On April 20, 2017, Josephine Mandamin and the waterwalkers began their journey in Duluth Minnesota. On July 26 – day 97 – their journey ended in Matane, Quebec. Photo courtesy of @FortheEarthandWater​Walk2017FromWesttoEast


BOOZHOO! Nodin Ikwe ndizhnikaaz, mukwa ndoodem. Wiikwemkoong Manido minising ndoonjibaa. Ojibway Anishinaabe kwe ndaaaw. Kitchener endayaan.

My English name is Mary Anne Caibaiosai, but the spirits know me as Wind Spirit Woman. I am bear clan Anishinaabe from Wiikwemkoong Unceded Territory, Manitoulin Island. I live in Kitchener, Ontario.

This article relates my experiences participating in the “2017 For the Earth and Water Walk.” It was a journey that started in Duluth, Minnesota and ended in Matane, Quebec. I walked next to Josephine Mandamin, the Walk’s founder, my sister Loretta, a group of core walkers and numerous allies. These experiences filled my spirit, mind, body and heart. The images I saw, the sounds I heard, the emotions and thoughts that came to mind still linger. All of those experiences transformed me and led me to where I stand. Now I would like to share these experiences.

Grandmother Josephine Mandamin began the water walks after an Anishinaabe leader of the Midewewin Lodge asked the people during their ceremonies, “what will you do for the Earth?” Josephine responded by saying that she would walk for the water; and so she walked around Lake Superior in 2003 and around a Great Lake every two years. These walks were meant to raise awareness of what was being done to the water and share traditional knowledge that water has spirit and life. Since her first walk, Josephine has walked around all five lakes, and inspired others to join her in walking and in raising awareness for the water. When I considered joining the walk in 2017, I wanted to honour Josephine for her work for the water, knowing this would be her last walk. I also wanted to honour our late sister Violet Caibaiosai who had also walked for the water with Josephine.

The first walkers for the 2017 For the Earth and Water Walk opened with a special ceremony of song, prayers and smudging before stepping onto the road in late April in Spirit Mountain near Duluth, Minnesota. These same walkers, and more who offered to help along the way, stepped off the road in Matane Quebec, on the south side of the St. Lawrence River, in July. It was a heart-felt and spirit-lifting moment. Josephine envisioned the journey, and served as driver, spiritual helper and emotional support for the walkers. She kept us going.

In our Anishinaabe teachings, women are responsible for the water. In our full moon and water ceremonies, the women sing, pray for and lift the water in copper vessels. Copper is an ancient metal that has distinct and powerful conductive properties. It is antimicrobial in nature, and knowledge of its ability to keep water clean has been used in Ayurveda practice for centuries. For Anishinaabe women, we believe copper vessels clean, heal and amplify our prayers to and for the water. It is a sacred relationship of ancient wisdom and knowledge that we embrace and honour.

In our Anishinaabe teachings, women are responsible for the water.

We believe water has spirit; that it is sacred and gives us life. Water cleanses and nourishes us; quenches our thirst and helps us in ceremonies. Those who fight for and walk for the water are called water protectors and they understand these teachings. The women in our group took turns carrying a copper pail of water from Lake Superior to the St. Lawrence River. The eagle staff carrier walked next to, or behind the one carrying the pail; never ahead. The eagle represents vision and is meant to guide and protect the woman. The eagle’s head always faced forward, but could move from side to side to seek the best route. Protecting and moving the water forward was of utmost importance.

Our teachings are that ceremonies have protocols, or ways of proceeding. One of these is to smudge with sage, a traditional medicine that involves lighting the sage and lifting the smoke over one’s eyes, ears, mouths, hearts and hands. This action cleanses our thoughts, visions, words and feelings. Josephine acknowledged this walk was a ceremony and so we smudged before picking up the pail and eagle staff. As part of the ceremonial protocol during the walk, women were asked to wear long skirts. There are traditional teachings that go with the wearing of skirts, which I cannot share here, but it is said the long skirt represents our closeness to Mother Earth, and our respect and honour for the water. The eagle staff is a sacred item that represents vision. The eagle is the being who sees the furthest; he sees his prey from great heights.

The woman carrying the pail was asked to look ahead when she walked, signifying that water is flowing ahead. If the water stops flowing, it means there is no more water; therefore, once the pail was lifted, it could not stop moving until the end of each day’s walk.

Throughout the walk, the pail was passed from one walker to the next in a fluid manner, similar to how water flows. When walkers approached intersections, the eagle staff would be lifted high to be visible. Traffic would slow down or halt so the pail would keep moving. The staff carrier, through the eagle’s eyes, found routes around construction sites and complicated city byways. Strong walkers were asked to traverse the more difficult sites to keep the pail moving. At the end of each day, the pail and the staff were smudged and the eagle’s feathers wiped with water. One of the male walkers was chosen to care for the eagle staff for the entire journey.

