Longest Walkers head toward nation's capital
By Lisa Garrigues -- Today correspondent
ASHEVILLE, N.C. - ''Wake up! Circle up!'' The shouts rang out in the pre-dawn Alabama darkness as nearly 100 people began to stir inside their tents. By 5 a.m., they would be standing in morning circle, ready to embark on another day of cross-country walking that started on Alcatraz Island in California Feb. 11 and will end July 11 in Washington, D.C.
The Longest Walkers are almost there.
Snow, rain, searing heat, blisters, illness, and internal and external struggles have not dissuaded the 200 walkers on the northern and southern routes of the Longest Walk II from reaching their destination, where they will deliver a manifesto to Congress on Native and environmental issues.
The walk, organized by American Indian Movement activist Dennis Banks and other Native leaders to draw attention to environmental destruction and Native issues, is made up of Native and non-Native people, including several supporters from Japan, some of them members of the Buddhist Nipponzan Myohoji order. Commemorating a 1978 walk that was organized to protest the abrogation of Indian treaties by the U.S. government, it contains some of the walkers who took part in the original walk.
On June 11, walkers on the northern route entered Pennsylvania, after being stuck for several days in Ohio with no food or gas money. A skirmish with police in Columbus, Ohio, ended up with one member being led away in handcuffs.
Walkers on the southern route arrived in Asheville June 16, after a group of 18 people broke away from the group to form their own walk. Walkers report that the breakaway group got upset after a young girl hurt her foot in an accident and not enough attention was paid to her, an incident that spiraled into arguments and conflicts before the breakaway group finally left.
Banks was not present during the incident, but has since returned to the southern route. He could not be reached for comment on this recent incident by press time.
Earlier, he had asked 24 people to leave the walk because they were using marijuana and/or alcohol.
When interviewed in May in New Orleans, Banks said the walk ''was going good'' and thanked the Rumsey Rancheria, the Havasupai, the Apache, the Navajo, the pueblos, the Cheyenne and the Arapaho for being particularly helpful with donations.
Walkers on the southern route are averaging about 17 miles a day, waking at 4 a.m. to get on the road an hour later, and walking three to seven miles before breakfast. Short breaks are taken every three and a half miles, and the entire distance usually takes about seven hours to cover. Runners average 30 - 50 miles a day, so that every mile across the country is covered. Walkers take turns participating in the trash crew, which cleans up garbage and trash along the way, and the kitchen crew, which prepares the meals.
While northern walkers have had to use snowshoes on their journey, temperatures on the southern route have soared into the high 90s. Sweat-drenched walkers have used garden hoses, swimming holes and - when they are lucky - showers to cool down. Support vehicles accompanying the walkers, carrying food, luggage and water, have frequently needed repair.
Southern walkers report a large number of them got sick in Bakersfield from what they believe was contamination from nearby oil wells.
At night, the walkers unroll their sleeping bags and pitch their tents on the grounds of community centers, city parks, reservations and national forests.
In late June, walkers on the southern route were awakened when a car full of hecklers drove into an Alabama city park where the walkers were camped and yelled insults at the campers. The invaders were driven out by the walkers and local police.
''I can't believe I've already covered 4,000 miles,'' said Ray, a Native walker and runner on the southern route, as he carried the flag of the Mohawk Nation down a hot road in Alabama.
He was philosophical about the interpersonal difficulties and challenges that had arisen from within the group.
''They are human beings.''
Native and non-Native communities, businesses and individuals along the way have shown their appreciation and support of the walkers with gifts of money, food and water.
Native communities have spoken to the walkers about the issues they face, including environmental degradation, health problems and political struggles. These issues will be included in the manifesto delivered to Congress.
On May 27, walkers on the southern route carried the flags of several Indian nations into the 9th Ward of New Orleans, where, three years after Hurricane Katrina, residents are still struggling to rebuild their houses and community, with little support from city government.
Robert Green, who lost his mother and grandchild to the hurricane, spoke to walkers in front of the trailer he now lives in, as the walkers looked out on the flattened overgrown empty lots that once contained the homes of middle-class families.
''A lot of people don't realize one person can make a difference. One march can make a difference.'' he said. ''You're making us whole again, and that's important to us.''
For more information on the Longest Walk II, visit www.longestwalk.org.