Just after sunset on a 60-degree Easter day, an ambitious group of American Indian women arrived at 4th Street Café in Keokuk for a carry-in supper hosted by the Standing Bear Council, The Thunderbirds and the cafè.
It was a sumptuous meal, intended to restore the energy expended that day when the group walked from Burlington to Keokuk, just one leg of their goal – to walk the length of the Mississippi River from the headwaters in Minnesota to its mouth at the Gulf of Mexico. Their message blended with the Easter message of renewal.
It was impossible to tell that the group had just walked 45 miles. Each one greeted the hosts with bear hugs and an air of meeting long-time friends. Only the hungry look and an occasional droop of the eyelids gave them away.
The walkers and their supporters left Lake Itasca State Park, Minn., 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 2013 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, Minn., 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.
Day explained that 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 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.
“By the time a drop of water reaches the ‘dead zones’ near the river’s mouth, the water is nearly depleted of oxygen,” Day said. “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,” Day said, adding that 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.”
They walk from sunrise to sunset, taking turns carrying the pail, handing it off to each other in relay fashion and not stopping until evening. Day said 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- to 15-minute shifts depending on the conditions.
“Four of us (Day, Beth Brent, Barb Baker LaRush, Marya Bradley and Eagle Staff walker Ira Johnson) will be going all the way to the end,” she said, adding that the group changes in size as people join them when they can or feel they should. The largest group of walkers was 17 on the first day.
The trip brings with it many physical challenges, but, “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,” she said.
It 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,” said Day. “We are very grateful,” adding that they are making contact with other Native American nations, one of which will be providing them with “new moccasins in Louisiana, because we will need them by then.”
Despite challenging weather conditions, they have made steady progress over the past four weeks and are a few days ahead of their schedule. The group plans to stop at sacred places along the way to perform ceremonies which “simply acknowledge them,” said 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 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.”
Walk the Water members crossed into Illinois Monday morning, walking to Hannibal, Mo., and spending the night in Palmyra, Mo. The group plans to arrive at Venice on or around April 27, where it will hold another water ceremony. To be a part of the journey, join the Mississippi River Water Walk 2013 on Facebook.