Walking the Water

Indigenous women walk the Mississippi to raise awareness of water pollution


One of the members of the Mississippi River Water Walkers walking beside the Mississippi River along Highway 76 near Effigy Mounds National Monument carrying the eagle feather staff and copper pail of water collected at the Mississippi River headwaters at Lake Itasca, MN. The group's 1,200-mile walk to the Gulf of Mexico is to raise awareness of water pollution and protection of resources. Photo by Sharon Sander-Palmer.

It was a very cold couple of days last week when an ambitious group of American Indian women made their way along the roads of Allamakee County 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 Lake Itasca State Park, MN March 1 after a traditional Ojibwe water ceremony where they collected a copper pail full of clear, fresh lake water which they are carrying the entire 1,200 miles to where the river empties into the Gulf at Venice, LA. It is here that they will pour the contents of the pail into the murky gulf waters, “giving the Mississippi River a drink of herself.”

Mississippi River Water Walk leader, Sharon 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 through a variety of programs. She lives just a block from the river in St. Paul, MN and has been involved in water issues in the past, being called upon to help with the process of making a spring in the Fort Snelling area of the Twin Cities a protected sacred site in 1998.

In 2003, she joined Josephine Mandamin, a grandmother in her lodge, on her walk around Lake Superior to raise awareness of water pollution, and more recently took part in the Four Directions Walk also known as the Mother Earth Water Walk in 2011. It was after that walk, when she asked herself what she could do next, that the beginning of this current journey began.

Sitting down with her at the Effigy Mounds National Monument Visitor Center while the rest of the walkers took turns walking from the Harpers Ferry turn-off along Highway 76, past the Monument and down the river towards Marquette and McGregor, Day explains that the Mississippi, like all other rivers and waterways around the world, is facing peril due to pollution. “Everyone adds to the pollution,” she says, “and it is not the river poisoning the river, we are doing it!”

According to Day, the Mississippi River is the second most polluted river in the United States with toxic chemicals from municipalities, agriculture and industry all accumulating as the water flows to the gulf, taking their toll on the health of the river. Says Day, by the time a drop of water reaches the ‘dead zones’ near the mouth, the water is nearly depleted of oxygen. In some times of the year, the dead zones are the size of the state of Delaware. The walk intends to raise awareness of what each individual can do along the way to help change the health of the water in the Mississippi as well as other water resources in the local community.

“We want the walk to be a prayer,” says Day who, explains that they are in ceremony while they carry the water. “Every step we take we will be praying for and thinking of the water. The water has given us life and now, we will support the water.”

Bundled up against the elements, they walk from sunrise to sunset, taking turns to carry the pail, handing it off to each other in relay fashion and not stopping until evening. Day says the extreme cold, wind and snow has not been too much of a problem. They wear plenty of layers, making sure their ears and head are covered well, and walk in 10-15 minute shifts depending on the conditions.

“Right now we have seven walkers, four of which will be going all the way to the end,” she says, adding that the group changes in size as people join them when they can or feel they should, some driving from their homes to meet them and walk even if it is just for a few days, and others planning to fly south and join the walk. The largest group of walkers was 17 on the first day.

The trip brings with it many challenges in not only the logistics, but the mental, physical and emotional strains a journey of this length puts on a person. “It is never quiet out there,” states Day, “you never know what is around the corner and you need to be aware of the road,” adding that it is also “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.”

And it is that purpose that is drawing communities and individuals along the way to come out to support them with lodging, food and company. “The support from people has been incredible,” says Day, “we are very grateful,” adding with a smile that they are making contact with other Native American nations, one of which will be providing them with “new moccasins in Louisiana, as we will need them by then!”

Despite challenging weather conditions, they have made steady progress over the last three weeks and are currently a few days ahead of their schedule. The group plans to stop off at sacred places along the way to perform ceremonies which “simply acknowledge them” says Day, who led a tobacco ceremony at sunrise at the Three Mounds site near the visitor center at Effigy Mounds National Monument before beginning their walk for the day.

“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,” she says, “even just turning on the water facet 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.”

The group is planning to arrive at Venice, LA on or around April 27, where they will hold another water ceremony. To be a part of the journey, join the Mississippi River Water Walk 2013 on Facebook.


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