Giving a Drink to the River Herself

A young girl squats to gather water from the Mississippi River in Minneapolis.

On March 1, Sharon Day started walking and she didn’t stop for a long time. Every day for two months, she and four other “Water Walkers” – Deon Kirby, Ira Johnson, Beth Brent, and Barb Baker-Iarush – walked beside the Mississippi River, all the way from Minnesota to Louisiana. Several hundred people joined the walkers here and there throughout their journey. Strangers would put them up at night, and tribes provided lodging. The group walked to draw attention to the peril the Mississippi River faces due to pollution. Just as importantly, they walked to remember their connection to this great river and giver of life.

I’ve been following the progress of the Mississippi Water Walk through their Facebook group and each day I am inspired. I come from the world of marathons and triathlons where four hour events are marked with water stops and finish line goodies, sheriff patrols to guard busy intersections, and volunteers shouting encouragement along the way. Yet, Sharon Day is a grandmother, and her companions, ordinary people. They walked every day, through snow, rain, wind and sun in everyday clothes, without corporate sponsors. At times, they followed scenic roads, surrounded by nature and beauty, but more often than that, they traversed busy highways through industrial wastelands, a few small figures moving slowing along the shoulder of the road.

The Water Walkers began their journey at Lake Itasca, the headwaters of the Mississippi River. During a traditional Ojibwe ceremony, they filled a copper kettle with clear, clean water from the river and then they carried this kettle and a sacred staff with them every step of the way. “We want the walk to be a prayer,” Day said before they began. “Every step we take we will be praying for and thinking of the water. The water has given us life and now, we will support the water.”

The Mississippi River is such a different creature here in Minnesota than down in Louisiana. In the northern forests, the river is still pure. Children laugh as they leap over the Mississippi in Itasca State Park, where the river is barely more than a stream. Even here in the Twin Cities, the river is still relatively clean. Canoeists paddle through the Minneapolis gorge, and endangered mussels bed down near Fort Snelling. By the time the Mississippi reaches the Gulf of Mexico, however, the water is foul and polluted. No one laughs about the Mississippi River in Louisiana, where the water is so depleted of oxygen that not even fish and shrimp can survive. All that’s left are the byproducts of our modern civilization: fertilizers, chemicals, wastewater and garbage.

As I’ve followed this effort to save a river that connects so many of us, I have also been inspired by the heartfelt messages of support posted by people around the country.

“I just learned of the riverwalk. I wish I had known and been able to offer prayers as you went and even walk a little of the way alongside you. I am grateful to the walkers and supporters–thank you all. Even though that journey is completed, the river still needs our care, so I’ll continue to pray with you for the healing of our waters.” – Debbie Renard, Memphis, May 11.

“On behalf of the Two-Spirit community, we are so proud of our Two-Spirit sister Sharon Day and her amazing leadership!” – Harlan Pruden, New York City, May 7.

“Good morning. The Walkers were on my mind strong this morning. Everything I did today involved water. I am so grateful you are bringing awareness to our sacred water to keep it clean for our children. Chi miigwech. Prayers to all of you.” – Gail Saice, Ramsey, MN, May 4.

On May 3 at 12:40pm, two months and 1700 miles from Lake Itasca, Minnesota, the Water Walkers reached the end of their journey where the Mississippi River meets the Gulf of Mexico. Joined by family, friends and supporters, they praised, celebrated, and then gave the great Mississippi River a drink of herself. Morningdove Verret, a member of the local Houma Nation captured the sentiments of many. “Sharon Day, if someone would have told me that one day I would drink water from the Mississippi, I would have said ‘no way’. Not only to see crystal clear Mississippi water, but to drink it. That was awesome.”

To join the conversation, find the Mississippi River Water Walk 2013 on Facebook.