About a year ago I first heard of some Native American grandmothers walking through Wisconsin to raise awareness of water issues. At the time I was busy and could not consider trying to catch even a small part of it. Yet, the stunning idea of elderly women walking long distances out of love for the water called to me.
It turns out that Anishinabe Grandmother Josephine Mandiman was one of the pioneers of the idea and had taken part in walks around each of the Great Lakes over a period of five years, one lake a year, all of it to raise consciousness about the sacred and essential nature of water, a gift of the earth that is fast becoming poisoned with chemicals, sewage, and more. She followed that up with the St. Lawrence River in 2009. This year she has led Water Walks around Lake Nipigon (the largest lake in Ontario) and now Lake Monona in Wisconsin.
I am a child of the water, as we all ultimately are. I have felt drawn toward it my entire life. I was born on the Mississippi River in a small town in northwestern Illinois. I grew up in a small southwestern Wisconsin town where there was only a small creek and a few small farm ponds and a community swimming pool. I was drawn to the creek and spent the majority of my summertime at the swimming pool. Once I reached adulthood I have only wanted to live in places where there was water, which is one of the reasons the four lakes of Madison appealed to me so much.
All my life I have felt comfortable on or around water. Water and the wind are two of my muses. It disappointed me that I could not be a witness to the grandmothers’ walk in Wisconsin last year.
But a couple weeks ago I heard that there was going to be a Lake Monona Water Walk in the capital city of Madison and the suburb where I live, Monona, and I knew then that I had to be a part of it in some way.
It turned out there was an entire weekend of activities planned, kicking off with a music festival on Friday evening. On Saturday a water expo, speakers, and entertainers were scheduled, along with a free movie, Waterlife, on Saturday night. Sunday was to bring a sunrise all-traditions water blessing, followed by a walk around the entirety of Lake Monona, and ending with a community dinner on Sunday evening. I didn’t make it to any of the events on Friday or Saturday except for the movie which, while informative and well-done, was also utterly depressing and ultimately hopeless. It was beautifully filmed, but it left a feeling of such dread that working toward saving the Great Lakes seemed like not only a monumental, but an impossible, task. I was in need of a more hopeful outlook on Sunday.
What Sunday gave me was an incredible spiritual experience. It started at 6:30 a.m., past sunrise but still plenty early. Grandmother Josephine Mandiman performed the first of the traditional blessings and she filled me. She had said a few words at the movie opening on Saturday and what stuck out was, “This movie is not about me, it’s about the water”, even though she was a central character in the documentary. She brought the same humility and grace to her words on Sunday morning.
I am not overly familiar with native traditions, but she explained what she was doing and explained the spiritual backdrop of her actions to the crowd. We learned of medicines, traditions, and belief systems and her simple, unassuming manner welcomed all to be a part of her people’s ways. I have seldom felt so included in the traditions of another. When I drank of her blessed water and smoked from the pipe I felt connected with her and her people, with the water, and with all the others there in that moment of time. This woman radiated from a spiritual core.
The other traditions resonated with me as well. Reverend Marshall Norman, a minister from Unity, found a perfect angle from which to talk about water from a Christian perspective. Selena Fox, a Wiccan priestess, brought more light to us and led a majority of the people into the waters of Lake Monona for blessing of the water. A Unitarian minister, Reverend Michael Schuler, spoke of the importance of water in Christian, Hindi, and Muslim cultures. Misha Dancing Waters and Sandra Rybachek led the group in Andean and Mayan blessings. Menominee dancer Art Shegonee was dressed to dance but instead bestowed the gift of eagle feathers to a friend of his, Grandmother, and Grandmother’s son, Gabriel. It was a very moving moment. The last to present was William Waterway Marks, a student of native flute playing who led the group through flute and chants to the four corners, above and below, and to the waters of Lake Monona itself.
Throughout the ceremony the setting was punctuated with the sound of many different kinds of birds, singing one after the other as elegant exclamations to the blessings and words. At other times a young man in the crowd would unexpectedly and sometimes loudly echo the speakers’ words and it, too, brought another kind of beauty to the whole ceremony. In another setting it may have been intrusive, but in that setting it added resonance and filled the space with perfect accents.
After the blessings there was an expected break, but during that time several All Nations drummers from Wausau showed up with a drum and began to play. Art Shegonee danced to the songs, as did several others, and it added another whole dimension to the morning’s blessings and activities. The drum was among the most beautiful I have ever seen, festooned with colorful flowers on the side and on the top four interconnected hands, one black, one red, one white, one yellow–truly a drum of all nations, and it sang of brotherhood.
When the drummers finished Grandmother walked to the lake and dipped her copper bucket into it. The water in that bucket would be carried around the entire lake and brought back to this point. Those who traveled with it would find themselves committed to the lake in a new way. They would be connected with it in an indescribable way. Like sons and daughters caring for an aging mother they would be responsible for her in the same way that she had soothed them for so long. Water is life. It gives us life. We are of it and it is of us. The sunrise ceremony and Water Walk pointed out that we must give life back to the water. Where she is sick or dying we must nurse her. Where she is threatened we must protect her. Where she is disregarded we must love her.
There were many who made the entire circuit. I was not one of them; my back wasn’t feeling up to it and with a heart attack less than four years removed I wasn’t sure about walking almost 20 miles around the lake. But I followed the walkers and photographed them all day, documenting the story of the walk to share with others. I understand it is not just those who joined the Water Walk today who need to come to the aid of our water resources. It is all of us. This is the point of Grandmother’s walks–to make others aware that our Great Lakes and our small lakes, our rivers and our estuaries are sick, and we must tend to them now before it is too late. I thank her for this awakening and pledge to do what I can to protect our water resources and all of Mother Earth. All of us need to walk this path together.
For photos from the event, follow this link: https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.10150881971342127.399989.702102126&type=1&l=41d4a656bc