River flowing, gathering tears

“No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.”

– Heraclitus

In the pine-scented forests of northern Minnesota, a crystal clear lake spills over and becomes a river. As it flows out of Itasca State Park, the Mississippi River begins a 2,350 mile journey through ten states to the Gulf of Mexico. Ask ten different people to describe the Mississippi River and you’ll get ten different answers.

Mississippi River at Schoolcraft State Park in northern Minnesota

For the family paddling kayaks downstream from Lake Itasca to the Vermillion River, the Mississippi River is a thin blue ribbon of natural wonders with forested shorelines, blue-flag iris, and eagles soaring overhead. Ask an Anishinaabe elder and she may tell you about harvesting manoomin (wild rice) in the river and along the banks of Lake Winnibigoshish.

In North Minneapolis it is an ugly river, a working river, where factories and recycling plants belch toxic chemicals into the lungs of the surrounding community. Near Cottage Grove, the Mississippi is a muddy river with backwater channels 500 feet wide and two feet deep. How could each person’s river be so different? After all, it’s the same Mississippi. And then again, it is not.

Mississippi River in north Minneapolis

As it travels across the country, the Mississippi River gathers water from blue lakes, green lakes, tiny streams, and raging rivers. It passes through rolling farmlands and bustling cities, collecting remnants of our human lives as well – plastic bottles, cigarette butts, fertile soil, and fertilizers. The Mississippi is like a woman with a basket on her back that grows heavier by the hour. Sometimes I think she gathers our tears as well, as she sweeps through burning cities and past people crying out for justice.

Mississippi River in downtown Minneapolis

By the time it reaches the Gulf of Mexico, the Mississippi River is heavily polluted, so much so that it creates a Dead Zone the size of Massachusetts where nothing can live in the water. We are all a part of both the problem and the solution. And yet, individual action can only go so far. I find a lot of parallels between how we address complex environmental and social issues. In most cases, there is no simple “right thing” to do. Many different kinds of action are needed at many different levels, and without structural change and wide-scale collaboration, problems don’t get solved.

Mississippi River – Grey Cloud Channel. Cottage Grove, MN

Sharon Day, Executive Director of the Indigenous Peoples Task Force, has led more than one dozen Nibi Water Walks along the Mississippi and other rivers in the United States. In 2013, Day and other Anishinaabe leaders walked for two months straight from the headwaters of the Mississippi to the river’s end in Louisiana. They walked through snow, rain, wind, and sun in everyday clothes and without corporate sponsors. “We walk for the water, and as we heal the water we heal all of life.” Though Day is just one person, others joined her as she walked. Sometimes the crowd swelled to more than 100; other times it was less than five. One step inspired another, and soon there were Nibi Water Walks happening in Ohio, St. Louis, Arizona and Chicago. From these walks comes action as well. People connect with the rivers and one another, organize, and work for change.

Mississippi Water Walk 2013. Sharon Day, left, Brooks Johnson, right.

“Spread love like honey,” advises Day – love for the river and the rest of the world. “Sing, meditate, offer our thanksgivings for a better world where food is distributed to all, where shelter is available to all, where medicine is available to all, and love and kindness become the “new normal,” she says. “Love, kindness, generosity is extended to all, plants, animals, birds and yes, to human beings.”

Sunset over the Mississippi River at Spring Lake Park Reserve

To learn more about Nibi Walks, go to: www.nibiwalk.org

For ideas of ways to support the Twin Cities community, go to: https://rb.gy/nln3vx The document includes an extensive list of organizations accepting food and financial donations; upcoming protest events; community organizations led by people of color; small businesses needing help; and resources for taking action from home.