Dennis Banks doesn't look like a man who would run across the country, but on Saturday Feb. 11, the 75-year-old American Indian Movement leader and founder of the Sacred Run will embark on a 71-day odyssey from Alcatraz Island to Washington, D.C.
Before his departure from Alcatraz, members of the Native American Sisterhood Alliance (NASA) will gather on the island for a sunrise ceremony to bless Banks and other runners and to prepare them for their journey.
NASA, a Mills club designed to support and represent indigenous women on campus, spent the last week organizing and hosting a series of events including concerts, film showings and panel discussions to benefit the annual Sacred Run.
According to Alliance members, the Sacred Run was founded in 1978 to strengthen indigenous communities and highlight the spiritual connection between humans and the environment.
"Runners go to different tribal areas, participate in spiritual ceremonies and carry the messages of the different struggles across the country," said Alliance member Morning Star Gali, whose father participated in the first official run.
Part of what the runners will do, said Gali, is raise awareness about the need to protect sacred sites.
On Feb. 4, NASA hosted a panel presentation and film showing in Lucie Stern Hall 100 to benefit the run. Moderated by Banks, the panel featured representatives from various tribes struggling to regain control of sacred land that has either already been developed or is under threat of development. The event drew a multigenerational crowd of over 50 students, activists and community members.
Included among the panelists was Klee Benally, member of the band Blackfire who showed his film Snowball Effect, a documentary about the attempts by 13 tribes to stop a ski resort from potentially harming the Sacred Peaks of Arizona with wastewater snow. According to Benally, the fate of sacred sites like the one in Arizona is inextricably linked with the fate of Native people. "These sacred sites are the essence of our way of life. They represent our sovereignty, our cultural identity. If they are destroyed, it destroys who we are," Benally said.
Panelist Mark LeBeau spoke about efforts of the Pit River people of northern California to prevent Calpine Corporation from building a power plant adjacent to Medicine Lake, near Mount Shasta. LeBeau said if Calpine goes through with the plan, the water that Native people rely on for medicine production could be poisoned with mercury, arsenic and other toxins.
A member of the Bay Area's Ohlone people, Corrina Gould, spoke about efforts to defend sacred burial grounds called shellmounds throughout the region. One of the most well known is located under a shopping mall in Emeryville, which "is a horrific thing," Gould said.
Also on the panel were Wounded Knee DeOcampo and Fred Short. DeOcampo encouraged more young people, regardless of race or spiritual background, to come out and defend the sacred sites, while Short talked about his efforts to provide Native spiritual ceremonies to prisoners.
Native American prisoners' rights is an issue the Alliance intends to organize around in the future, according to junior and club member Esther Lecero. She said they were currently in the process of being cleared to provide spiritual ceremonies to indigenous prisoners at the Dublin Correctional Women's Facility.
Gali attended the vigil held for former death row inmate Clarence Ray Allen, who was executed by the state last month. According to Gali, Allen was granted two spiritual advisors at his execution site but was not allowed a Native spiritual guide during his last walk.
"Attending prayer vigils at these executions is something I grew up with," said Gali, whose father founded American Indians Against the Death Penalty. "It's really important to bring awareness to the fact that prisoners are being denied their spiritual rights."
Many of the events the Alliance hosted recently, including the Sacred Run fundraisers, were organized in participation with the International Indian Treaty Council, the Vallejo Intertribal Council and other local community organizations. Working in a coalition can sometimes present challenges, but Alliance members say they wouldn't have it any other way.
"The Bay Area Indian community has a longtime history of using community activism as a continuous way to make change," said Gali. "These events were a great way for NASA to reach out and also to bring that community here to Mills."
Lecero agrees. "As an organization we're committed to participating in political activism, particularly in support of the Native community," she said. "I think what we're doing is a very small piece."
According to Lecero, it's not too late for Mills students to do their own small piece to support the Sacred Run. Alliance members are inviting students to attend a benefit concert at StudioZ in San Francisco on Feb. 10 and tickets are still available for the sunrise ceremony on Feb. 11. For information about these events, visit www.sacredrun.org.