MT. NEBO – Don’t call them protesters.
They’re prayer walkers.
And that yellow, orange, red and white flag hoisted proudly above their heads?
It wasn’t some kind of Mexican flag; it was a Native American unity flag.
That’s what a small band of people with determined looks plastered on their faces and small backpacks in tow hiking along the side of Route 33 East Tuesday told the Upshur County Sheriff’s Department early Tuesday evening. Deputies had showed up near the Barbour County line to inquire about what the walkers were doing and where they were headed.
It was a much friendlier interaction with local law enforcement than one of the marchers — 32-year-old Vanessa Dundon — experienced during the 2016 protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline, which attracted international attention in November of that year, she said. Dundon, a member of the Navajo Nation and a native of White Cone, Ariz., was shot in her right eye with a tear-gas cannon on Nov. 20, 2016, by local law enforcement. Dundon, who is also known as Sioux Z Dezbah, was told she would never see again.
But thanks to the help of an expert surgeon in Chicago, Ill., and a GoFundMe account, which went a long way toward subsidizing her medical bills, Dundon has regained almost complete vision in her right eye.
But despite her eye healing, she obviously hasn’t relented in her fight for social and economic justice for her people.
On Tuesday, Dundon was walking as one of approximately 34 individuals of all ethnicities participating in the Longest Walk 5.2, organized by the American Indian Movement.
The Longest Walk 5.2 — which departed Feb. 12 from San Francisco, Calif., and is expected to arrive at the Lincoln Memorial on July 15 for a rally — is a movement calling for an end to domestic violence and substance abuse, not only in Native Americans nations, but in all communities across the country.
Dennis Banks, the co-founder of the American Indian Movement and organizer of the first Longest Walk in 1978, was inspired to coordinate the three-phase Longest Walk 5 after his granddaughter, Rose Downwind, was violently killed by her ex-boyfriend.
Dundon said the exercise is also a data-gathering quest.
“We’re going across the country gathering information on domestic violence and drug abuse,” Dundon said. “It’s plaguing our nation and the American people.”
Dundon said she’s observed parallels between the substance abuse issues ravaging Native American communities and the ones that are plaguing Kentucky and West Virginia, in particular.
“Actually, going through Kentucky and West Virginia, we’re seeing a lot of heroin addiction,” Dundon said. “We’re really glad to be here just to raise awareness.”
Dundon said she’s not only concerned about domestic abuse and substance abuse, but also about health care within Native American communities and across America.
“A lot of us were at Standing Rock, but my big platform now is Indian health care reform — that’s what failed me when I got shot in the eye — and now with (President Donald) Trump’s new bill, there’s going to be 22 million people with no health care (if it passes),” Dundon said. “We (Native peoples) were supposed to get health care in exchange for giving up our land, and it’s just not good enough, it binds you to your own reservation.”
As the mother of four children — a 12-year-old, 10-year-old twins and a 6-year-old — Dundon says she’s also concerned about other issues wreaking havoc on Native American people, including cancer, drug abuse and diabetes, several of which stem from unclean water.
“Our rivers run yellow,” she said. “People don’t realize that, but they do.”
Although the majority of walkers self-identified as Native American, the approximately 3,946-mile trek attracted non-Native peoples, too.
Stephanie Dodaro, a 43-year-old freelance writer from San Francisco, describes her ethnicity as a mixture of Italian, Louisiana Creole and Polish heritage.
That didn’t stop her from connecting with the platform of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe protesters.
“What inspired me to march was watching live feeds from Standing Rock, and I heard a prayer that healed me — it was a heart can heal another heart,” Dodaro said. “I feel it called me to Standing Rock.”
And it also called her to partake in the Longest Walk.
Dodaro was drawn to the Longest Walk’s message because of her own family history. Growing up in a family afflicted by domestic violence, substance abuse and accompanying mental illnesses, including schizophrenia and depression, Dodaro says she’s happy to be part of a movement with a (literally) moving message.
“We want to bring this message from every point that we can,” she said. “The main messages are that we can take a stand, we can find a way out, and you can too. If you can’t get yourself (mentally) well, then you can’t fight for clean water, your rights or take care of yourself.”
In a telephone interview with The Record Delta Wednesday from Blackwater Falls State Park, where the group had stopped to rest, Bobby Wallace, the national chief of the Longest Walk 5.2, said the walkers are venturing into places that make the squeamish uncomfortable.
“We have people filling out surveys in the trenches where people dare not go,” said Wallace, who lives on a Kumeyaay Indian reservation in the mountains of San Diego, Calif. “We’ve seen it all; we’ve been to places where somebody drunk walked out in front of a car, other places somebody died of a drug overdose, we saw baggies and needles on the ground. This country’s really messed up right now.”
“It’s hard too, because no one wants to confront the truth,” Wallace added. “People would rather be on their cellphones than deal with the reality, which is drug abuse.”
People need to have hope, which Wallace says can be derived from belief in a Higher Power, however they understand that power.
“People also need to dig deep within themselves, and understand themselves to combat the addiction or whatever it may be — it doesn’t matter what color, it doesn’t matter what race, it’s everywhere from rich to poor,” Wallace said. “We have to stand together, we have to stand together strong, but just one, alone, we’re weak.”
The third phase of the Longest Walk is set to depart from Seattle, Wash. in February 2018, according to information on the movement’s website, www.longestwalk.us.