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Penn State Undergraduate Student To Walk Across The Country

During spring semester, most students will be returning to their academic classes, but one Penn State student will be undertaking a 3,600 mile trek across the country for a very important cause. Kelli Herr, a Junior CED (Community, Environment, and Development) major and current president of the Student Society of Indigenous Knowledge (SSIK), will be embarking on “Longest Walk 5” starting February 13 in La Jolla, California, and (tentatively) arriving on July 15 in Washington, D.C.

After more than a year of planning, walkers will span a number of  states including Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, and Virginia. The walk is, essentially, a war on drugs, specifically methamphetamine, better known as meth. The goal is to call attention to the devastating drug abuse problems on Indian reservations in the United States and Canada. Unfortunately, meth abuse also correlates with increased suicide rates. On some reservations, suicide rates can be 10 times higher than the national average.

Dennis Banks, co-founder of the American Indian Movement, once said: “The question of meth is a very complex one. We don’t know the depth of participation that our young people are engaged in with meth or other drugs like heroin, cocaine, prescription, and manufactured drugs. The walk will bring us closer to finding the answers and what we must do to win this war against meth.”

Over the course of the five month walk, the travelers will collect information at each reservation they visit. They will talk to community members, high school students, parents, grandparents, spiritual leaders, Indian Health Service staff, and tribal officials in an attempt to understand how many people use meth, heroin, cocaine, and other drugs on Native reservations. Not only may this information help to solve a serious problem, it will also provide a clearer picture of the drug abuse problem on the reservations and what must be done to address it. The participants will hope to learn whether reservations observe early warning signs of drug abuse and whether they have adequate drug treatment and post-treatment facilities. Once the walkers reach their destination in Washington, D.C. they will present their findings to government officials in the hope that something will soon be done about this critical issue. Herr realizes that with all the complex problems facing Native reservation communities, it is hard to pick just one problem to address. Yet this walk, she believes, will give a voice to Native American communities on the particular issue of drug abuse.

Longest Walk 5 is being coordinated by the American Indian Movement, which was co-founded by Dennis Banks in 1968. Herr first met Banks in the spring of her freshman year on a trip to three Ojibwe reservations in Minnesota as part of the CED 401 course, Exploring Indigenous Ways of Knowing among the Ojibwe, offered by Penn State’s CED Program and taught by Dr. Bruce Martin. It was on this trip that Herr and the others in her class were invited to participate in the Longest Walk.

Along with Herr, there will be three other Penn Staters on the walk, though Herr will be the only current student. Two RVs will follow the walkers in case of an emergency or dangerous weather conditions. Herr says she will pack light and not bring many valuables because “you never know what could happen.” The group will stay on reservations along the way and will rely on donations and housing provided by local churches, universities, and other organizations.

Herr’s participation in such a major social movement proves that college students have the ability to help change the world. If you’d like to indirectly help reduce drug abuse on Indian reservations, you can make a donation to Herr, as she is taking personal donations to fund her travel — an estimated $20 per day. Additionally, you can join SSIK to learn more about the current activities of the American Indian Movement.

Kelli has created an Instagram account for her trip, which you can follow at @the_sacred_3600. You can learn more about SSIK through its Facebook page or website. For more information on Longest Walk 5 or about SSIK, you can contact Kelli at [email protected]

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