Today the mouth of the Mississippi River will drink from its source, tasting its healthier beginning and, it is hoped, remembering and healing.
For two months, walkers have carried prayers of hope and well-being along with a pail of water drawn from Lake Itasca, Minnesota, source of the 2,500-mile-long waterway. A half dozen people have journeyed steadily along its banks since March 1, joined here and there by well-wishers who took up portions of the walk. (Related: From Beginning to End: Walking the Mississippi River to Celebrate and Cherish Water)
“Our goal was to pray for the river and to take that water from the source to the mouth of the river and where the dead zones are and to give her a taste of herself,” said Sharon Day, Ojibwe, who led the walk. She hopes the source water will tell the Mississippi River’s abused and wounded end waters, “This is how you started off; this is how we wish you were again.”
Day is scheduled to complete a more than 1,700-mile journey on May 3 at Fort Jackson in Louisiana. At about noon local time, she and the four walkers who have accompanied her most of the way will participate in ceremonies with tobacco, the pipe and water drawn from Lake Itasca. Local tribal people will attend, bringing food and their traditional songs. The locals will take the walkers to a place where their bucket can be emptied into the last waters of the Mississippi, not far from where the great river joins the Gulf of Mexico. The walkers themselves will then journey by boat the remaining distance to the gulf itself.
Thus will end a journey that physically began for Day in March, but that really began much further back in time. It’s a relationship with water that Day believes speaks especially to women.
“We had three pumps on the reservation,” Day recalled of her childhood. “It was always the girls who went and got the water. When you haul water every day, you have a relationship with water.”
That may be the origin of Day’s life mission to pray for and call attention to the distress of the world’s waters. She got involved with the Mother Earth Water Walks because of her connection to Josephine Mandamin, an Ojibwe elder from Thunder Bay, Ontario, who initiated a series of Great Lakes walks in 2003. Mandamin is scheduled to participate in today’s ceremonies as well. (Related: Mother Earth Water Walk Starts April 10)
Day said that this latest walk, though longer, was easier physically and mentally, more so in some ways than those she’s done in the past.
“The elliptical machine really helped at home,” she joked. But then she alluded to the four people who at different stages had walked most of the way with her—Beth Brent, Barb Baker LaRush, Marya Bradley and Eagle Staff walker Ira Johnson.
“They never wavered,” she said, as they walked through snow, ice, rain and sunshine. And as with past walks, Day found that people were curious when they saw Native people walking beside the road carrying an eagle staff and a bucket.
“People driving by would say, ‘What are you all doing?’ ” Day said. “One time some people stopped and said, ‘You walking the Mississippi River?’ and gave us a three-buck contribution!”
Strangers would put them up at night, and tribes provided lodging. People back home held fund-raising dinner parties. And a couple of hundred people also joined them here and there to walk. Day walked with the ancestors in mind. She’d had a dream that they were watching from the other side of the river as she and her companions drew the water from Lake Itasca. (Related: Fundraiser for Women Walking Length of Mississippi River)
“The beginning ceremony was so beautiful,” Day said of that first day. She also remembered with tenderness the place of a pipe ceremony where the Wisconsin River merges with the Mississippi. “The water is so blue there.”
The walk has provided a number of opportunities for spreading the word about preserving water quality, as Day and her fellows were featured in television, radio and newspaper reports. Nearly 4,000 people followed their progress on the group's Facebook page.
There have been highs and lows. Day recalled one place near Baton Rouge, Louisiana, “where you could smell the magnolia trees and all the different plants we don’t have (in Minnesota). It was almost intoxicating.” But in the final days the landscape has been more disturbing. “It’s just refinery after refinery after refinery,” Day said.
She has also listened carefully to those she has met along the route. “There are just so many stories. I listened to all of their stories, their fears. It’s just incredible,” Day said. “People in Louisiana are worried about losing their culture—[it ’s] not just the Native people.”
Concerns are well founded. A 2012 State of the River Report pointed to a variety of issues facing the Mississippi River. The report cited excess sediment and phosphorus as threats to aquatic habitat in the Twin Cities of Minnesota. All along the river, pollution gets flushed into the river, destabilizing the watershed. The invasion of Asian carp and concentration of nitrates and other pollutants were also concerns.
The Huoma people hosted a dinner for the walkers at which an elder spoke about how difficult it has been for him to make a living as a fisherman since the BP oil spill, as well as the effect of climate change on fish populations.
Day will continue to carry memories such as the gentle sound of the copper beads floating atop the source water, tinkling like a jingle dress as they clinked against the sides of the bucket. She cherishes, too, the time spent with her grandson, Deon Kirby.
“He was carrying the staff and I was carrying the pail, when we saw 30 head of cattle,” Day said. “They saw us coming and came running toward us.”
The cattle stopped beside the fence and watched them move ahead.
“Then en masse, they ran forward and then ran to the fence again, and then stopped and watched us,” she said. “They did this four times. We knew that even these cattle recognized that eagle feather staff. What kid could watch that and not be changed by it?”
Her grandson now talks about taking up the Midewin spiritual way, his grandmother’s path.
The walk taught Day some lessons, too—most recently and markedly, a lesson of perseverance as she trudged through a disheartening landscape of polluted waters. “It’s very sad to see the condition of the water, to see even the land,” she said. “There’s so much litter and trash. And then amid that you see a little pond, and then you see these ducks swimming over a pop can. They want to survive. In the midst of that, they haven’t given up—and we can’t either.”