Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Water Walkers complete journey: Blend waters of the world’s oceans at Bad River

By Eric Hjerstedt Sharp

Odanah ¬– They walked.

The first group started from the west on April 10 in Olympia, Wash., the territory of the Squaxin Island¬-Skokomish. And they headed east. They walked from the east from Machais, Maine, territory of the Passamaquoddy. First Nation people took a train from Churchill, Manitoba to Winnipeg and walked from the north. From the south in Gulfport, Miss., home of the territory of the Mississippi Band of Choctaw, they walked north.

They are the Mother Earth Water Walkers, and in case you haven’t noticed, they are creating quite a media stir in their quest to remind people about the primary importance of water to all people. Camera crews from local, U.S. and Canadian news outlets, print reporters, radio broadcasters and bloggers were among the hundreds of people who headed for the top of Wisconsin last weekend to gather with and welcome the Water Walkers at the Bad River Pow Wow grounds and various other Ojibwe sites in Ashland and Iron counties.

Most of all they have support from people of all colors and creeds along the route. Cars honk and drivers wave in unity to their cause, walkers were quick to point out. As one walker noted: “We all need water; first and foremost.”

Along the way they walked through communities, reservations, cities, farmland and small townships. Each day they walked. “Ni guh Ishi chigay Nibi onji,” they say. (I will do it for the water). Bringing sea water from the Atlantic Ocean, the Gulf of Mexico, the Pacific Ocean and Hudson Bay, with a caravan of vehicles to provide safety, food and first aid – not to mention comfort and even music along the way – they trudged through the highway miles each day. The lead women carrying the copper pails of ocean water, the lead men carrying eagle feather staffs, they pushed baby carts and walked hand in hand with the older children. A large number of elders walked, as did walkers they met along the way that could spare a few dozen miles before returning home.

And they walked.

More than 10 million steps in all. Led by Thunder Bay, Ont. Elder Josephine Mandamin, a First Nations water commissioner who has participated in her sixth Water Walk, a graduate of 2003, ’05, ’06, 07 and 2010, Mandamin, 69, is the guiding force and inspiration for all the Water Walkers and their tens of thousands of supporters from around North America and the world. A woman from Belgium heard about the Water Walk over the Internet and flew over the Atlantic just to gather with them at Bad River and hug Josephine.

The event was a social network phenomenon, with thousands of followers on facebook and Twitter, everyone who “followed” them was swamped with “alerts” indicating changes in schedules, real time blogs relating everything from weather conditions to reactions in various communities enroute. “Look for us on facebook,” read a message on a support vehicle parked along U.S. 2; while the groups from the north, west and south walked up Birch Hill to Cedar to meet with the east walkers Saturday.

The walkers from the east who, according to organizers, had stayed in Ironwood, Mich. Friday night before resuming their walk through Iron County. Led by Madeleine T. Huntjens, the group came into Cedar singing. Spirits were high despite the long days of walking, the stiff muscles and the aches and pains each morning. “I woke up with blisters,” said one walker Thursday morning, I feel like a real Water Walker now.”

Mandamin had met up with the large group of walkers from the east, (She had walked with all four groups, for at least 10 days each) and walked with them to Cedar and the ceremony at Three Fires Mide Lodge and Ojibwe Language Immersion Center.

The walkers from the south, led by Sharon Day of Minneapolis, arrived in Lac Courte Oreilles last week, where there were ceremonies at the LCO Powwow grounds. Walkers also celebrated at Fond du Lac Reservation and Duluth, Minn. this past week.

On Tuesday, the women walkers from the north and west attended a public event at Park Point in Duluth. The two groups had met up a day earlier at Fond du Lac for a women’s sweat lodge, one organizer said Monday.

Leading the walk from Duluth to Bad River, Elsie Leoso¬-Corbine, 52, Bad River, took time out from her walk to contact The Ojibwe Times and other area media earlier this week. The message was urgent: People must act now to preserve the integrity of water everywhere.

“(The journey) is bringing awareness about the importance of keeping our water clean for future generations ... for our great, great grandchildren who we will probably never see.”

In Duluth, Mayor Don Ness proclaimed June 7 as Mother Earth Water Walk Day. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker followed suit and signed a proclamation proclaiming the Water Walk Day in Wisconsin for June 11, the day the walkers from the four directions met up.

“The 2011 Mother Earth Water Walk is about future generations and sustainability, organizers claim. “We are conducting the walk to draw attention to the importance of water in sustaining life.”

Leoso-Corbine called this year’s water walk “The Woodstock of environmental issues ...”

It is no coincidence that the Water Walk takes place in the spring, and that women are carrying the water, according to walk organizers. Spring is a time of renewal and women are traditionally the keepers of the water, they said. Men, however, were asked to carry the staff in the long journey from the continent’s oceans.

Coming into LCO last week, Day and other walkers from the south were met with stormy weather, but the clouds passed and the weather warmed just in time for ceremonies at the Honor the Earth Powwow grounds.

Each walker was committed to completing this spiritual journey, but none more committed than Mandamin. A grandmother, Mandamin shares her concern for the waters of the Great Lakes, used by more than 35 million people of Canada and the United States.

