A group of Native Americans passed through Ely on their way from Washington D.C. to Alcatraz in San Francisco. (Lukas Eggen photo)

A group of Native Americans passed through Ely on their way from Washington D.C. to Alcatraz in San Francisco. (Lukas Eggen photo)

By Lukas Eggen
Ely Times Staff Writer

In 1978, the United States Congress considered 11 bills that would abolish many sovereign indigenous rights. In protest, people belonging to Native American tribes walked from San Francisco to Washington D.C. Later that year, the American Indian Religious Freedom Act was passed.

Now, Native Americans are taking part in the Longest Walk 4: Return to Alcatraz. The walk began on July 15 and is scheduled to end on Dec. 22. From its website, the walk’s goal is to reaffirm the heart of traditional tribal sovereignty rooted in ceremony and land based spiritual relationships.

“The walk in 1978 wasn’t a protest walk nor is this a protest walk,” Mike Lane said. “We’re not protesting anything so that’s why people are having a hard time getting their head around it. We’re affirming something. What we’re looking at getting people to think is what forms the basis of our sovereignty. Is it tribal constitution, is it funding, is it settlements from the government or is it something based in our traditions, our spiritual beliefs and ways,” Lane said.

The walk attracted people from across the country. Some joined from the beginning, others during the middle of the journey, including Carl Sampson who decided to join the walk during the fall.

“I was in Reno and I could either go to Burning Man or jump on an 18-wheeler in Nevada and be dropped off in Chicago, so I did that,” Sampson said.

Along the way, the walkers and runners have met a variety of people, including people who were unfamiliar with their cause and others who came out to show their support in any way that they could.

“We’ve had some amazing hosts,” Sharon Heta-Lane said. “We had people who came to support us on our walk. In Grand Junction we met someone and what was really amazing is he ran 100 miles. He supported us while we were walking, he joined us and he walked with us and gave us words of encouragement.”

Emilio Montez was living in New York before joining the Longest Walk 4. And he hopes that people who they meet along the way and hear about their walk take a moment to think about working to protect the earth for future generations.

‘Mother Nature is always with us,” Montez said. “The sun comes out every day to give light to every single person and every single animal on the earth. It’s our responsibility to take care of these elements because its these elements that keep the humans and the animals alive and in the circle of life.”

For Sampson, keeping cultural traditions alive and vibrant is more than just remembering their heritage. It’s about remembering those who paved the trail before them and working to pave the trail for younger generations to come.

“It’s about cultural survival because we don’t want our traditions to die,” Sampson said. “All of the things going on around us, watching TV and being told what’s cool and what’s not, what side of the street to drive on, etc. A long time ago it’s in our genetic memory that we are a free people. We want to coexist with the earth, take care of the land and we will exercise our rights…Thanks to the people paving the way in 1978 so we were able to keep our culture. That’s what I’m here for so that the next seven generations have that same freedom. Today’s youth are the leaders of tomorrow.”

For more information about the walk, please visit www.returntoalcatraz.com.