Native American Longest Walk stops at Florence

They're walking.

Young. Old. Male. Female.

American Indian. Caucasian. Side by side for a common cause.

Averaging 30 miles a day, the group is quietly, peacefully trekking across the U.S. to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the historic Longest Walk of 1978 that resulted in historic changes for Native America.

There are two routes with two groups that began their five-month journey Feb. 11 at San Francisco, Calif. One group took a northern route, the other a southern. Both groups will arrive July 11 in Washington, D.C., the anniversary date of the original Longest Walk.

Approximately 50 participants walking the northern route arrived Saturday evening at Florence, traveling on U.S.-50 from Newton. The group spent the night at Grandview Park with members of the community providing hot showers, a hot meal, and fellowship.

The purpose of the walk in 1978 was in response to proposed legislation in Congress that would have abolished Native American Treaties that the Native Americans believe protect their sovereignty. The 11 bills were defeated and in the following month, the American Indian Religious Freedom Act (AIRFA) of 1978 was passed. As a result of the 1978 Longest Walk, the American Indian was granted the federal legislative right to freedom of religion — a fundamental right guaranteed to all Americans under the U.S. Constitution.

Bill "Jimbo" Simmons is the northern route organizer and a member of the Choctaw Tribe.

"In 1978, our communities faced many hardships such as non-existing religious rights and criminalization of our people who fought for cultural survival," Simmons said. "This is why the Longest Walk is necessary."

"As indigenous people, our environment and cultural survival are directly correlated and still are imperiled today. This is why we must walk once again."

Simmons was a part of the International Indian Treaty Council which was the first non-governmental organization to be recognized by the United Nations. The group works for the rights of all indigenous people of the world. The group also focuses on human rights and environmental causes.

Some of the tribes represented in the Longest Walk 2 northern route were Choctaw, Diné (Navajo), Washo, Dakota, Mohawk, Menominee (Wisconsin), Blackfeet, Paiute, and Pomo-Ojibway (Ojibway also known as Chippewa).

Followed by an entourage, walkers have the support of a first-aid station and a bus to give walkers breaks as needed throughout the 3,600-mile route as walkers travel across 11 states.

The northern route follows the original route of 1978. The southern route will follow the 2006 Sacred Run route, across 13 states and 4,400 miles. Both routes are visiting sacred sites along the way and are bringing awareness of protection and preservation of Mother Earth and the sacred sites.

Both groups began their journeys from California and have traveled through Nevada, Utah, Colorado, and now Kansas. From Florence, they traveled to Strong City where they spent the night, and then on to Emporia, Topeka, Lawrence, and Kansas City.

They expect to be in Missouri by May 2. From there the group will travel through Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Maryland, arriving in Washington, D.C., July 11.

Sunday morning, the group returned to the road, carrying their messages of protecting the environment and sacred sites, and Native American rights.