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July 08, 2016

The Longest Walk 5: An Interview with Dennis Banks

Since 1978, American Indian activists have used protest marches across the United States to call attention to issues of great concern to their nations and communities. This is the second post in a three-part series by April Chee (Navajo) on the Longest Walk 5: Declaring War on Drug Abuse and Domestic Violence, which will reach Washington, D.C., on July 15. April's first post gave a brief history of the Longest Walk movement. The final post describes the arrival of the Longest Walk at its symbolic destination, Lincoln Memorial on the National Mall in Washington.

Dennis Banks with members of the Lumbee community
Dennis Banks (Ojibwe) meeting with members of the Lumbee and Tuscarora tribes on the Longest Walk 5. June 2016, Robeson County, North Carolina. 

Thank you for giving the museum this interview. Many people are familiar with your work, but for those who aren't, could you introduce yourself?

My name is Nowa Cumig, also known as Dennis Banks. I am Ojibwe and Turtle Clan, born April 12, 1937, on Leech Lake Reservation, Minnesota.

You’ve been credited with the idea for the original Longest Walk in 1978. Where did the idea or inspiration come from?

Well, when the anti-Indian bills were introduced, organizations like NCAI [the National Congress of American Indians] were flying delegates to Washington, D.C., to protest the legislation. I kept thinking that AIM [the American Indian Movement] does not have that kind of money to fly out our members to D.C. Then I thought of the Long Walk of the Navajos and the Trail of Tears, and how people were forcibly removed from their Indigenous land. I thought, “We know this country, why not walk across the country and go back to Washington, D.C., with purpose?” We will think about all of our ancestors and the walks they were forced to endure while we walk across the country ourselves.

It [the Longest Walk] would be a forced walk, because Congress was trying to get out of their own commitments, agreements, and declarations by nullifying the treaties. I then proposed the idea to our Oakland Chapter and my good friend Bill Wahpepah (Sac and Fox), and the walk started to come to reality with notable support from Marlon Brando, Carlos Santana, and Tony Bennett, and of course the support from Native people across the country.

Why do you think it was important to emphasize the protest as a peaceful, spiritual march? What was the greater significance?

It meant that it was a departure from the actions at Wounded Knee,. This time we would pledge to walk across with our pipes, and it would be a great spiritual walk. A spiritual movement brought us to better understanding about our spiritual beliefs and who we are as a cultural people. To me that was a huge stand of education that was brought down to seconds and minutes in making our decision on how to proceed with the march. We smoked a pipe at Alcatraz and every day we did the same thing as we walked across this country. It not only beautifies the struggle but it strengthened the struggle, it helped us understand that this is what our people did. To remember our ancestors, we had to make this walk a spiritual walk and remember their struggle in this way.

Longest Walk with the Seminole at Big Cypress
Walkers and supporters of the Longest Walk 5 with members of the Seminole Indian Nation. June 2016, Big Cypress Reservation, Florida. 

How do you think the relationship between activism and legislation has affected Native communities?

It is a learning experience in what the communities go through, too. Sometimes we put too much weight on our politicians and elected leaders. We trust them to do all of this leg work, and they can’t. We elect them but we cannot expect them to do all of the legwork alone. For instance, if you are praying for an answer, you cannot expect something to happen without your doing something, without taking action. If you want something done, then you have to organize something around it. We need that with our leaders to pave the way to legislation and meeting with members of Congress and meeting with program directors within the U.S. government. A protest has to take action as well, I don’t want us just to hold signs. Prayer and ceremony demand action.

Each walk interacts directly with issues that Native communities face. What does the Longest Walk 5 mean to you and different Native communities?

The issue of drug abuse is out of control right now. It is now 2016, and I can say unequivocally that we have lost the right time to strike to end drug abuse. What can we do to end drug abuse, prescription abuse? Walking across the country collecting information is only one part. The only thing that is really going to help us is our spiritual and cultural beliefs. We have to recover using our traditional spiritual beliefs like the Sun Dance ceremony, sweat lodge ceremony, pipe ceremony, walking, and running to have a clean and healthy life.

This is all within our grasp, but if we do not get up and take a stand against drug abuse then we will never get ahead. We are losing generations upon generations of our young people to suicide and drug abuse, and we need to do something to stop this epidemic. We might not be able to stop it within my lifetime, but we need to start something: I will be sure that there is a beginning. We can only blame ourselves if we don’t provide for the seventh generation a much better outlook in life. Let’s start talking about domestic violence, about drug abuse, let’s put these issues on the table and discuss what we can do to help our people.

Could you tell us more about your experience during this walk and the kind of dialogue you hope to create along the way?

Our level of participation across this country coming from Native people has been immense. People themselves want to speak about their experiences with domestic violence and with drug abuse. People speak on their road to recovery from domestic violence, and it’s always moving to hear these stories and how families have come back together in a healthy way, or found ways to take themselves out of unsafe situations to better their lives.

I remember seeing a sign in a home that I visited while on this tour, and this sign said, “I stayed with my husband so that our children could have a father. I left my husband so that my children could have a mother.” This was a powerful statement that stuck with me. We have heard different stories along the way, and some are positive and some had tragic endings. But regardless the first thing we have to do is put these issues on the table.

What is your ultimate goal in completing this major walk for now the fifth time?

The Longest Walk 5 will officially end after three separate walks. We are doing the southern walk right now, and next year we will cover the middle states. Then after that walk we will walk the northern states of the U.S. and some of Canada, always ending in Washington, D.C. The ultimate goal is recovery. Helping our people who are addicted to drugs to take part in recovery programs through spiritual healing. Lead our people back to our traditional way of life.

I believe that we can still function as traditional, spiritual people and still successfully participate in American life. We are ultimately looking for recovery, for healing our people. We have found that once you begin discussing it, people will come to the table and say, “Yes, it’s wrong,” that drug and alcohol abuse needs to come to an end.

Is there anything else you would like to say?

I have a strong belief that in the end of any situation, goodness will prevail, that love of ourselves will prevail. We can coexist with people even if our beliefs are different. Whatever helps a person to be a better person, then I pat them on the back for what their beliefs are. Full steam ahead, never give up, never give in.

Thank you.

—April Chee, NMAI

April Chee (Navajo) is Tábąąhi (Waters Edge Clan) born for Naakaii Dine′é (Mexican People) from Coalmine, New Mexico. April is pursuing a bachelor's degree in Native American Studies at the University of New Mexico and will graduate in fall 2016. She was selected as a Smithsonian intern for the summer of 2016 and is working in the Public Affairs Office of the National Museum of the American Indian.


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