Sacred Water

Top photo: Coldwater Springs. Photo by Michele Simon.
Bottom, left: Bdote Map. Courtesy of Mona Smith and Allies:Media/Art.
Bottom, right: Sharon Day. Photo courtesy of Sharon Day.

“Bdote” is a Dakota word meaning “where two waters come together.” The term also can describe a larger area, such as the geographical area where the Minnesota and Mississippi Rivers meet. This area in Minnesota is central to Dakota spirituality and history.Native women lead this hemisphere in understanding the sacredness of water, the sacredness of place and the correlation between them.

In August 2015, three Anishinabe women claimed this sacredness:
• Josephine Mandami from Manitoulin Island did a Sacred Water Walk which retraced the migration of the Ojibwe people. Her walk followed all five Great Lakes – and she carried water each step of the way.
• Sharon Day began walking Lake Seneca in upstate New York on August 28; she, too, carrying water.
• Winona LaDuke was on the waters of Hole-In-the-Day Lake in northern Minnesota on August 28, maintaining her right under the 1855 Treaty of Washington to hunt, fish and rice on off-reservation ceded lands and water.

In many geographical locations water and place have a shared sacred history, such as the confluence of the Mississippi and Minnesota rivers, known by the Dakota as Bdote. Located within Fort Snelling State Park’s boundaries, it is the place where the Creator brought the Dakota into this world at Coldwater Springs. It is also where the Dakota were interned after the Dakota Uprising of 1862.

Women as water’s caretakers

Earth is a living organism and it holds memory. Water walker Day canoed to Pike Island in Fort Snelling State Park earlier this year. “For humans and for animals, especially the eagles and egrets, it’s a very special place, that point between Pike Island where the Mississippi and Minnesota meet,” she says.

“You can feel the presence of all the people who were there. It used to feel sad to me when I would walk along the river in twilight. I could hear the women and children who were incarcerated at the fort during the years of the Dakota uprising. I don’t hear them anymore.

“All those people who were interned there have been remembered and thought about through the asema [tobacco] and songs that have been offered to them.”

Day is referring both to the Sunday morning water ceremonies that women hold on the banks of the Mississippi to pray for the waters to be restored to their natural health as well as the walks she has undertaken from the headwaters to the Gulf of Mexico and back again.

Within the Anishinabe belief system it is the women who are the caretakers of the water, just as the water takes care of us. Just as the earth is our mother, women are believed to be the mothers of all life.

Not just Dakota and Anishinabe women hold this worldview. When Native Americans protested the development of state Highway 55 in the early 2000s, a Kiowa elder visited the encampment.

The elder recounted to Day how his people would make a trip every four years – first to the headwaters of the Mississippi and then downstream to stop at certain points, including Coldwater.

“The elder gave a song with the words ‘ogema ekwe ohio,’ meaning that there is a female spirit that protects the spring,” Day says.

When Day walks the Seneca Lake she will sing the song the Kiowa elder gave her. “To the Seneca ‘ohio’ means ‘beautiful,'” she says.

Respecting the water

Seneca Lake has a salt cavern and is a sacred place. It is a place that many Native people traveled for trade in centuries past. Today, 100,000 people get their drinking water from the lake.

The Crestwood Company wants to put liquid petroleum storage in the cavern, a potentially dangerous environmental hazard. The people who have been trying to prevent this for four years asked Day to come back and walk the lake again. She will do the 80 miles in three days, carrying water and praying as she travels.

“When I work with kids I tell them, if you are not practicing kindness and gentleness and gratitude and respect, you are practicing the opposite because there is no in-between,” Day says.

“At the water ceremony and on the walks we sing, ‘Water, we love you, we thank you, we respect you.’ If we can practice on a daily basis treating water this way – and we began to treat ourselves and each other in that way – we will create world peace.”

We can learn from the water, Day says. “If there are obstacles, go around [them] like the water does. Instead of engaging in hostility, the world really would be a better place if we practiced this.”

Anishinabe people used to tell people to think seven generations ahead. Day says that when thinking about climate change we have to do more and do it more quickly. She says today we have to ask ourselves what life will be like for our great-grandchildren?

“To have anything for them we have to do something now,” she says. “I think people can be like the river by deciding this is where we want to go and this is how we are going to get there.”

That is where Day sees hope.