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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But when you ask Mandamin about human-made climate change and the havoc scientists say it is wreaking, she says Mother Earth is doing what she can by "cleaning herself" in the form of fires, floods and landslides.

Mandamin described herself as a grandmother "looking after the water for the next generation for the unborn."

"In every nation, any country, any First Nations that I have heard, women were the carriers of the water, from the wells to the house," she said.

According to the "State of the Great Lakes" report, the climate in the Great Lakes region is shifting. Winters are shorter, annual average temperature warmer and rain and snow are heavier. The air and water temperatures are increasing, while the lake ice cover is decreasing.

Cannon said that Congress is considering the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, in which the president has proposed $475 million to address the problems in the Great Lakes. "That would certainly make a big difference towards continuing the work of cleaning up the Great Lakes," she said.

Inspiration for First Walk

The idea for the Water Walks welled up in 2002, from the Sundance Ceremony in Pipestone, Minn., where the Grand Chief E. Benton-Banaise-Bawdwayadun of the Anishinawbe reminded the women of a prophecy made about 10 years ago by an Anishinawbe elder:

"In about 30 years, if we humans continue with our negligence, an ounce of drinking water will cost the same as an ounce of gold."

The leader also talked about how traditionally women have been the carriers of water and that it is believed that one day women would walk all of the Great Lakes.

That prompted Mandamin to initiate the first Women Water Walk.

In 2003, after a send-off ceremony and feast of moose stew, fish, wild rice and Bannok-- a traditional native bread prepared by pan-frying--women from different clans came together to pace the 350 miles of the Lake Superior coastline.

For the last couple of years men have realized their duties, too, and are walking beside the women on the spring treks.

Since 2006, men hold the symbolic eagle staff to give strength during the walks; however, women continue to carry the pail of water. "There was a uniting of the minds for the water, with the water and because of the water," Mandamin said.

Walking All Day

The Water Walkers wake up before dawn and walk until sundown, thriving on trail mixes, granola bars, fruits and hot soup at night.

They stop to refresh the bucket of water, offer tobacco and petition to the powers of the water. The walks are marked with water songs, hand drums and flute, rain, snow and gales of laughter.

Similar walks are organized elsewhere in North America. The women of Pokagon Band of Potawatomi Indians in Michigan organize one-day annual water walks.

In June 2008 the Many Horses Foundation, based in Woodstock, Ga., organized a 10-day Walk for the Water for 50 people who walked along the banks of Chattahoochee River.

Gary Fourstar, one of the founders of this event, said the female-dominated group led another 10-day walk for the water, starting at the headwaters of the Tiber River in Italy and ending at the Vatican in 2007. More than 80 people, including Native American elders, participated in the walk.

The goal of the water walk is to spur people to give thanks for their water and to realize that water is alive and needs protection, said Debora Fourstar, president of the Many Horses Foundation and married to Gary Fourstar.

She said the Western world has lost respect and connection with nature.

"We are not here to just take but as the guardian of the natural world," she said.

Bijoyeta Das is a multimedia journalist based in Boston.

For more information:

Mother Earth Water Walk

Walk for the Water

State of the Great Lakes 2009

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