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July 01, 2016

The Longest Walk: Activism and Legislation in Indian Country

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. Beginning today, a short blog series by April Chee (Navajo) traces the history of the Longest Walk movement and reports on the Longest Walk 5, which will reach Washington, D.C., on July 15. In the second post, April interviews Dennis Banks about the Longest Walk 5: Declaring War on Drug Abuse and Domestic Violence. The final post describes the arrival of the Longest Walk at its symbolic destination, Lincoln Memorial on the National Mall in Washington.

The Longest Walk 1978


Participants in the Longest Walk marched the length of the country, from Alcatraz Island, in San Francisco Bay, to the nation's capital. 1978, location unknown. Photo courtesy of the National Walk Director, Longest Walk 5.

The first Longest Walk, in 1978, was a 3,000-mile march across the United States to bring attention to the rights of Native people in the United States and to protest 11 anti-Indian bills introduced in Congress that threatened treaty rights. Emphasizing the walk as a peaceful spiritual protest, thousands of Native activists, allies, and community members gathered together to support the movement. After a ceremony on Alcatraz Island, the group began their walk with thousands of people taking part. By July 15, an estimated 2,000 people walked into Washington, D.C. They stayed in the capital for the following week to ensure that their voices were heard and to conduct workshops to educate others about Native people, bringing together members of different Native nations to share knowledge and experience.

This historic movement attracted support from every walk of life. A notable picture from the Longest Walk (below) includes prominent Native and non-Native activists. The Longest Walk was deemed successful in reasserting treaty rights and bringing attention to Native issues. Ultimately, not one of the 11 bills before Congress was passed.

Concert in support of the Longest Walk, 1978

Activists came together with marchers for a concert to mark the end of the first Longest Walk. From left to right: Muhammad Ali, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Floyd Red Crow Westerman, Harold Smith, Stevie Wonder, Marlon Brando, Max Gail, Dick Gregory, Richie Havens, and David Amram. 1978 Washington, D.C. Photo courtesy of David Amran, from IndiVisible: African–Native American Lives in the Americas.


Since the original Longest Walk, there have been four additional major walks. The Longest Walk II, in 2008, called attention to environmental rights and the protection of sacred sites. In 2011 the Longest Walk III: Reversing Diabetes focused on the health of Indigenous peoples and working against diabetes, a disease that many Native people struggle to combat. In 2013 the Longest Walk IV: Return to Alcatraz was unique in that it began in Washington, D.C., and ended at Alcatraz. This walk focused on reaffirming Native sovereignty in the United States, recognizing that we are still nations with inherent rights to govern ourselves.

This ongoing march for Native rights has a direct correlation to the standing of Native people in the United States. From the occupation of Alcatraz in 1969 to 1971 to the Apache-Stronghold today, Native people have a record of contemporary activism directly affecting legislation. Protecting who we are as Native people in the United States, however, oftentimes requires more than appeals to government. Honoring our ancestor’s sacrifices means protecting our land, our water, our languages, our cultures, our women, our children, who we are as Native people. Time and time again, Native communities have banded together to take action to defend these inherent, sovereign rights.

The Longest Walk 5: Declaring War on Drug Abuse and Domestic Violence will reach the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., on July 15. Two further posts in this series will continue to cover the history of the Longest Walk movement and the current walk as it makes its way into the nation’s capital.

—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.


Thanks April for bringing awareness to the Longest Walk. LW5 will be in DC on July 15, 2016.

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