March 18th, 2013 Near Winona, MN
Photo courtesy of
Robert J. Hurt Landscape Photography
In an expression of solidarity with the Mother Earth Water Walkers, members of the Winona-Dakota Unity Alliance, led by Bill and Joan McNeil, gave a much needed respite from the harsh weather to the Water Walkers by providing dinner and over-night lodging to Sharon Day and ten other walkers on March 17th in Winona.
Sharon Day, an Ojibwe mother of two and longtime St. Paul, MN resident along with half a dozen members of the Mother Earth Water Walkers are carrying an eagle feather staff and a copper vessel filled with water on an estimated 1,500-mile-long journey that began at the headwaters of the Mississippi River at Lake Itasca on March 1 and is expected to end in Louisiana at the point where the river first flows into the Gulf of Mexico.
“Last year I read an article about the cities, the farmers and 3M arguing over who was the biggest polluter of the Mississippi, not, What can we all do to clean her up?” Said Day. Now they are walking the distance for a historic waterway — the fourth longest in the world — in desperate need of prayer and help. Federal environmental studies rank the Mississippi as the second-most-polluted waterway in the U.S.
The river carries an estimated 1.5-million metric tons of nitrogen from agricultural runoff into the Gulf annually. The yearly buildup has created a “dead zone” of depleted oxygen that has grown to the size of New Jersey, according to one report. But it’s not just the Mighty Miss that is ailing in Minnesota.
In 2008, the Environmental Protection Agency revealed that mercury pollution from power plants and industrial facilities has adversely affected 298 waters in the state. According to the nonprofit Environment Minnesota advocacy group, the level of animal and human fecal bacteria found in streams in southeastern Minnesota was above the federal water quality standard level.
The motivation for the walk is part raising awareness, part tradition. In the Ojibwe culture, women are responsible for taking care of and paying homage to water as a life source “from the beginning of time,” said Day, executive director of the Indigenous Peoples Task Force in Minneapolis.
This year’s walk is again a grassroots effort. There are no deep-pocketed corporate sponsors — no Nikes, no Apple, no Mountain Valley Spring Water, which sounds like a natural. No, there’s just Day, the handful of initial walkers — which includes a grandson — and others who have pledged to join for a while along the 10-state trek.
There are two walkers at a time. One carries the vessel and the other the staff, which symbolically acts as the vessel’s protector, for about 15 minutes before those traveling in a van replace them. The walkers pray along the way. A Mississippi River Water Walk 2013 Facebook page is documenting the group’s journey.
“Just passed the Stone Arch bridge with dancers and a hand drum group! We are under the (Interstate) 94 bridge,” Day wrote about three hours after our chat.
The group has walked through a snowstorm and been fortunate enough to have people in many Minnesota river cities provide a couch or a bed for the night. With some money from a few fundraisers, Day said the walkers will rent a 19-foot RV near the Minnesota-Iowa border for the rest of the journey because indoor resources will be harder to find as they head south.
Day began the journey with a sunrise prayer ceremony that included the group drinking from the headwaters. Final destination is a spot near Pilottown, La., where the river’s main stem first empties into the Gulf in three different directions. That’s where the water from the copper vessel will be poured after a brief ceremony.
“We drank that water,” Day told me. “It’s pure and we are going to give the Mississippi itself a drink of that water. This is how it started out — pure and clean. That’s how us humans come into the world — pure and clean.”
“Sometimes, we end up not so pure or clean,” she added. “But we can get back to that. Same thing with the river. If we have the will, we can change this.”
Ruben Rosario can be reached at 651 228-5454 or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @nycrican.