Picturing PA highlights moments in Pennsylvania history through photographs in the extensive collections of the Pennsylvania State Archives.

 

In the summer of 1978, cars on the Pennsylvania Turnpike slowed as they carefully drove past a procession of American Indians walking along the superhighway. The group, closely packed into the road’s shoulder, carried colorful banners and a sacred pipe. Some beat drums and chanted prayers for peace as they marched ahead.

As these marchers continued across Pennsylvania, they were joined by hundreds of others on a cross-country demonstration called “The Longest Walk,” one of the last major events in a decade of Native American activism known as the Red Power Movement.

Described by organizers as a “peaceful, spiritual effort to educate about Indian rights and the Indian way of life,” the Longest Walk was a march from Alcatraz Island in California to Washington, D.C. Organized by the American Indian Movement and National Indian Youth Council, the walk was a response to proposed federal legislation that would abrogate federal treaties with American Indian tribes, restrict tribal sovereignty, and limit Native American rights to lands and waters across the United States.

Ernie Peters, a Sioux spiritual leader, told reporters in Lebanon County, “We’re marching, for we want the citizens to know that the United States government and corporations are choking [us] to death. . . . If the citizens of the United States don’t do something about the government, there’ll be no future for our children and the unborn.” Other participants spoke of imminent threats to their homes and sacred sites such as devastating strip mining in the Black Hills of South Dakota and proposed limits on historic tribal fishing rights in Washington State.

In June, walkers crossed the Ohio border into Pennsylvania. After taking I-70 to Pittsburgh, Somerset and Bedford, they planned to take the Pennsylvania Turnpike to Harrisburg before turning south on I-83 toward their destination in Washington.

Gov. Milton Shapp heartily supported the Longest Walk and coordinated a State Police escort allowing their passage along the turnpike. “I urge all Pennsylvanians to remember the descendants of those settled here first . . . who are still fighting to preserve their heritage and protect their rights,” Shapp wrote after meeting with Longest Walk leaders.

When the Longest Walk reached the midstate, participants stopped for several days to rest and prepare for the final leg of the journey to the nation’s capital. They camped at Fort Indiantown Gap, held demonstrations and workshops, and met with elected officials in Harrisburg. At the state capital, organizers encouraged elected officials to develop programs in Pennsylvania to further “cultural and historical education among Indian people themselves.”

Longest Walk leaders were also invited to address the General Assembly. Speaking in the house chamber, Oglala Lakota activist Bill Means told legislators the ultimate goal was Indian self-determination and respect from all Americans: “Once this government again hears the voice of our people, maybe they will realize that we too should have a voice in our own destiny.”

Leaving Harrisburg, the Longest Walk stopped briefly in York in mid-July as it headed south. That evening, Muhammad Ali made a surprise visit to their camp from his training compound in Schuylkill County. “I joined today to let my brothers and sisters know I support them,” he told reporters. “It disturbs me that the country has taken their land away.”

The Longest Walk arrived in Washington in late July. After a week of rallies, it successfully raised awareness and publicly reasserted Native American treaty rights. None of the 11 federal bills it opposed were passed by Congress.

Materials pertaining to the Longest Walk and Native American activism in Pennsylvania can be found in the Pennsylvania State Archives in RG-10, Office of the Governor, and MG-309, Milton J. Shapp Papers.

 

Tyler Stump is an archivist at the Pennsylvania State Archives.