Why Walk 200 Searing, Desert, Miles?
by David Fairley
July of 1863, 150 years ago, was a tough time for the officers at Fort Independence, California, in the desert east of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. They had promised protection and food to the local, warring Paiute population if they “came in,” relinquished their arms, and submitted to the authority of the United States. Nearly 1000 Natives of the Owens Valley area – hungry, tired, and never having asked for the fight in the first place – took advantage of the amnesty and showed up at the Fort over the previous few months. The US soldiers got what they asked for, but now they had to actually fulfill their promise, and they didn’t have the resources to do so.
With the Civil War raging back east, and a federal government who considered the Native Americans more of a nuisance than anything else, there were no funds to purchase food to feed a thousand mouths. So the officers had to resolve this “problem,” and they came up with two solutions. The first was to put all the Paiutes who had surrendered (under a white flag) on trial, find them guilty, and execute most of them. The second choice was to march them all out of this land of their grandfathers to a more “suitable” reservation and let them become somebody else’s “problem.” In the end, the second choice won the day.
So on July 10th of 1863, the soldiers gathered all the Paiutes on the fort parade grounds, surrounded them, and said, in essence, “Tomorrow, you will march or die.” So began a twelve day forced march through the California desert in the heat of midsummer. A few wagons were provided for some of the women and children, but most everyone had to walk on foot with very little food or water. Roughly 150 Paiute never made it to the end – some apparently escaping in the night, others perishing along the way. Upon arrival at the Fort Tejon Indian Reservation (Sebastian Res.), over 200 miles later, the residing Indian Agent didn’t want them there, and the military squabbled over whether or not to feed them – in other words, more of the same mal treatment.
This summer marks 150 years since this forced march. Many of the descendents of these Paiute live today on several small reservations scattered around the Owens Valley. Over the intervening 150 years, they have endured much tragedy, manipulation, and broken promises. They still struggle in many ways, but they also proudly stand together as independent Paiute and Shoshone Nations.
Last year, as I stood at one of the battle sites from the Paiute War on the battle’s 150th anniversary, God moved my heart with the realization that, “150 years is far too long.” I do not believe that God was honored when the American settlers – many of whom were Christian like myself – moved onto the irrigated fields of the Owens Valley Paiute, set their cattle to grazing on their crops, and declared the land as their own ranches without any regard to the people that had lived there for thousands of years. When the terrible winter of 1861/62 hit and the Paiute were starving because the cattle had eaten their crops and the settlers had killed and chased off their game, I do not believe Jesus was pleased when the Christian settlers did not share any portion of their cattle to fill their stomachs. This story of dishonor and disregard has gone on too long – 150 years too long. I can’t change the past, but I can live differently now, and I can attempt to do something about the future.
What can I do? I can be a neighbor. Jesus tells the story of the Good Samaritan, who, despite the cultural and religious differences of the injured and traumatized Jewish man he came upon, took care of him, loved on him, and attached no strings to doing so. It is far past time, but I am now making the choice to be such a neighbor to the Native American people among whom I live. And as God has awakened me to my neighbors, their struggles, and the beauty which our Creator God has put in them, I am moved to make a response to him – that is, to our Creator.
Thus, in response I feel led to reverse the forced march on its 150th anniversary this July 11 – 22. This walk is first and foremost a response to God – a sort of “Yes” to the revelation he has put in my heart. It is also primarily a “Prayer Walk” – an act of prayer for the Paiute and Shoshone of the Eastern Sierra Region. My prayer is for their healing, restoration, hope, and a future where they live out their God given purposes among the nations of the Earth. I will also be praying for a needed change of heart and understanding in the non-native community.
This walk is secondarily a desire to communicate to the Owens Valley Paiute & Shoshone my sincerity and desire for relationship as their neighbor. I am recognizing – before them – the tragedy and injustice of the past, but desiring to communicate hope for a bright and different future. I also hope to set an example to the non-native community that “WE” need to go out of our way for a neighbor that has been unjustly pushed aside, marginalized, and largely ignored.
Finally, I wonder if this walk can’t become something more someday. I have been asked by several native and non-native people, “Why aren’t you having more people walk with you?” Several reasons come to mind. First, I desire to do these things in relationship, and I believe it takes time to build trust and true depth of relationship. Too many attempts to reconcile the native and non-native communities have been tried, often with little lasting effect – I suspect what’s been missing in those attempts is tested, no strings attached, relationship. Also, this walk is no small effort: 17 to 20 miles daily for 12 days through the searing summer heat of the California desert is a rather daunting undertaking. I’m not even sure I’ll make it. But I know I need to do it first to learn before I even suggest others do it with me. After all, not everyone survived the first march 150 years ago.
Will this be a onetime thing, or is it possible I will walk this with others in the future? I don’t know, and planning to do so is not a major concern for me right now. Maybe others will be moved to do the same someday, and then I’ll have some experience to contribute. But my real concern is not a walk in the future, or even my planned walk this July. My real concern is that these precious people, designed and placed on these lands by their Creator. . .our Creator. . .THE Creator, find healing, hope, and restoration to their calling as individuals and families, as cultures and nations, and as our brothers and sisters in this world. That’s what matters to me. That’s why this walk matters to me. Even if much of this world has lost notice of them, God has not. He has a hope, a plan, and a future for them. And I hope and pray that their future will be very different from the past 150 years – in part because WE are not complete without them.