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Violent raid at Narragansett marks Longest Walk anniversary

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The Longest Walk perhaps marked the end of the tumultuous years of protest, barricade and takeovers that characterized the early era of the American Indian Movement. It started as a protest against the abrogation of Indian treaty rights threatened by new bills in the U.S. Congress; it culminated in a large, Indian-led march into Washington, D.C. 25 years ago this week.

Through the late Spring and early Summer of 1978, large contingents of Indian people from all over the country converged on a caravan that traveled from California to Washington, D.C. The previous year, Indians from throughout the Western Hemisphere had journeyed to Geneva, Switzerland, for the first major United Nations conference on indigenous peoples. Upon return to the U.S., many activists were confronted with a treaty rights challenge that had all the earmarks of a new termination campaign, this time led by Washington State's congressional delegation.

Organized in California by AIM founder, Dennis Banks, the "Walk" gathered some thirty thousand people as it entered the nation's capital that hot summer of 1978. It was a tremendous occasion; all the more important because of the anti-Indian backlash that was then emerging. As it made its way across the country, babies were born, weddings were held and Indian camps were set up and taken down all along the central fold of the United States. By the time the Walk reached its main campground in Maryland, dozens of Native nations were represented. Non-native peoples, including a sizeable Buddhist delegation from Japan and a hard-working crew from the Hippie community of The Farm, in Tennessee, which supplied a state-of-the-art medical crew, also pitched their tents in the Indian camp. The camps were set up by specific nations and many young people sat with elders to hear talks on cultural strength, sovereignty and self-sufficiency.

Once the group reached Washington a core of young activists canvassed Congress with a well-coordinated lobbying campaign. One question that surfaced was a public challenge to the "Rule of Tee-Hit-Ton," a 1955 Supreme Court decision that had decided that Alaska Native lands, lacking treaty protections, could be taken without due compensation. The major issue, however, was about religious freedom. Partly as a result of pressure from the Walk, Congress approved the Native American Freedom of Religion Act of 1978.

Like all mass protests and demonstrations, the Longest Walk had limited projection, but the many discussions and debates it engendered were unforgettable. Two leaders stand out from those Indian in-camp conversations. One was Phillip Deere, the Creek medicine man whose homespun admonitions and advice were as sophisticated as they were instructive to the many young Indians present. "Never give up who you are," Phillip would say to them. "Always defend your sovereignty." The other one was Dan Bomberry, Cayuga-Salish, whose humorous discourses on the nature of Native self-sufficiency can be credited with initiating the alternative energy and culture-based development practice since popularized in Indian country. If there is one principal thought that emerged from the Longest Walk was the need to "go back home." As Phillip Deere told the young activists: "It is good to come and tell them in Washington that we want justice, but it is much more important to go home and learn your ways. Learn what your people need from you, and work for them."

It is telling that 25 years after that nation-wide protest in defense of Indian sovereignty by traditional Native people, this very week witnessed the violent invasion of Native territory on the Narragansett Reservation in Rhode Island. Under orders from Governor Donald Carcieri (R), Rhode Island State troopers, armed with guns and dogs, moved in to shut down a small tribally-owned tobacco shop that opened on the reservation three days earlier. Tribal leaders defended their small business and a confrontation ensued. Seven tribal members, including Chief Sachem Matthew Thomas and council member Randy Noka and other men and women were thrown to the ground and arrested and the shop closed down. Twenty five years after the Longest Walk, the attack by Rhode Island troopers provides visible tangible example that physical force with the potential for fatal consequence is always around the corner as Indians move to exercise sovereign rights. It should shatter any and all illusions that there is any benevolence on the part of state institutions toward Indian peoples.

The issue this time is taxation of tribal reservation businesses by states. It is a hot and contentious issue that is coming to a head around the country, particularly as states deal with huge budget deficits. In the Narragansett case, the situation is complicated by some rather terrible language in the tribe's land claim settlement, which appears to make the tribe "subject to the civil and criminal laws and jurisdiction of the State of Rhode Island." A careful reading of the settlement reveals that it was tailored to eliminate any potential for the Narragansett to rebuild their nation using the best available economic options, and to eliminate the jurisdictional authorities they would need to sustain their freedom to do so. Further investigation is required into the historical development of this truly damaging settlement, and its main protagonists. The Narragansetts argue that since that time their relationship as a federally recognized tribe is with the federal government and thus their sovereignty protects them from state taxation. They are now suing the state over the issue.

The lesson in 1978 and now is that Indian unity in support for each other's cases is paramount. The National Congress of American Indians is already on record denouncing the methods used by Rhode Island. "It has been decades," declared NCAI president Tex Hall, "since we have seen a state action as violent and destructive as that taken yesterday by the State of Rhode Island."

We are happy to commemorate the Longest Walk in these pages and to pay tribute to the leadership that emerged at that time to point out directions for Indian country. Most of all, they signaled unity. We urge all tribes to weigh in on behalf of the Narragansetts as they move to establish their sovereign right to a self-sufficient economic base. And we wish strength, determination, and conviction for the Narragansetts, who certainly evidence strong willingness to stand their ground. Then, as now, we submit, sovereignty is the act thereof.