First Nation Women 'Walk the Environmental Talk'

Friday, October 23, 2009

Tomorrow's global day of climate activism aims for media and political attention. First Nation women have another way. Since 2003, they've walked the shoreline of a Great Lake or major river, meditating on the needs of an unborn generation.

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Mother Earth Water Walkers, Lake Michigan, 2003(WOMENSENEWS)--Their lips wind-burned, feet blistered, shoes worn out. They keep walking.

Sometimes they walk as much as 54 miles in a single day, taking turns carrying eight liters of water in a copper pail and an eagle staff, a six-feet long carved staff with eagle feathers attached, which serves as a flag for Native Americans. At night, they rest in the houses of their supporters or in lodging arranged by a casino. Some nights they camp out in the bitter cold.

For six springs, Mother Earth Water Walkers have walked nearly a month to circle one of the Great Lakes in North America.

Since 2003, they have walked the shorelines of Lake Huron, Lake Ontario, Lake Erie and twice around Lake Michigan.

This year they walked up one coast of the St. Lawrence River, starting at Kingston, Ontario, on April 13 and down the other. They ended on May 1 at Riviere-la-Madeleine, Quebec.

Two Anishinawbe women lead the annual event, which started as a Women Water Walk on a cold wet Easter day in 2003 in Odanah, Wisc.

Along the way, many Native American men and women join them.

The goal is to raise awareness that water is essential and sacred.

Call to Lower Greenhouse Emissions

The United Nations Climate Change Conference is scheduled for December in Copenhagen, Denmark. World leaders are expected to clinch a comprehensive global treaty to cut carbon dioxide emissions.

Tomorrow, Oct. 24, over 4,400 events--called climate actions--are being planned in 172 countries to stir public awareness and urge leaders to commit to policies that will lower global levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide to 350 parts per million. That's the level that James Hansen, a scientist with the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration, has identified as needed to sustain human civilization. The current level, according to a dynamically updating monitor on 350.org, the grassroots group organizing Saturday's events, is 387.

Along with building the buzz online and through posters, the campaign uses off-the-wall strategies, such as baking cookies at 350 degrees F and stringing up 350 socks and pieces of underwear.

The group's leaders include Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the 1984 winner of the Nobel Peace Prize for his work against apartheid; Liz Thompson, an environmental leader for small island developing states, such as Barbados; and Vandana Shiva, an Indian activist for agricultural practices reform and adherent to the alter-globalization movement. The lead organizer is Bill McKibben, a Vermont writer who authored the first book about the dangers of climate change 20 years ago.

But the Water Walkers are not part of this or any media blitz. You won't find them on Twitter or Facebook.

"We walk the talk," said Josephine Mandamin, 67, a native of Thunder Bay, Ontario, and founder of the Mother Earth Water Walks, in a phone interview this week. "We don't have to be on the media and television. You just walk with the water and the people get the message."

Great Lakes Landscape Changed

The human population of the Great Lakes basin is approximately 42 million, according to a report "State of the Great Lakes," which was prepared by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, or EPA, and Environment Canada. Increases in population and urbanization have changed the landscape of the Great Lakes, which in turn may result in an increase in erosion, sediment transport and degradation of water quality in the tributaries and the near-shore areas. Between 1992 and 2001, 2.5 percent (2 million acres) of the Great Lakes basin was subjected to change in land use, according to the 2009 report.

"Some conditions of the Great Lakes are improving while others are deteriorating," said Phillippa Cannon, a spokesperson for the EPA. One of the current programs of the EPA's Great Lakes National Office is to clean up contaminated sediments from the most polluted parts, she said.

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