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Local activist takes his story nationwide

Matthew McDaniel, left, stands in front of the U.S. Capitol building in Washington D.C. with wife Michu and their five children. McDaniel has crossed the country via horseback to share the story of the Akha people. His wife is an Akha, and McDaniel said they suffer from oppression in their native Asia. (Submitted)

By JASON COX

Of the Keizertimes

On the 382nd day, Matthew McDaniel and trusty horse Hampton rested.

Sounds like they’d earned it.
After riding on horseback from Lincoln City south through California, across the deserts of the southwest, up through Appalachia and through Washington, D.C., McDaniel was riding his horse from Union Township in New Jersey to New York City.

“The police became so interested about the horse and the trip that they took it upon themselves to give me escorts that increased in frequency and size as the evening wore on,” McDaniel said.

He described the scene as “like a carnival – I had paramedics, their wives and girlfriends, and firemen coming out to the road … to take pictures of the horse and me. They said that in 40 years they had never seen anyone ride through here on a horse.”

As he crossed the George Washington Bridge, a crucial link between Manhattan and New Jersey, he said, NY-NJ Port Authority officers maintained a quiet space of sorts for McDaniel – who was at this point walking on a pedestrians-only bridge section while walking his horse, Hampton, at about 2 a.m. Monday morning.

Then the lead officer piped up. Or, rather, his car did.

“He cranked up on his police car’s PA system, ‘America the Beautiful’ by Ray Charles,” McDaniel said. “My horse picks up on this song and doubles his step, so we were practically running the last quarter-mile.”

It sounds like something out of a fish-out-of-water comedy: A mustachioed man, wearing a cowboy-style duster, riding through the streets of New York City on horseback. But that’s exactly what he did.

McDaniel poses with horse Hampton near the United Nations building in New York City. (Submitted)

By noon he had hit Times Square, Rockefeller Center, the United Nations and finally Central Park, where he had arranged for someone to pick up he and his horse for a respite in rural New Jersey.

“It was the most rapid extraction I could have imagined,” McDaniel said.

It sounds like a fanciful tale, but there’s pictures to prove his story.

It wasn’t the first time McDaniel had gone to New York City to petition the United Nations regarding what he has called gross abuses of the Akha people, a tribal group primarily living in Thailand, Laos, Myanmar and China. His wife, Michu, is native Akha, and they have five children together.

It’s not even the first time he’s rode a horse across the country – long before devoting his life to the plight of the Akha, he rode from Lincoln City to North Carolina in 1986 “just for the heck of it.”

But it’s the first time he’s combined the missions.

McDaniel once lived in Thailand and was at one point arrested there and jailed for nine days. He spent years sorting out the visa process to bring his family to the United States, where they settled here in Keizer.

He says the Thai government is arbitrarily taking land from the tribes, forcing them to work on the land they once called their own.

He has just as harsh words for some Christian missionary groups, who he says participate in “coercive conversion” techniques that serve to separate Akha children from their parents and essentially short-circuit their culture.

He sought a way to take the Akha story to those who might never have heard it otherwise. So on March 6 of last year, he departed with his family, heading south.

The trip was grueling – not only for the horseback riding, but the logistics required to make the trip happen.

His family stayed in a travel bus. He would ride ahead of the bus all day, then had to either quickly find a sympathetic land owner or else hide Hampton while he walked or hitchhiked back to the bus.

“That was a whole other event,” McDaniel said. “That could last 10 hours; you might not get back to the bus before dawn.”

Joking that there “aren’t many places to hide a horse in a small town,” he marveled at how well Hampton handled himself.

“I could stick him in the woods with 15, 20 feet of rope, and he would stand there and wait for me,” McDaniel said. “He knew I would come back with his food. And I did this 382 days in a row.”

Yet sometimes it was those precious minutes riding late at night with a friendly stranger who offered to give him a ride that yielded results, he said.

“You have a 20-minute audience with this farmer,” McDaniel said. “I didn’t expect to have this dedicated time with one person every day. And that’s what this ride back to the bus did.”

Sheer curiosity led many people to approach him or his family, McDaniel said – “all kinds of people from every walk of life” and the 400-plus videos he has made have drawn some 200,000 views, he said, as many would simply watch to catch a glimpse of their hometown.

One video was of a accordion player in Grants Pass. The man recently died, McDaniel said, and he was told that the video was the only one anyone could find of this man playing his accordion.

“I was sad he died, but it was nice someone said, ‘We really appreciate you putting that video up because he was our dad, our friend, our brother,’” McDaniel said.

He admitted disappointment that local reporters he met along the way, for the most part, didn’t seem interested in his story, calling the situation “a real lack of curiosity.”

McDaniel said that on his last cross-country horseback trip in 1986, reporters in virtually every small town wanted to know just what the heck he was up to.

“I really wasn’t that interested (at the time),” McDaniel said. “It became a game of cat and mouse – can I get through this town without being caught by the newspaper. … (This time) I’d park my horse in front of the newspaper and they’d look at me, like, ‘Are you stoned?’”

He said life on a bus isn’t easy. He compared it to living in a submarine, where one has to learn how to operate “in a capsule” and outside contact is limited.
But he beamed when talking about the experiences his children had, from deer hunting in Mississippi to fishing in Arizona and the museums of Washington, D.C. His kids, aged 3-9, are working on a picture book, and he may write a book about his own experiences.

All told, McDaniel and his family traveled about 4,500 miles through Oregon, California, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Arkansas, Mississippi, Tennessee, Virginia, Washington, D.C., Maryland, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and New York.

Soon after the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Peoples, he, his wife, their five children and Hampton will return to Oregon.

They’ll be driving this time.

Matthew McDaniel, his wife Michu, and their five children met with Sen. Jeff Merkley, D – Oregon, when they stopped in Washington, D.C. McDaniel had an opportunity to explain what he calls the oppression of the Akha people, particularly in Thailand. (Submitted)