Water walkers proceed in a meditative silence, offering prayers for the river until the next walker approaches them, saying “Ngah izitchigay nibi ohnjay,” or, “I’ll do it for the water.”
I tried to master this Ojibwe phrase on September 9, 2016, the day I participated in the Nibi Walk along the Kettle River in northern Minnesota. The copper kettle, filled with river water, grew heavy fast. Quite heavy. Always, there was relief in passing the kettle onto the next walker. As the day progressed, I seemed to spend more time dwelling on the water’s burden than I did offering prayers; I began to wonder how Nibi Walks could help the water. I even asked myself, “Am I doing this for the water or for Sharon?”
I first encountered Sharon Day, a member of the Bois Forte Band of Ojibwe, on a nippy spring day in 2016, when she sat on a diverse panel of clean water activists, assembled for a training held at the St. Croix Watershed Research Station. I learned that Day was born and raised in northern Minnesota, but had lived her adult life in St. Paul. She serves as the Director of the Indigenous Peoples Task Force and also leads “Water Walks” along our Nation’s waterways.
Day told us about her first Nibi Walk in 2011. It was a long one: Day walked north from Gulfport, Mississippi to Lake Superior. This sturdy woman with short-cropped black hair threaded with silver highlights was dressed in dark blue rayon pants and a floral print blouse, an outfit that my grandmother might have donned. In fact, Day is a grandmother; grandmothers are respected elders in Day’s tribe, as they are in most indigenous cultures. And, anyone who doesn’t think a grandmother can also be an activist should meet Day. She speaks with directness; she exudes confidence. She made me want to be a part of her work.
A few months later, I learned that Day planned to walk the Kettle River, located within my own St. Croix River watershed. I attended an organizational meeting to prepare for the walk. Day told us how—years earlier—she’d been selected by tribal “grandmothers” to become a member of the order of M’dewin. She explained M’dewin as a spiritual practice of the Ojibwe, as well as of other tribes. In this tradition, women are considered caretakers of the water. Day began doing these Nibi Walks in answer to a call to take her place as a water protector.
Men cannot carry the water, but they can assist in the walks by carrying the eagle staff, a thick wooden staff with an eagle’s head mounted on its tip and strands of feathers trailing off its side. Women walkers carry the water, gathered from a river’s headwaters, in a small copper kettle with a cloth affixed to its top to keep the water from spilling out. Mile after mile, the water is carefully transported to its confluence with a larger body of water. The Kettle River’s point of confluence is the St. Croix River. Carrying the source water downstream reminds the river how it was to be pure and clean.
“The walks are not easy,” Day told us would-be walkers during the preparatory meeting, “but if the spirit is at the center, you can do anything. You’ll be emotionally, physically, and spiritually stronger at the end.” These words of conviction inspired me to join the walk.
On the first day of the walk, I set out from my house while it was still dark to reach the initial rendezvous site at the Audubon Center of the North Woods (near Sandstone, MN) by 7:30 am. At 7:35 am, I was already seated in a van with Day and Keely Kernan, a filmmaker who would be documenting the walk. Although Day doesn’t wait for stragglers, she welcomes reinforcements at any point on these walks. A GPS system, attached to the kettle’s handle, broadcasts the walkers’ location online.
That day, I encountered my strengths and weaknesses. The road was long (and was, well, a road). I often found myself questioning my decision to join the walk; I hadn’t realized we’d be walking along a busy county road riddled with passing trucks. Day said the eagle staff would protect us. Still, I’d envisioned a pastoral hike along the river. Day sticks to roadways so walkers can ride in support vehicles in between turns walking. Each water carrier walks just a mile at a time—they need to be fresh for their next turn (rest intervals vary by the number of walkers) so that they can walk at the pace that water flows—three to four miles per hour.
Walkers wear cloth or leather pouches around their neck filled with asemma, or tobacco. I didn’t have a pouch so Day lent me one. Walkers offer dried leaves of tobacco to any dead animals encountered on a roadway; it is a way of acknowledging the sacred spirit of that animal.
That day, I came across a black snake during the first few seconds of my first turn walking. I instinctively jumped out of its way. Although my jump propelled me directly into the traffic lane, I indeed felt protected. Later, I caught the drifting scent of a dead skunk well before I saw it beside the highway and sprinkled its carcass with tobacco leaves. During my last turn that day, I passed a pile of blanched white bones. I could make out a skull and ribcage, but walking at a clipped pace, was unable to identify what animal had surrounded those bones. I offered it tobacco, nonetheless.
Day had been right. The walking was tough, but my spirit was indeed strengthened.
Before leaving the walk that night, I joined some of the other walkers for dinner at the Audubon Center’s cafeteria. Eventually, only Day and I remained at the table where I finished the last of my mashed potatoes. I wanted to ask her: Do you think these walks make a difference? Instead, I asked, “Do you feel hopeful towards the future?”
“Yes, I do,” Day replied without hesitation. “I wouldn’t do these walks if I didn’t. Why would I waste my time?”
I worried I’d insulted her until she went on to tell me a story about the day that one of her grandsons walked with her. As she spoke, I wondered: perhaps she is an activist because she is a grandmother. She is also a “grandmother” in the collective, spiritual sense. As such, she has been called to bring people together to protect the water.
“I felt the burden of the water today,” I told Day before getting in my car. I’m pretty sure she could see the tears in my eyes. “I needed to feel this burden. I needed to experience this burden as mine.” I wanted to tell Day that I would carry the water again, but I didn’t want to make an empty promise. While I may, in fact, walk with water again, I will always carry the burden. I too am called to protect the world’s access to clean water.
Water is life and we are all its carriers.
Heidi Fettig Parton was born the same year as the Environmental Protection Agency. She is both a non-practicing lawyer and non-practicing yoga instructor. In recent years, Heidi has turned her focus towards water and writing. She completed a year long, EPA-funded master watershed stewardship training in February and, in May, she’ll graduate with an MFA in creative nonfiction from Bay Path University. This spring, Heidi is serving as Agate magazine’s editorial intern. She can be found online at heidifettigparton.com.
Heidi wishes to thank Sharon Day as well as contributing photographers Sophie Hantzes, Barb Baker-larush, Keely Kernan and Diana Albrecht of D. Albrecht Photography.