NEW RICHMOND --- Songbirds serenaded the women in long skirts as they gathered on a small bridge near the Willow River headwaters. Anticipation hung in the cool morning air as the walkers awaited a ceremony long delayed out of concern for a dangerous virus.
Instructions were shared, questions answered as a circle formed and women counted off into groups of four.
Water, “nibi” in the language of the Ojibwe, gathered from the Willow’s headwater is poured into a copper kettle. Faint white tendrils of smoke weave the smell of tobacco, “asema,” through the circle.
Then it begins, the heartbeat, the drum is joined by voices singing the tobacco song followed by a song for the water. The primal connection to the water, the women and the Willow is complete. Now the journey can begin.
The first group of four women, the water walkers, sets out down the gravel road, the kettle bearer first followed by the eagle feather staff and then fellow walkers.
They chant, “Ngah izitchigay nibi ohnjay -- I will do it for the water.”
Over the next two days, women will take turns handing off the kettle to a fellow walker every mile following a route that stays as near to the river as possible. The water will stay in perpetual motion never stopping mimicking the flow of the river itself until it is emptied into the St. Croix River at the confluence of the Willow and St Croix some 60 miles from headwater of the Willow in Clear Lake.
Nibi water walks are founded in ancient Ojibwe ceremonial water teachings. The premise is, that water has a spirit, that water listens, it hears what we say and sees what we do and it has a memory.
In the Ojibwe tradition, men are responsible for fire and women for gathering water. During a nibi walk, only women can carry the water while men can only carry the staff.
The women wear skirts to symbolize their direct connection to Mother Earth.
“Women are responsible for the water because we are life givers. Whether we ever chose to bring another human being into this world or not, we all have that ability,” Ojibwe Elder Sharon Day explained. “We have waited a long time for this day. Water is life. There can be no life without water. The reason we walk is to honor the rivers and all water and to speak to the water spirits so that there will be healthy rivers, lakes and oceans for our ancestors in the generations to come.”
Day, who has led nibi walks on rivers across the United States totaling more than 9.500 miles, collaborated with North Woods and Waters of the St. Croix Heritage Area, Friends of the Willow River and Kinnickinnic State Parks and the Clear Lake Earth Day Committee to organize the Nibi Walk for the Willow River on April 30 and May 1, 2021.
According to nibi walk traditions, walkers or others accompanying them in cars continuously sing and offer prayers to the water. Walkers also offer asema at any flowing streams they cross and also to honor any animals they may encounter.
After a 30-mile first day, walkers gathered Friday evening in New Richmond at Mary Park where, in ceremony, Day asked permission from the river to rest. Walkers contributed stones to make a ceremonial circle, shared impressions, gave thanks, offered asema and joined in a water song.
Walkers regrouped early Saturday morning at the ceremonial circle formed the night before and set out once again in groups of four to continue the walk through Willow River State Park to Hudson and the Willow’s confluence at the St. Croix where the water in the kettle was emptied into the St. Croix.
Step by step
Every step in the process, literally every step, in conjunction with the singing, the prayers, the offerings of asema is meant to honor the spirit of the water and acknowledge how essential it is not only to our lives but to all living things. The immediacy and physical demands of walking are meant to counter our taking for granted the presence of water and our easy access to it.
The walk each individual contributes, the tributes to the water in the form of songs and prayers, the relationship to the river constructed through that two-day traveling ceremony transforms the water in the kettle into “M’de waboo,” sacred water.
“When we carry the water, we are speaking to the spirit that lives in that water. When we pour it back in, it speaks to the rest of the water. That water is life. It is the great mystery and it is more powerful than any living entity,” Day said.
Day appreciates that the struggle to elevate the critical importance of clean water not only at a political and policy level but in the mind of individual citizens is likely to be a long one -- but one she is willing to dedicate her life to.
“Everybody has a part to play. What we’re saying is, we’re going to walk a river and if you wish to come with us, you can. We’re going to put all of our love and gratitude into this river and we wish for you to come with us. Love really is the healing grace. We had 25-30 people here today. They’ll go home and share their experience with 30 other people. That’s why I lead these water walks,” Day said.
To learn more about the Ojibwe tradition of the nibi walk visit nibiwalk.org.