Starting out with the Walkers from the west in Olympia, Wash. Led by Dawnis Kennedy, Mandamin walked with them for 10 days beginning on April 9. She then met up with the walkers from Gulfport, Miss. also walking with them for 10 days.

The importance of water to Mandamin? “It’s life,” she said. “Not just for us, but for everybody.”

Mandamin is optimistic about the health of the planet and the opportunity to keep water clean. “Everything is changing,” she said of people’s attitudes. “The spirit is changing everywhere.”

After the four groups of walkers met up, at the Three Fires Midewinin Lodge in Cedar, a few hundred yards away, Saturday, Bad River Elder Eddy Benton led a tobacco prayer for the walkers and the water.

“In this lodge,” Benton said, “we have heard so many stories about our ancestors and your ancestors. And we know that they are your ancestors because you have come to be with us today.

He said the most important thing for native people is to keep their heritage and culture. Next to the sacred fire, with lodge members tossing into it tobacco and cedar needles, he spoke: “Do not forget the people who no longer speak the language … Do not leave them behind … ”

Walker Carol Hopkins also spoke, especially about Mandamin. She said the spirit for the Water Walk came from this lodge when Benton said several decades ago that “Water would someday be worth more than gold,” and also that someday someone would walk around the lakes to focus on the worth of water.

“What are we going to do to take care of this water?,” Hopkins said Benton asked. “Add a price tag (to the water, as he predicted), is going to cause a lot of things to happen. I know it to be true. Who is going to put action to this? And it was our sister Josephine that began the Water Walks.

“Water is not only a natural resource, but it has a spirit,” Hopkins said. “The reason for the eagle staff is to create the path to protect the water. This spirit started here (Cedar) before there was a lodge.”

“Nothing deters her,” Hopkins said of Mandamin. “Nothing gets in her way. It didn’t matter if it was raining. It didn’t matter if we were whining about our blisters. She kept walking. She had knee surgery between water walks, but she kept walking.”

Back at the Bad River Powwow Grounds, several other tribal members spoke, including environmentalists who spoke out against the proposed Gogebic Taconite open pit mine between Upson and Mellen.

Northland College Professor Joe Rose calls Old Odanah home: “I grew up a couple of blocks from here,” he said. “No heat … we got our water from town pumps. It was the best time of my life, and it was good water.

“Now the ground water is so polluted. This proposed mine … it scares the hell out of me. It (the mine) is at the headwaters and it’s all downhill from there. I’ve never seen a clean mining operation and I’ve traveled all over.

“The proposed legislation eliminates the need for local needs to be considered for mining approval. Local approval would no longer be required, and it would allow private wells and surface water to be drawn down. It subjects private land owners to water draw downs and may create an ‘eminent domain’ scenario.”

Bad River Chairman Mike Wiggins, Jr., also spoke at the powwow grounds. He told people it was symbolic that the first draft of the proposed rewrite of the state mining legislation was slated to be in its final form on June 11, but instead June 11 was the day the walkers gathered at Bad River.

“With an open pit mine, there is water pollution,” Wiggins said. “Sulfate pollution is a destroyer of wild rice.” The very same open pit mining that has devastated the Minnesota rice beds was caused by sulfate pollution. With sulfate pollution there is a tremendous amount of mercury that is released … that we see in our fish, in our bodies, that is causing learning disabilities in our children.

“In the Great Lakes, there are already fish advisories. There is a tremendous amount of impacts. Our way of life is threatened. The spiritual connection to the creator: that we are here for a short time and these things are gifts for us.

“We’ve already been eroded here in Indian Country,” Wiggins said. “We’re still grieving that we can’t drink the surface water. It goes hand-in-hand with what’s happening to other indigenous people around the world. When we talk about the water it’s hard to get people to listen.

“In this economy, It’s jobs, jobs, jobs. The timing (of the Water Walk) has been cosmic … that notion that it was meant to happen. The legislation was to have happened on June 11. Since then the legislation has been pulled back. I know that the Water Walkers had a lot to do with that too.

“It all goes kaput if we don’t have water to drink. For Bad River, I want to say thank you … Miigwiich … they were all totally needed. We’re water people. We’re people of the water. We are the wealthiest tribe I’ve ever seen. In our water, in our woods. Ninety percent of our reservation is wilderness.

“We’re interested in staying around for the next 1,000 years,” Wiggins concluded. “When (the mine project proposal) goes away, all the people of northern Wisconsin are going to benefit.

On Sunday, the Water Workers walked their final steps of this journey to Waverly Beach close to where the Bad River empties into Lake Superior. There, the Mandamin and the other elders from the various tribes across North America emptied their copper pails of water from the oceans into Gitchee Gumee.

The public was invited, but like parts of the tobacco ceremony at the Three Fires lodge, the press was asked to not take photos or videos.

The buckets of salt water gathered with waters from Lake Superior. The Mother Earth Water Walk 2011 was completed. The walkers had come full circle. The struggle, however, is not over, and walkers no doubt will be once again be organizing another water walk to focus attention on the importance of water.

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