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, 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.

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