Diverse group treads The Longest Walk for the environment

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Americans look to shed light on ecological challenges facing the nation

By Dhyana Levey -- Mreced Sun-Star, Calif.

MERCED, Calif. (MCT) - The sounds of passing trains and honking cars blended with cheers and a pounding drum Feb. 18 as about 100 brightly clad walkers brought their journey through Merced.

They paused in the morning for a break where Highway 59 meets Olive Avenue. A cloud of sweet-smelling sage wafted from the center of their circle as Los Banos resident Henry Dominguez, Chiricahua, led a prayer in thanks to the past four miles they had walked.

The beginning point was Alcatraz Island, but participants had spent the weekend at Merced resident and Shawnee Indian Mike Hermann's ranch. There, they gathered spiritual and physical replenishment through food, rest and a sweat lodge before hitting the road once again.

There were many purposes to this walk - the Longest Walk II - which will span five months as it heads to Washington, D.C. For one, it gives a 30-year nod of remembrance to the original 1978 Longest Walk across the country. Many walkers, such as Hermann and Dominguez, participated in the 1978 trip.

The purpose for that journey was to draw attention to proposed legislation in Congress that threatened American Indian rights. Shortly afterward, the American Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1978 was passed.

This year, walkers want to raise environmental concerns. ''I have 10 sons and eight daughters ... and I want to make sure they have air they can breathe and water they can drink,'' Dominguez said. ''We need to put the message out there.''

As walkers reach each community, they plan to gather information from the locals about each environmental challenge they are facing. These details will be included in a paper to be delivered to Congress July 11, said organizer Pashina Banks Moore - daughter of Dennis Banks who co-founded the American Indian Movement, led the 1978 walk and has taking charge of this year's trip.

While the event is to raise awareness across the nation, it also works as a springboard to address local issues, said David Alvarez, a Merced resident and ''Yoeme'' or Yaqui Indian. He runs the Merced Talking Circle, which provides updates on issues affecting American Indians.

His specific environmental concerns for Merced include the area's congestion from so many vehicles, and the development of major outlets. ''It hurts the quality of the air,'' he said. ''To top it off, there isn't adequate health care.''

Some walkers, like Kaelan Holmes of Seattle, were in the walk for the long haul. ''I haven't had a driver's license for years, so I'm used to walking,'' he said. ''I love Seattle, but you can't just sit there stagnant. ... A lot of people here are going through a spiritual pilgrimage.''

Other walkers, like Atwater pencil portrait artist Johnny Clay, simply joined in for the Merced part of the walk as it headed down Olive Avenue on the way to Le Grand and into Chowchilla.

Clay, a descendant of the Yokayo Band of Pomo Indians, was also one of many local residents who donated food or other supplies.

At least 50 people from this area so far have donated food or money, Hermann said. The Merced County Food Bank even passed some nutrients along.

And the event itself drew participants from all ages and backgrounds.

Buddhist monks joined the journey with American Indians and other cultures. Shunsho Yamada traveled all the way from Tokyo to make the cross-country trip. ''I came here to learn about what this movement is so I can go back to Japan to talk about it,'' he said.

This year's walk drew more people than the original, Hermann said. It split into two groups to cover two routes. The northern route commemorates the original walk and will wind through Nevada, Utah and Colorado. The southern route - which came through Merced - visits significant Native tribal land.

But the biggest difference between the Longest Walk II and its 1978 predecessor is technology, Hermann said: ''We can document everything as we go along. People up ahead can get a vision of the walk [from the Web site]. In 1978, there wasn't the technology to have forward vision.''

Copyright (c) 2008, Merced Sun-Star, Calif. Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.