WASHINGTON — Four months and 3,800 miles after they began their trek in Los Angeles to draw attention to Native American social problems, 17 weary walkers and hundreds of friends, family members and other supporters ended it on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial at dawn Monday.
The participants were seeking to raise awareness about the twin scourges of substance abuse and domestic violence they say must be addressed in Native American communities.
On the path from California to Washington--by way of Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, South Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia--the walkers met with local tribes, conducting information sessions about 12-step rehabilitation programs and leadership workshops for tribal leaders.
Don Coyhis, head of White Bison, the Colorado-based nonprofit organization that sponsored the walk, summarized their message at the gathering in Washington: "Our nation can heal from chemical addictions . . . and family violence," Coyhis said.
The walkers, ages 16 to 81, characterized the experience as "incredible" and "life-changing."
Native American communities have long been plagued by high rates of alcoholism and alcohol-related crime. A 1999 study by the Bureau of Justice Statistics found that 70% of incarcerated Native Americans had been drinking at the time they committed their offenses, nearly twice the figure for the general population.
Coyhis said he conceived the walk after hearing about a 5-year-old on a reservation in Wyoming whose drunken father pummeled her to death because she had dialed 911 as he was beating her mother.
All of the walkers expressed faith in Coyhis' message of healing and the power of forgiveness, though many said they had seen close-up the terrible effects of alcohol abuse and domestic violence.
"It's changed me," Rayma Lynne Wright, 16, said. "I learned that domestic violence can kill people. . . . I did it partly for the kids, because I don't want them to grow up knowing about domestic violence and alcohol abuse."
Rayma was on spring break from school in New Mexico when the walkers passed through her Navajo reservation. She spent her week of vacation with the group, marching more than 200 miles to Albuquerque.
Rayma's mother, Cookie Adakai Sanchez, who joined her daughter here Monday, said she did not want the teenager to miss the rest of the school year, so she refused to allow her to continue with the walkers all the way to Washington.
But after months of lobbying when school let out for the summer, Sanchez relented. Wright's 16th birthday present was a plane ticket to Little Rock, Ark., where she caught up with the walkers and joined them for the final segment of the journey.
"She's a very level-headed kid," Sanchez said. "She grew up on the Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota and she saw her cousins drinking and getting pregnant there and she did not want to get into any of that."
For her part, Rayma said she saw the walk as a chance to make new friends and see the country while carrying out an important mission.
Other members of the traveling group--which fluctuated from 17 to 60 walkers at various stages of the journey--offered different reasons for participating.
Larenda Bradley, a 45-year-old Navajo woman from Arizona, said she dedicated her trip--the full distance from Los Angeles to Washington--to the tribe elders and ancestors who were forced from their land by the federal government.
Bradley said her favorite moment from the journey was when the group stopped at the site of the Oklahoma City bombing and grieved together with the child of one of the federal workers killed in the blast.
"It was just overwhelming," Bradley said.
Vonna Thomas, a 48-year-old white woman from Seattle, recounted that, when the group stopped in Cherokee, N.C., a tribal leader helped them enact "a reversal of the Trail of Tears tragedy." (Members of the Cherokee tribe called their forced migration from their home in northern Georgia to what is now Oklahoma in 1838 and 1839 the Trail of Tears.)
Thomas, who decided to take time off from her studies for a master's degree at a local seminary to walk from Los Angeles to Washington, found the Cherokee ceremony "very powerful" because "it was about forgiveness."
Some experts attribute the high rates of substance abuse and broken homes within the Native American population to family disruptions and other episodes of uprooting that occurred during the last two centuries.
"Probably a lot of people think that it all happened such a long time ago but, when you think of it in terms of families, it could be that somebody's great grandfather was killed at the Wounded Knee Massacre [of the Oglala Sioux by the U.S. Army in 1890 in South Dakota], and that's certainly going to have an effect," said Mark Van Norman, director of the Office of Tribal Justice at the U.S. Justice Department.
While the problems afflicting Native Americans are deep-seated, Norman said, he believes that efforts like the White Bison walk are an important part of the solution.
"It's best when the remedial ideas and concepts are formed at the community level and then they can be brought forward to the tribal and state and federal governments," Norman said.
In addition to financial support from the federal government, White Bison relied on donations from tribes and individuals around the country to pay expenses of the walk, which cost about $100,000, according to Laura Hom, who coordinated the trip from White Bison's headquarters in Colorado Springs.