Sharon Day carrying the eagle feather staff and copper pail of water. Photo credit Kevin E. Schmidt.

On March 1st, 2013, Sharon Day, executive director of the Indigenous Peoples Task Force, together with a small group of Ojibwe women set out to walk the length of the Mississippi River from its headwaters in Minnesota to its mouth at the Gulf of Mexico. “The walk was a ceremony,” says Day, who led the effort in an attempt to raise awareness about the water’s diminishing quality and rising pollution levels. “Every step we took was a prayer for the water.”

The Mississippi River is the second most polluted river in the United States due to the millions of pounds of toxic chemicals, including nitrates, arsenic, benzene, and mercury, that are dumped into the water annually. In fact, by the time the water reaches the Gulf, it is nearly devoid of oxygen—hence the term “dead zone,” which is commonly used to describe this stretch of water.

Day and the other women who participated in the Mississippi River Water Walk carried a pail of fresh water from the headwaters to the Gulf where they poured the water back into the river to remind the Mississippi that it was once clean and pure. The Water Walkers welcomed new women to join the walk for an hour, a day, or more along the way and completed the 2,320-mile journey on May 3rd.

Upon Day’s return to the Twin Cities, I had the opportunity to ask her a few questions about our collective attitude toward water today. We also explored how Ojibwe life ways connect to the commons worldview.

— Jessica Conrad

When I heard you speak at an event this winter, you gave a brilliant answer to someone in the audience who asked a simple question: Why? Why walk the length of the Mississippi River?

I’ve been asked this question many times, and my answer is usually this: if I were a lawyer or a hydrologist I might be doing something different, but I’m neither of those things. I am an Ojibwe woman, and my responsibility is to take care of the water. I can walk and I can pray and I can sing. And that’s what I have chosen to do.

In describing the Water Walk you’ve said, “Each step is a prayer for the water.” Can you say a few words about what this means to you?

At the end of every day during the Water Walk, we found rocks or whatever was available on the ground and made a circle. In that circle, we put our asema, traditional tobacco, and asked permission to stop and rest. Then in the morning we would return to the rocks and make another circle around the original one. At that time, I generally asked the walkers how they would like to spend the day. One by one, each woman said what was on her mind or shared something she had written. Sometimes we sang an Ojibwe song as medicine for the water. Afterward, the walking would begin.

I asked people to pray during the walk however they felt most comfortable. Some sang, others were silent. Silence is not easy for non-Indigenous people because they want to fill up space, but it’s through silence that one can hear the spirit from within and from without.

How is the Water Walk rooted in Anishinaabe life ways and thought?

In the Anishinaabe or Ojibwe tradition, men have certain responsibilities. One of them is to take care of the fire, and there are songs and prayers that go with that responsibility. Women have the responsibility of taking care of the water. We’ve always been the ones to make an offering for the water, to gather the water, to sing the water songs, and to recite petitions to make our water sacred.

When I was a kid, my sister and I were responsible for getting our family’s water, which usually meant walking to a well, lowering a bucket, hauling it up, and bringing it home. When you haul water like that every day, you develop a relationship with the water. The Water Walks come out of this spiritual practice.

Today many people seem to have a material relationship with the water, and yet others have a highly spiritual relationship with it. Can you share your perspective on our collective relationship to water today?

Today we’re missing a spiritual connection to the water because all we have to do is turn on a faucet. It’s like going to the store and buying a loaf of bread. We don’t have a relationship with our water, and we don’t have a relationship with our food. They are just products that we consume, as opposed to life-giving forces.

We must change this idea of water as a commodity. When we see the water as something that lives, then it’s hard to think of it simply as a commodity. We need to care for the water instead of merely use it. If we can do that it will change so many things. For starters, we wouldn’t allow our cities and corporations to dump waste in the water. Here in Minnesota the water is still blue. The lakes and rivers are still blue, and I believe that’s a sign of the water’s purity and high oxygen content.

But we use a lot of water from the Mississippi here in Minnesota for corporate and municipal purposes, and once its been used, we dump it right back into the river. The water then flows downstream, and other corporations and cities may use it again, but after it makes its way out to the ocean, it’s of no use to us. We must figure out how to recycle our grey water because we don’t know if we will always have fresh water.

