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A group of Native American women made their way down the roads of the central United States with a very big goal – to walk the length of the Mississippi River from the headwaters in Minnesota to its mouth at the Gulf of Mexico.
The walkers and their supporters left Itasca State Park on March 1 after a traditional Ojibwe water ceremony in which they collected a copper pail full of clear, fresh river water with the intention to carry it by hand 1,754 miles to where the river empties into the gulf. On May 3, 64 days later, at Fort Jackson, La., they poured the contents of the pail into the murky gulf waters, “giving the Mississippi River a drink of herself,” said Sharon Day, Mississippi River Water Walk leader.
Day is a member of the Ojibwe tribe and executive director of the Indigenous Peoples Task Force, an organization whose mission is to improve the health and education of indigenous people. She lives in St. Paul just a block from the river and has been involved in water issues in the past. In 1998, for example, she helped to make Camp Coldwater Spring in the Fort Snelling area a protected sacred site.
In 2003, Day joined Josephine Mandamin, a grandmother in her lodge, on her walk around Lake Superior to raise awareness of water pollution. In 2011, Day took part in the Four Directions Walk, also known as the Mother Earth Water Walk. It was after that walk that she asked herself what she could do next, and that was the beginning of this 2013 journey.
Poisoning the river
Day said the Mississippi, like all other rivers and waterways around the world, is facing peril due to pollution. “Everyone adds to the pollution,” she said, “and it is not the river poisoning the river, we are doing it!”
According to Day, the Mississippi is the second-most-polluted river in the United States. Toxic chemicals from municipalities, agriculture and industry all accumulate as the water flows to the gulf, taking their toll on the health of the river.
The walk was intended to raise awareness of what individuals can do to help change the health of the water in the Mississippi as well as other water resources in local communities.
“We want the walk to be a prayer,” said Day, adding that they are in ceremony while they carry the water. “Every step we take we will be praying for and thinking of the water,” she said. “The water has given us life and now we will support the water.”
Carrying the pail
Five members made up the core group. Besides Day, they included Ira Johnson, Beth Brent, Deon Kirby and Barb Baker-Larush, with Day and Johnson on the walk the entire time. Bundled up against the elements, they walked from sunrise to sunset in 10- to 15-minute shifts, depending on conditions. They took turns carrying the pail in relay fashion.
The largest group of walkers was 17 on Day 1 and about 20 on Day 64, their last.
The trip brought many challenges not only in the logistics, but also in the mental, physical and emotional strains that a journey of this length puts on a person.
“It is never quiet out there,” Day said. “You never know what is around the corner and you need to be aware of the road.” Still, she added, it is “pretty peaceful, too. There is something about carrying the water, praying and holding the eagle feather staff as you walk. When you have a spiritual purpose, you can do it and become stronger at the end.”
It is that purpose that drew communities and individuals along the way to come out to support them with lodging, food and company. “The support from people has been incredible,” Day said. “We are very grateful.”
‘Honor the water’
The group also stopped at many sacred places along the route and performed ceremonies that “simply acknowledge them,” Day said. The Effigy Mounds National Monument in Iowa, where they looked out over the valley and the confluence of the Mississippi and Wisconsin rivers, was one of the places Day said she felt most connected to their purpose.
“We all need to do something every day to honor the water. We need to go to the water and create a relationship with it,” Day said. “Even just turning on the water faucet and thinking about where it comes from. It won’t matter how much money we have, how much gold, how much oil. We can’t drink any of that, but it does matter how much [clean] water we have.”
With the walk behind them, Day and other participants continue to pray for the Mississippi, holding ceremonies every Sunday at 9 a.m. in communities along the river. Anyone can join at Hidden Falls Park in St. Paul, Day said.
On the group’s Facebook page, Day sums up the feat: “We are ordinary people who together achieved an extraordinary goal: to pray for this beautiful gift of rivers entrusted to all. Let us continue each and every day to make an offering and clean up the Mississippi River.”
Resources: Learn more about the Mississippi River Water Walk 2013 on Facebook, tinyurl.com/kavyuaq