding public land use.” Shanker has successfully represented tribes and environmental groups in the precedent setting case to protect the holy Peaks.
Phil Stego Jr., executive director of land management for the White Mountain Apache Tribe, stated, ”For those of you that believe Indian wars are over, they are not. They are just beginning again. We will fight to the end for our people’s existence.”
”We have Navajo tribal officials who stand up to protect the sacred mountain but don’t realize that water is also sacred. We say that water is life,” said Calvin Johnson, president of C-Aquifer for Dine’, an organization formed to oppose Peabody Coal’s use of the C-Aquifer for coal transport from Black Mesa. C-Aquifer for Dine’ also opposes the ”Settlement Plan” that would reopen the Mohave Generating Station and Peabody Coal mining operations. Johnson led the crowd in chanting, ”Protect sacred sites, defend human rights.”
”Right now, 80 percent of the natural resources held underneath indigenous peoples’ lands are being threatened. There is an ongoing war being waged for these resources,” said Enei Begaye, director of the Black Mesa Water Coalition. ”We agree that we need to stop the war in Iraq and end the occupation of other territories around the world. However, it is important to remember that the U.S. is also occupying sovereign nations here in this country. On behalf of Black Mesa Water Coalition, we’d like to honor the walkers for carrying this message.”
The Longest Walk II is anticipated to arrive in the nation’s capital July 11. ”Upon our arrival, we will deliver a resolution to elected officials. This resolution will document the struggles and concerns from each indigenous community that we encounter during our walk,” Banks said. ”Our intention is to give a greater voice to the environmental and indigenous struggles that our government doesn’t often acknowledge.”
During the 1978 Longest Walk, thousands converged on Washington, D.C., in an effort that defeated 11 pieces of legislation in Congress that would have abrogated Native treaties. As a result of the 1978 Walk, the American Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1978 was passed.
Since the arrival of the Longest Walk II to Flagstaff, many community members have volunteered to cook, provide housing, monetary donations and other supplies.
After their Flagstaff visit, Longest Walk II participants will continue though the Navajo Nation. For a complete itinerary, specific directions and additional information, visit www.longestwalk.org.