It seems out of place in this age of virtual participation, to see four women, mostly older, in long colorful skirts, walking in line carrying a copper pail full of water. It feels too real, too honest.
Beneath our feet
a steady stream flows
between layers of rock and dirt
rushing towards the hollow
along the south side
she rises from the earth
a surge of crisp clean water
gushes into the open air
near where we stand
circled in prayer
witnessing a river grow.
A springfed force
spreads her wings
carving a course
west with purpose
on å water ‘s quest
Do you feel the vibrations
1000 drums beat
the water song.
They walk briskly by outlined in the distance against farms and fields and forests. It would be by chance that anyone sees them, a coincidental look out a kitchen window, a curious glance by a passing pick up.
The occasional scent of a lilac or cherry drifts by tokens of an elusive spring. They deliberately follow back roads to stay safe and because they most closely shadow the winding river.
They make an offering of tobacco at each river or stream that they pass as well as the remains of any animals they encounter. They walk in silence their assigned distance and then without stopping pass the vessel to the next person and the pilgrimage continues uninterrupted until they reach their destination, the St. Croix River.
Nibi is the Anishinabe word for water. A Nibi walk is an Indigenous-led ceremony in which a vessel, in this case a small copper kettle, is filled with water gathered at the headwater of the body of water being honored, in this case, the Kinnickinnic River.
The vessel is transported the length of the river by an ever moving relay of women in long skirts traveling in groups of four. The vessel is handed off to a different walker every three quarters of a mile accompanied by the phrase, “Ninja Izhichige Nibi Onji,” “I will do it for the water,” until it reaches its destination. The destination on Saturday, May 21 was the confluence of the Kinni with the St. Croix River some 22.4 miles from the Kinni’s headwaters in Warren Township.
The pilgrimage is essentially a moving prayer flowing, just as the water does, the length of the river in gratitude for the health and life-giving force of the river.
In Objewa and many other indigenous cultures, women as givers of life are synonymous with water, they are the keepers of water. They wear long skirts out of respect for the grass, mother earth and themselves.
In Indigenous culture, physical and spiritual health are intimately connected in all elements of life, not just human beings but plants, animals, air, earth and water as well. It is understood that damage or neglect of any one element affects all of the elements.
Ceremony and ritual are human ways to acknowledge and honor these connections as well as draw attention to our neglect, misuse or abuse of the resources we depend on. Water walks have been used to raise awareness of other injustices beside the pollution and neglect of water, including climate change, mining, fracking, pipelines and the epidemic of missing and murdered indigenous women.
Ceremony, prayer and song are tools with which to help heal the abuse and neglect and remind us to never take clean water for granted.
The Kinnickinnic River Nibi Water Walk took place on Saturday, May 21. It was organized by Poet of Place, River Marie Urke with assistance from Objewa elder and nationally recognized water walker, Sharon Day.
Urke, along with four other poets, Heidi Barr, Mike Forecki, Lee Kisling and Rosetta Peters were named Poets of Place for the lower Saint Croix valley for 2022 as part of the NEA Big Read program.
Day has led water walks across the country covering thousands of miles in respect for the role of clean water playa in preserving life on the planet.
A drum awakens the hearts and minds of the walkers. Indigenous songs give voice to their spirits united in gratitude, care and concern for the water. The first group of four set out led by the copper vessel filled with water from the river followed by the eagle feather staff and two more walkers.
Over the next six hours, walkers will take turns carrying the water and the staff, never stopping, humbled by the larger landscape they traverse. They walk with purpose focused on the gifts water provides for all of life on the earth, inside honoring their own personal experiences and stories connected to the Kinni.
As they descend the steep to the river’s edge they can feel the St. Croix is close. They gather on the shore behind the bearer of the vessel. She holds the copper vessel high overhead and offers it to the sky and then to each of the four directions, north, east, south and west. She makes an offering of tobacco first and then in a single motion releases the water back to the river.
“Gi Bimosayaan nibi ohnjay M’de waboo - We walk for the water. Sacred water.”
On Sunday night, May 22, 2002, as part of her efforts to honor the Kinnickinnic River, Poet of Place River Maria Urke hosted Honor the Water, a Kinnickinnic Poetry Fundraiser.
Joining Urke on stage for readings were her fellow Poets of Place, Heidi Barr and Mike Forecki along with special guest poet Thomas R. Smith. The evening also included an open mic and music by Thea Ennen & Dave JaVoe.
The evening raised more than $900 for the Kinnickinnic River land Trust.
“My favorite part of the fundraiser was at the very end when we, the four Poets of Place, were joined by four audience members, pre-chosen, to read a Joy Harjo poem together. The audience members stood up where they were sitting and read. Many people now know what a poet of place is. It was a weekend full of love and support for the Kinni,” Urke said.
The walkers watch as the waters are reunited. They form a prayer circle on the shore and begin the ceremony by cleansing with smoke. Each person shares what the walk has meant to them and places an offering of asemaa/tobacco next to the blue berries on the blanket.
“Today was about the part of me that is the Kinni. The Kinni and I go way back to a time when I was very mobile, when I grew a lifelong love for the river. I think part of what plays into it now is that I can’t get down to it very easily. That makes it more precious. Water has wrapped my life. It is integral to who I am. From my given name to my spiritual world, water and I are inseparable.The Kinni is my church, my everything,”Urke said.