The Great Lakes are the heart of Anishinaabe (Ojibwe) territory. In Anishinaabe culture, women are the water’s caretakers, responsible for protecting the water.
This responsibility tugged at the conscience of elder Josephine Mandaamin as she watched the water throughout her homeland become increasingly degraded. Her concern about the fate of the lakes eventually led her to undertake an epic walk around Lake Superior—about 1500 miles. That 2003 journey marked the first Mother Earth Water Walk, now an annual event.
Since then, Josephine and a group of fellow Anishinaabe have walked around all five of the Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence River. Each walk is a prayer for life; and each footstep they take is a prayer for the water.
This spring, Josephine took the Mother Earth Water Walk a step further. Walkers converged on Lake Superior from all four directions, carrying water in copper pails from the Pacific Ocean, the Atlantic Ocean, the Gulf of Mexico and Hudson Bay.
From the west, walkers began their journey in Aberdeen, Washington; from the east, Bangor, Maine; from the South, Gulfport, Mississippi; from the North, water from Hudson Bay was brought by train to Winnipeg and then by foot to Lake Superior.
Over the course of two months, walkers—including many Anishinaabe women, men and children—journeyed almost ten and a half million steps together to raise awareness of the need for all people to care for the sacred gift of water.
On June 11, they finished their journeys and gathered for a weekend of ceremony and celebration on Wisconsin’s Bad River Reservation.
Reflections and Revelations from the Water Walk
We share thoughts, reflections and images from the Water Walk to give you a sense of the power of this journey, the dedication of the walkers. We also want to provide a window into the teachings of Indigenous peoples, from which we must all learn if we are to truly protect and replenish our water. Moving from a society that exalts individualism and private ownership to a commons-based society rooted in community, sharing and respect for each other and all species—in essence, a society based on Indigenous values—requires the leadership of Indigenous peoples.
This principle helps shape On the Commons’ Great Lakes Commons Initiative, a transnational partnership to unite all Lake people in declaring and living our Great Lakes as a commons, public trust and protected bioregion.
Below are reflections from one of the water walkers, Sue Chiblow, who is the environment coordinator for the Council of Chiefs in Ontario, along with thoughts from Aurora Conley, a young Bad River activist who took on the role of welcoming the walkers to her reservation and coordinating local activities. We are also including a videos of the walk, courtesy of News from Indian Country television, and a song for the water written by Doreen Day, who walked to Lake Superior from the south.
Reflection from Water Walker Sue Chiblow
My spirit name is Ogimaa-aanag and my English name is Sue Chiblow. I am Anishinabe qwe (Ojiebway women) from Garden River First Nation. I participated in the north walk as one of the lead walkers, so I went to Churchill, Manitoba to collect the northern water. We travelled by train from Winnipeg to Churchill and back again where we began walking on May 24th from Winnipeg to Bad River, Wisconsin.
When we were gathering the water in Churchill, Elder Josephine made an offering and spoke to the water letting it know what we were doing. I was overcome with emotions of sadness and joy at the same time when this ceremony was being conducted. We always made offerings when we passed over any type of bodies of water such as rivers, creeks, and lakes. Many times when we were walking passed a body of water, I would again be overcome by both sadness and joy for the waters. It was like the water was sad from being sick but also so happy to receive our offering and was glad we had come.
It was truly an honor to be part of the water walk. We met so many nice people who shared their stories about the waters in their area. People often fed us and honored us in their communities. This life experience will remain in my heart with so many pleasant memories and emotions that it will take a lifetime to sort through. I am grateful to the waters for providing us with life in a selfless way. We have much to learn from the waters on how to live our lives with all races of peoples and all beings on earth.
Reflections from Bad River Welcome Coordinator Aurora Conley
I became aware of the Mother Earth Water Walk in April when the west route walkers were in Spokane, Washington. A friend had sent an email stating they would be walking to Bad River, Wisconsin, my hometown. At that time I was living in theBemidji, Minnesota area. I saw on their website that they needed volunteers and that they were carrying the water and walking with the compassion, generosity and dedication of people. I instantly wanted to find out what I could do to help, organize or spread the word. What I had seen was so powerful, I wanted to be involved as well. I made contact with a Bad River organizer, and was then made event coordinator for the welcoming of the Water Walkers. I learned the Ojibwe phrase that was taught throughout the Water Walk— nig uh izhichigay onji niibi— “I will do it for the water”. Every day, I prayed for the water, for the Mother Earth, for the walkers, for all those that were experiencing some form of water depletion or hurt. There were many emotions and feelings in this work. There were also many groups in the Bad River community that joined together and became involved. I loved being able to see and feel the community come together and put efforts into such an important and beautiful event.
And a beautiful event it was. We convened at the Bad River powwow grounds Saturday afternoon where we had information booths, a grand feast with traditional foods, speakers such as Josephine Mandaamin herself, Bad River Chairman Mike Wiggins Jr., elders from Bad River, Red Cliff, and Lac du Flambeau native communities sharing their childhood memories and stories about water, its beauty, quality and availability, especially in comparison to today, their concerns for it, and how what is being done in terms of the Water Walk awareness is extremely important.
Our duties and responsibilities as caretakers of the Earth and water were emphasized and affirmed throughout the afternoons. Hearing the stories of the lead walkers themselves, their thoughts, compassion and dedication was truly inspiring and powerful. Throughout my experiences with environmental justice, being a part of this movement was one of the best! I hope to be involved in so many more capacities. It was a learning, moving, beautiful, emotional experience. It makes me want to be so much more mindful of what I do on so many levels. To watch elders and so many others, sacrifice, carry on, come together and create such movement-it is then that you realize you are a part of something other than just yourself. Ni guh izhichigay onji niibi — “I will do it for the water”.
“Sharon Day’s video from News from Indian Country”:http://indiancountrynews.net/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=11788&Itemid=1
“Doreen Day’s song”:www.motherearthwaterwalk.com
Faye Brown and Alexa Bradley work on the Great Lakes Commons Initiative for On the Commons