Walking for the Water

Sharon M. Day (Bois Fort Band of Ojibwe) on the banks of the Mississippi River. In August, Day will lead a group walking around the entire circumference of Lake Superior, a journey of over 30 days. Photo Sarah Whiting

In 2003, I joined Josephine Mandamin for several days carrying the water around Lake Superior. Josephine began these contemporary water walks to save our waterways. She believed water has to move to be healthy. She wanted the water to know there were still human beings who loved and respected it.

I joined at the beginning, near Bad River Indian Reservation, and then again south of Wawa, Ontario. It was a beautiful experience — and a bit of a lark. My only responsibility was to show up and carry the copper pail filled with the water Josephine gathered from the lake for a mile, then hand it off to the next person until it was my turn again.

Later, when Josephine put out a call for the Mother Earth Water Walk in 2011, I agreed to gather water from the Gulf of Mexico in Gulfport, Mississippi, and walk it to Lake Superior, a journey of 43 days. This walk changed my life. Since then, I have been on over 20 walks along the Missouri, Ohio, and Mississippi Rivers, Cedar Lake, Phalen Creek, and many more. I will always be grateful to Josephine for her vision and determination.

Twenty years after Josephine’s inaugural walk around Lake Superior — or GitchiGami, as it’s known to the Ojibwe — we will follow her path again.

Though she has traveled on to the spirit world, I know Josephine will be happy that we are walking GitchiGami once more. The walk begins August 1 at the Bad River Reservation, where we will gather the water and continue this extended ceremony — a journey of 33 days or so. Six women will walk the entire lake: Ojibwe, Lakota, Chicana, and white. This group has done many walks together. Four additional Ojibwe women will walk two of the four weeks, and 12 Native students will accompany us for a few days at a time. An Ojibwe woman in Sault Ste. Marie will monitor our safety, as she has for every walk I have ever done, by following the GPS attached to our pail of water.

We Are Always Carrying the Water

GitchiGami is the largest freshwater lake in the world. It is worth a walk around its 2,726–mile shoreline to speak to the water spirits. We will tell them that we respect and care for the water and we wish for the lake to be healthy again. As Ojibwe women, it is our responsibility to care for the water, to sing to the water, to make the offerings, and to make petitions to the water spirits. We will walk along the roads that follow the lake most closely. We may not always see the water, yet we are always carrying the water.

We humans think we are all powerful, but we are as powerless as ants when it comes to the forces of the rivers, the oceans, and the hurricanes.

The lakes, the streams, the oceans, and our groundwaters are in peril around the planet, and thus we are in peril. Yet we continue to pollute. As I write this from the land where I reside, I see the grass is parched and dry. Our garden plants only survive because we water them every other day. It is 90 degrees outside, and we have been under an air quality alert for days.

I don’t know what else to do but to walk, pray, and sing to the waters.

Over the past 20 years, extractive industries have continued raping and pillaging the earth. In June, two of my mentees and six youth from Indigenous Peoples Task Force’s Ikidowin Theater Ensemble walked the Foyle River in Northern Ireland. We were invited by Irish environmentalists who are trying to stop the development of a mine. I was unable to go due to headaches caused in part by the air quality here. I am so proud of these young people for picking up the work.

To Give Her a Taste of Herself

Water has memory, it is ancient, and it is new. I invite you to speak to the water in every glass you raise to your lips before you take a sip. The water you drink is the same water your ancestors drank. It is the same water that rained down from the clouds to be gently ushered into the soil by the leaves and trunks of the trees. Some water made its way into the ground and some into our wells, where we gather it to cook, clean, and quench our thirst. Then it is returned to the earth, where some of it evaporates and returns to the clouds to become rain.

This earth is the only home we have. Sometimes I wonder, why do we think there is anything more important to love?

I wish I could explain to people the feeling we have when we walk at the pace of butterflies — slow enough to catch a glimpse of the red-tailed hawk circling overhead, or to notice the horses that come as close as the fence allows and dance in a circle, acknowledging the water and the eagle-feather staff we carry.

I wish you could feel the wind, the sun, and the rain on your face. Walking in silence is a meditative practice that lasts as long as the river is long.

Walking the waters changes individuals, the same way any enlightened spiritual practice can when one gives themselves to the process. Once we get to the mouth or confluence, we are happy to pour the headwaters we have carried into the river or lake, to give her a taste of herself. “This is how you began, pure and clean, and this is how we wish for you to be again.”

I know the water spirits hear us. I wish the people responsible for making environmental policies could hear us too.


Sharon M. Day (she/her) is executive director of the Indigenous People’s Task Force. Visit Nibiwalk.org to learn about water walks past and future.