How does the Water Walk help people better understand the many threats to the water and our responsibility for protecting it?

The people who were most affected by the walk were the walkers themselves, no matter whether they came out for a photo op, one day, five days, or several days. The water has a profound affect on anyone who carries it—you can see it in the person’s eyes and in their demeanor.

I’m thinking about a woman named Lee who first joined us for three or four days but could only walk one day. When she walked, she ran. I invited her to come down to New Orleans, and she met us in Baton Rouge and stayed with us for another five days. Then there was Anna from Baton Rouge who came with a friend to do a little part of the walk. The friend left, but Anna stayed. I said to another walker, “That one, she’s a water keeper.” You could see it. She came back the next day and the next day and she was with us for the last few days of the walk. The water touched the walkers. And when you’re touched like that, I believe you can’t just go back to your life the way it was.

Beyond the walkers, the 4,000 followers on our Facebook page were also touched by what we did. The Sister River project collected prayers from New Zealand, Belgium, Mexico, Canada, and Italy. Women from all over the world were following our journey and responding.

We may also have raised some awareness along the way through media coverage by Minnesota Public Radio, Vermont Public Radio, and Native American Calling among other outlets.

What do you see as the biggest obstacle to healing the water?

I think the biggest obstacle is a lack of hope. That “What can we do?” attitude. Not too long ago someone asked me a related question, and I remember talking about my life-long involvement in resistance activism. I grew up in the ‘60s, and my high school was right next door to the Capitol. After school I held band practices that ended around 4:30, and there would often be some kind of rally on the steps of the Capitol. If I heard noise coming from that direction, I would walk over and listen to the anti-war protestors and activists. I remember hearing Angela Davis and Bobby Kennedy and many other inspiring speakers. Then after the Vietnam War there was the feminist movement and the American Indian Movement. It felt like we were always resisting something. We resisted the war first, then sexism.

But the Water Walk is not about resisting anything. It’s really about love—love for ourselves because we are the water and love for the rivers. Some of the walkers questioned what we would do next, but I don’t really know what we will do next. I did the Mississippi River Water Walk because I live a block from the river, and I cross it several times a day. I have a relationship with the Mississippi River. But it’s about love. It’s about moving toward something, as opposed to resisting anything. The old people say that if you want peace, you must be with love.

One day when someone asked, “Why do you do this? What do you hope to accomplish?” I said I was walking because I want world peace. And ultimately that is why we walk. If we can treat the water with respect and love—not violence—then perhaps that sentiment will spill over into our relationships with each other and our relationships with the earth.

What other strategies do you recommend for making more people aware of the importance of clean water and other gifts we share?

I always encourage people to do local action. Up and down the river, people have stories and concerns about the water in their area. But they feel as though the fracking, contamination, and changes as a result of our warming climate are only happening in their backyard.

When we were in Louisiana, I picked up a newspaper that showed a map from New Orleans to the ocean, and it identified 31 sites that no longer exist because they are now under water. Every 25 minutes Louisiana looses a chunk of land the size of a football field as a result of climate change. The crawfish are dying because pollutants are acidifying the water. If you lose one species, what happens next?

People need to understand that we face these kinds of changes globally, yet we can all take local action. Walk around lakes. Walk along the river near your home, whatever river that is. Offer that. Meditate. I believe that the water spirits are much more powerful than our corporations and cities. So ask for the deepest truth and purest love through invocation. Then add science.

Do you see a connection between Anishinaabe life ways and the commons approach?

I think the biggest connection is the idea of “all that we share.” We share the water, we share the earth. And because we share, we all have a responsibility.

Would you like to add anything else?

I would like to thank all of the people who supported us. To those who stayed here at home and made things easier for us by working to raise money, connecting with media, and contacting friends downstream. To all of the individuals along the way who opened their houses to us and fed us. And of course to all the people who made contributions. Thanks also to all the people who walked with us along the way. There were five or six of us core walkers, but the people who joined us made the walk far easier. They lifted our spirits. It was a great honor and privilege to do the walk. I want everyone to know that our hearts are very full, and we have a deep sense of gratitude to the people who helped make it possible.