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Grandmother Water Walkers complete ;spiritual petition' for clean water

HANNAHVILLE, Mich. - A group of female elders recently completed a walk around Lake Michigan in what they call a ;'spiritual petition'' to raise awareness about the urgent need to end pollution and to restore and protect the earth's waters.

The Grandmother Water Walk of 2008 continued a new tradition that began in the spring of 2003 when two Anishinaabe grandmothers and a group of Anishinaabe women and men decided to walk the perimeter of each of the Great Lakes to raise awareness that the waters of the Earth are polluted by chemicals, vehicle emissions, motor boats, sewage disposal, agricultural pollution, leaking landfill sites and residential usage.

That year, they walked around Lake Superior, raising awareness that water is precious and sacred, and that clean, pure water is needed for all life to exist.

This year, the Water Walkers started their 600-mile journey on May 3 in Manistee. They walked through Indiana, Illinois and Wisconsin en route to Hannahville near Escanaba in Michigan's Upper Peninsula.

The core group of women was comprised of Josephine Mandamin, an Ojibwe and the walk's chief grandmother and leader; Melvina Flamand; Hilda Atkinson; Vicki Antoine; Pat Plamondon; Linda Warren; Sue Nelson; Maria Meyers; and Linda L. Cypret-Kilbourne. They are affiliated with the Potawatomi, Ottawa and Ojibwe nations. The gathering became international with the participation of women from across the Canadian border.

The core group was joined by many others along the way, including Lorraine ''Punkin'' Shananaquet, a member of the Gun Lake Tribe, whose formal name is the Match-E-Be-Nash-She-Wish Band of Pottawatomi Indians of Michigan.

''I walked with them, and it's great. I don't know how I can describe it in this language, but you just feel so at peace with yourself, with knowing that you're trying to help raise awareness about the water.''

In 2004, the Water Walkers walked along the upper half of Lake Michigan's shore. Lake Huron was walked in 2005; Lake Ontario in 2006; and Lake Erie, last year. With this year's walk along the southern half, the Water Walkers have completed their walks around all of the Great Lakes.

Mandamin kept a journal of the walk.

''Challenges are met with great honor especially when we know it is for a deep purpose - the betterment of all, especially our Mother Earth. The Water Walk's mission to raise awareness about humanity's need for water has not been heard south of Lake Michigan. It is important to keep our waters clean to ensure the everlasting use for our grandchildren and their grandchildren. Our water is not for sale. This message will be carried this spring,'' she wrote when the walk began.

The grandmothers carry a sacred staff and a copper vessel that was filled with water from Lake Michigan as the walkers set out.

''The copper vessel was carried with a handle and day by day we could see the water go down in the copper vessel. Josephine gave us a teaching that the water was going down just like the lakes are, though we know that the natural process of evaporation is going on between the water and the air. But she said this is the first time that the water is just depleted. We've always been able to carry a full pail of water and she interpreted that to mean that the lakes have receded and so it's reflected in the copper vessel,'' Shananaquet said.

The copper vessel got lost for a few hours in Chicago, she related with a laugh.

''They had this big memorial police parade and a lot of our streets [that had been mapped out as the route] were blocked off. There were 5,000 Illinois state troopers and rookies and all involved in the parade so we had to carry it all through downtown Chicago along the lakeshore. We had three crews out there, and had to walk an extra seven miles or so.''

The crews are made up of volunteers in support vehicles that accompany the grandmothers. The walk is done in leap-frog stages, with some of the women walking a quarter of a mile or so then being picked up by one of the support cars and the next women walking.

The Water Walkers are setting a path for others to follow.

''I'm in my mid-40s looking toward that doorway of my children having children, so as a mother, a younger person, I see the need to open up our eyes and participate and be aware of what our elders are doing,'' Shananaquet said.

''We need to step up quite a bit. They've taken this 110 percent with their self sacrifice with what they're doing. They operate on no funding. They just have the faith that the spirits will provide for them on their way and they have.''