Activists revive the Longest Walk
SAN FRANCISCO - In the three decades since Mohawk student Richard Oakes first dove into the ice-cold waters of the San Francisco Bay and set off a 19-month occupation of Alcatraz Island, thousands have returned to honor those who ignited a national movement.
This year, as the sun rose above the blue-green waters still tinged with black from a 58,000-gallon oil spill in early November, activists from the Alcatraz-Red Power Movement era vowed more change.
In addition to protests reignited this year around the desecration of sacred sites and burial grounds and the return of ancestral remains from University of California - Berkeley, Natives here are helping to revive the Longest Walk of 1978.
''It's the continuation of the 'Longest War' that started when the first Indian blood was spilled on this land, which is still being done today - it's just more subtle,'' said Bill ''Jimbo'' Simmons of the International Indian Treaty Council.
Simmons, 52, walked the entire five-month journey in 1978. Next year, on Feb. 11, he and others will depart after a ceremony on Alcatraz to trek 4,400 miles across 11 states until they reach Washington, D.C.
There, thousands will add the message that ''all life is sacred'' to campaigns around global warming, said Dennis Banks, co-founder of the American Indian Movement. Walkers will pick up debris that public buses will collect for recycling, he said.
As the walk draws near, Bay Area organizers have been stepping up efforts to raise funds and awareness.
About $250 was raised at a fund-raiser at San Francisco State University dedicated to Oakes, a former student, with performances by Native bands Blackfire and One Struggle.
Oakes died in 1972 in northern California after a rancher shot him. The man was later freed.
At an anti-Thanksgiving event in Oakland, a mostly white audience donated $450.
The support of non-Indians during the first walk delighted Ana Coelho, 67, a Tewa and Apache living in East Oakland. She had just given birth to a girl, who she brought on the walk.
''Every time we went through a town, 15, 25, 30 people would walk with us for miles - they knew we were coming,'' she said. ''I didn't realize it was a real big thing; people came and gave us food.''
But the environmental impact of the walk itself, and the ruin that still exists today on reservations, must be addressed, said Tawna Sanchez, 46, a Cheyenne and Ute who went on the first walk.
''Our reservations look like crap. We need to ask, 'How did we get there and what in our heads told us it's OK to do that?' It's apathy, dysfunction and disrespect,'' she said. ''If this Longest Walk helps to shift that and is a catalyst - that is a really good thing.''
With election season approaching, walkers will meet with the Democratic National Party next fall and are hoping to also meet with the president, Simmons said, a goal unmet during the 1972 walk, ''The Trail of Broken Treaties.''
A decade of cataclysmic activism that ended a federal policy of termination began with the Alcatraz occupation, led by Oakes and 80 others after the American Indian Center in San Francisco burned down.
AIM members - including Banks, a Leech Lake Ojibwe - stayed for a few weeks on Alcatraz, which he described as ''an idea expressing sovereignty, faith in future generations and faith in the sentiment that we Native people are not to be ignored. Alcatraz sparked a fire across this country that is still burning.''
Seventy-four AIM-led occupations of federal facilities followed, including the BIA headquarters after President Nixon refused to meet with Native delegates.
When 11 legislative bills were introduced in Congress in 1977 that threatened treaties and hunting and fishing rights, activists decided to march to the nation's capital, Banks said.
''It was a major attack on our sovereignty and our existence,'' Banks said.
But the movement had begun to implode with FBI infiltration through its then secret operation, COINTELPRO.
Two Indians and one FBI agent were killed during the occupation of Wounded Knee on Pine Ridge in 1973. A three-year period that followed ended with 61 homicides among AIM supporters.
On July 15, 1978, the Longest Walk arrived in Washington with supporters including Muhammad Ali and Sen. Ted Kennedy. The bills were defeated and Congress passed 50 legislative proposals to support tribal self-rule.
Simmons said the Longest Walk II will stop in Lewisberg, Pa., where AIM member Leonard Peltier remains in federal prison in relation to the fatal shooting of two FBI agents at Wounded Knee in 1975.
Many situations have improved, but battles remain, Simmons said.
A Creek from Oklahoma, he came to San Jose 30 years ago to protest a Holiday Inn being built atop a burial site.
A few weeks ago, he led a protest in Emeryville at a mall built atop expansive Muwekma Ohlone burial grounds.
''It was taught to me in a Hopi prophecy that we will reach a time that the earth is moving so fast there will be no time to listen to the things around us,'' he said. ''That's what's happening with the earth, with our ancestors.''
As the walk nears, a new generation is preparing to take on its legacy.
Pit River member Morning Star Gali, 28, has continued battles her parents led around sacred sites and religion in prisons.
Her father helped to establish the first autonomous AIM chapter in California. Her mother trekked the Longest Walk, and Gali was born a year later inside the American Indian Survival School.
Now Gali plans to walk with her young daughter.
''I heard so many stories of what my relatives endured and how it was the one experience that really shaped their lives,'' she said. ''That was 30 years ago, but a lot hasn't changed - we're still dealing with the same issues. To me it's about walking and bringing them all to light.''
For more information, visit www.longestwalk.org.