BIG CYPRESS — Led by American Indian Movement co-founder Dennis Banks, 36 determined Native Americans left San Diego in February and began the Longest Walk 5, a 3,600-mile march against drug abuse and domestic violence in Indian Country. The walk is scheduled to arrive in Washington, D.C. in mid-July.
In early June, after walking about 2,300 miles, the group spent a few days on the Big Cypress and Hollywood reservations, where they met with President Mitchell Cypress, Hollywood Board Rep. Steve Osceola, members of We Do Recover, Seminoles in Recovery, and the community.
The mission of the walk is to cross the continent on foot seeking cultural and spiritual solutions to end the epidemic of drug abuse and domestic violence in Indian Country. Along the way, the group hosts forums on reservations to discuss issues and gather information from community leaders.
“The level of addiction is very deep, deeper than I thought,” said Banks, 79. “We’re in the eye of a monster drug storm and it’s killing our people. All of our cultures are at risk now; the more people we lose, the less there will be to practice our ways.”
A 2006 Bureau of Indian Affairs study found that Native Americans have higher rates of methamphetamine abuse than any other ethnic group, nearly three times higher than whites. According to the Department of Justice, Native American women are 2.5 times more likely than other races to be victims of sexual assault and nearly one-third have been raped during their lifetimes.
Banks added the issue of domestic violence to the purpose of the walk after it claimed one of his granddaughters in October 2015. He believes violence came to Native American Tribes with the Europeans.
“They tried to destroy our matriarchal and clan system,” Banks said. “The colonists brought the patriarchal system, where man is god of the house. I think that’s where it began.”
When the Longest Walk arrives in Washington, D.C., Banks will share the results of surveys conducted with doctors, drug program directors, law enforcement agencies, judges, addicts, and the incarcerated.
“I think this is fantastic because that’s what we need to do to get the point across,” said President Mitchell Cypress. “I’m glad the Seminole Tribe and our recovery group is part of this. I remember Dennis and AIM from back in the ‘70s. He told the truth today and I learned a lot; he is a courageous man.”
Banks believes physical activities and programs for children starting at a young age are important in the approach to fighting drugs.
“Our own spiritual beliefs and culture will help us with recovery,” he said.
The Longest Walk 5is a three- year project. This one traversed the southern states, next year the walk will leave from California and in 2018 it will take the northern route from Seattle to Washington D.C.
“Every mile is covered by foot collectively,” said Carly Presher, one of the walk organizers.
Walkers and runners account for all the miles along the way; the runners’ extra distance is added to the walkers’ daily totals.
Rest days are also taken, such as the ones in Florida. While the group was in Big Cypress, the Tribe hosted them at the RV resort, Billie Swamp Safari, and Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum. They also walked through the reservation on Josie Billie Highway. In Hollywood, Councilman Chris Osceola invited the group to stay at Seminole Estates before heading north.
During their stay with the Tribe, the walkers and members of We Do Recover shared their common experiences and discussed tactics for staying clean.
“We want to be a piece of the solution,” said Charlie Tiger, Center for Behavioral Health program supervisor and member of We Do Recover. “Sometimes it’s a battle. I thank the Creator for helping me stay sober for six years. Every day I say shonabish.”
“I found sobriety and people who understand,” added Billie Tiger, CBH sober house assistant and member of We Do Recover. “I wasn’t any good to my community and now I can give back and help the elders.”
The Longest Walk was created in 1978 by Banks and AIM to protest 11 bills before congress that would have eliminated all treaties between the U.S. government and tribal nations. By the time the group arrived in Washington D.C. from California, they had the support of Hollywood celebrities, musicians, and politicians. Mohammed Ali and singer Tony Bennet walked the last few miles with the group, Banks recalled. By the time the walk arrived in Washington, they had collected more than one million signatures calling for an end to the bills, which then failed to pass.
Three additional Longest Walks have been held; in 2008 to call attention to the importance of protecting sacred sites on tribal lands, in 2011 to reverse diabetes in Indian Country and in 2014 to educate Americans about the history of removing Native Americans from tribal homelands.
Nathan Tyndall Thunderheart has participated in every Longest Walk. He said does it out of respect for what his ancestors went through, to make sure tribal youth have a bright future and to get out and meet with other Tribes.
“It’s important to keep the ancestors’ beliefs strong,” he said. “But mainly I do it because Dennis Banks asked me to.”
Banks has walked across the country seven times, on the Longest Walks, and for other causes close to his heart. He believes drug abuse and domestic violence threaten Native American culture.
“If we don’t act on this now, there may not be anything for the Seventh Generation to practice,” he said. “That’s what could happen if we don’t move to do anything about it.”