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Walking for Water

Highlighting threats to our water, Indigenous people carry water from four corners of the continent to Lake Superior

Faye Brown

To mark the one year anniversary of the disastrous BP oil spill, a small group of Indigenous women, elders and youth gathered at sunrise on April 20 in Gulfport, Mississippi and began walking more than 1,430 miles north to Lake Superior in Wisconsin. Carrying a pail of salt water from the Gulf of Mexico, they will walk forty miles a day for over six weeks to reach their destination.

On June 12 at the Bad River Reservation near Ashland, Wisconsin, they will meet other groups carrying water from the Atlantic, Hudson Bay and the Pacific—representing all four directions of Turtle Island, as Indigenous people call North America. Gathering with friends and allies from across the continent, they will celebrate the completion of the Mother Earth Water Walk 2011.

Sharon Day, a soft-spoken Anishinaabe woman, is coordinating the southern leg of the walk. A traditional singer, maker of hand drums, and a health and youth educator, she is a leader in the Minneapolis Indian community. On the wall of her office at the Indigenous Peoples Task Force, an organization she founded and has directed for 25 years, is a large weathered map of the Great Lakes, which she bought for seven dollars on her first trip to Lake Superior decades ago.

“We want the walk to be a prayer,” Day says. “Every step we take we will be praying for and thinking of the water. We’ll carry the water and an eagle staff. We’ll start at sunrise and end at sun down each day. Every four days, we’ll have a ceremony. This will be our life until we get to Lake Superior.”

The Mother Earth Water Walk began eight years ago, in the spring of 2003, as a result of the work of Anishinaabe elder Josephine Mandamin. She had grown up eating the fish and drinking the water on Manitou Island in Lake Superior and witnessed the collapse of the Great Lakes ecosystem during her lifetime. Today, most Anishinaabe communities have to boil their water before drinking it, and health agencies warn of the dangers of eating fish, once a staple of Great Lakes Indian Nations.

The Great Lakes hold 20 per cent of the fresh water in the world. But today the lakes region faces grave dangers: hydrofracking (fracturing of bedrock for oil and gas exploration), toxic releases, transport of radioactive waste, invasive species, oil refineries, huge consumption by bottled water companies and other corporate users along with the increasing privatization of water services for the 44 million people who get their drinking water from the lakes.

Josephine Mandamin felt compelled to take action about what was happening to the lakes. She asked herself “what will you do?” and, in the spring of 2003, answered the question by picking up a copper pail and walking around Lake Superior. Her mission was to raise awareness of threats to the lake and to teach people to love and care fore the water. Since then, every spring she and a small band of Anishinaabe and supporters have walked around one of the Great Lakes.

What will you do? “You have to decide what it is you are going to stand for,” Day explains. “Water is essential to life. We live in the water of the womb of our mother before we come into the world. We are birthed from water, our bodies are primarily water and we can’t survive without clean water. At some time in your life you have to take a stand.”

In Anishinaabe teachings, women are the caretakers of the water, entrusted with the responsibility to protect and speak for this precious resource. Through the Water Walk, women like Day will carry out this obligation, part of their original instructions from the Creator. They also hope to share their teachings with others by meeting with youth groups, religious congregations and other interested organizations along the way.

“We know that the water is living and there are many water spirits, and that’s who we sing to, but to most people, the water is not alive. When we commodify water, it becomes a product and we no longer think about it as a living thing,” she explains.

Day clarifies that Indigenous peoples are not trying to save the earth. “The earth will survive. The issue is whether we as humans will survive. For that to happen, we need to start thinking and behaving differently. The idea that ‘bigger is better’— well, just look at how huge dams and nuclear power plants have impacted the water. We hope to educate communities about the damage we are doing to our Mother Earth, to the plants and animals, and to the water.

“This is not just about Indigenous peoples,” she stresses. “Every place in the world there is something happening to the water.”

Day explains that the walkers will make connections with people all along their route. “We are hoping that folks along the way will help us out by walking with us, giving us a bit to eat, or a place to sleep. We are counting on the good wishes of people along the way.”

Part of what is giving her and others the optimism and strength needed to embark on this long journey are the elders who, despite great hardship, have committed to walk. “One of our elders and my friend, Margaret Peak Raymond, is coming over from Tahlequah, Oklahoma, to join us in Missouri. She needs hip surgery — but she is coming. And she is bringing her cousin who is legally blind and almost seventy. The support of women like that is so touching.”

Josephine Mandamin, 69, will bring the water from Hudson Bay, and walk from Winnipeg. “I imagine looking out over Lake Superior and seeing all the sparkles on the water, all the spirits, and how happy they will be,” says Day about the Mother Earth Water Walk ceremony June 12 at Bad River Reservation:

Joy and happiness are also what she sees for future generations. She is solid in her belief that young people are the key to transformative change. “It is our children— they will be the people who will be trained as the biologists and the hydrologists of the future. They’ll bring with them an understanding of our natural science along with Western science and that is how we can repair the damage, that’s where it will come from. That is my hope.”

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