Throughout the walk, the pail was passed from one walker to the next in a fluid manner, similar to how water flows.                                                                                                                  

On several occasions we noticed the feathers around the eagle’s face looked ruffled by the environment, and appeared tired. We came to understand the eagle staff and the pail were both affected when we passed through toxic territories. Some people may find the idea of these items suffering difficult to consider, but we believe they too have spirit. We saw it. We witnessed it.

We also witnessed an unusual relationship between horses we encountered and the eagle staff. We saw horses run across fields, come to a stop, and stand perfectly still as the eagle staff passed. Some pawed the earth and kept their eyes fixed on the eagle. On one occasion at daybreak, a group of horses seemed to sense us walk past and we heard them neighing from their housing. We do not understand the relationship, but it is a powerful connection; perhaps from a time when warriors once mounted on horseback and carried eagle staffs when preparing for travel or war.

This walk over the land connected us to our relatives on, in, and above the water. In our teachings, our relatives include the winged ones, swimmers, crawlers, four-legged, standing ones, and medicines. We are taught all of these are our original teachers. We understand they are sacred and we honour them. In addition to our connection to the Earth and to our relatives on the land, we witnessed another inter-relationship play out between energy and nature.

This walk over the land connected us to our relatives on, in, and above the water – the winged ones, swimmers, crawlers, four-legged, standing ones, and medicines.

We walked through areas where chemicals were stored, where wind turbines twirled, and where swaths of hydro power lines stood. During those times, the pail became noticeably heavier. When we walked a stretch of road under power lines, we heard and felt electricity crackling in the lines above us, and even in our arms. Those who carried the eagle staff acknowledged it too, feeling heavy. The eagle’s face looked more withdrawn and strained at the end of those days.

While carrying the pail through these toxic territories, I reflected on the work of Masaru Emoto. Emoto, who studied the effects of positive and negative energy on crystals in water. Emoto speculated when negative words were affixed to water, their crystal formations became deformed, while the opposite was true of the crystals when positive words were voiced.

I believe this energy affected our bodies and minds as well. During the walk, relationships would sometimes become strained (a normal situation in group settings), and negative words were sometimes thought or spoken.

I believe Emoto’s work addresses a significant truth here: how we treat others and ourselves impacts us directly. When we walked through toxic environments, we felt our spirits and moods become heavy. We were conscious of that, and felt the need to smudge not only at the beginning of each day, but also at the end of the day.

A prevailing spirit and sense of purpose moved us forward on the journey. Some walkers suffered from sore ankles, blisters, stiff knees and hips, some got heat stroke, some became anxious and felt low. Some felt exhausted as the stress of walking through cities, construction sites and toxic areas affected all parts of our being. But the walkers understood Josephine’s dream to walk to the east; to raise awareness of the spirit of the water. This sense of purpose and spirit moved us onward to our destination. Our connection to the land also helped us.

One morning while I carried the water, the man who carried the staff cried as the newly brightening sky reflected on a trickling stream and I sang a water song. We passed the pail and eagle staff to the walkers ahead of us, and he walked away, tears streaming down his face. When he returned, I hugged him. He responded that, at that moment, the morning, the water, the song all filled his spirit and overwhelmed him. This was medicine for us. Scenes like this occurred with other walkers, but I am sharing what I saw, heard and felt.

Map of the Great Lakes "For the Earth and Water" Walk by artist CD Good

Each day unfolded this way: we woke at two o’clock, smudged, found morning coffee and snacks, drove to the spot where the eagle staff and pail were touched to the earth the previous day. Sometimes there were four walkers, sometimes ten. Each morning was different; those who walked early changed each day. What remained the same was Josephine’s insistence we be on the road at three o’clock. It was she who kept us going on hard days; who prayed for us when we walked through toxic landscape, who worried when we got lost and always smiled and looked at us with unconditional love.

During the sacred morning start, there was rarely a sound – just our footsteps sounding on the roadways. Prayers and songs were whispered and sung softly as the earth, sky and water-beings woke. The voices of crickets, frogs and other beings slowly and softly met our ears. Then the winged ones began to awaken and to sing; first the robin, then the dove, then the red-winged blackbird and the crow. Each morning this pattern unfolded. How soothing for the ears and heart to hear that magical music – nature’s symphony. In that pre-dawn we looked up to the heavens to see a brilliant array of stars. It was heart-wrenching and spirit-lifting to watch the universe unfold; to witness the heavens lighten from the darkness. Some days we witnessed the majesty of sunrise; other days brought rain, but we kept walking and persisted.

The walk has transformed how I see the Earth when I drive over it.

As we walked, I recalled the words of a wise Elder from Birch Island, now passed on. Her belief was that if you don’t feel anything for the land, if you don’t know who and what is on the land, if you aren’t connected to Creation, you will not feel the need to protect and fight for her. And so it was on the water walk that we saw, heard, smelled and felt all of Creation, and re-connected with her. We heard the small ones and the winged ones offer their voices and fly overhead; we witnessed the fox, coyote and horses as they walked next to us or crossed in front of us. We smelled the fragrances of the plants that we passed on the land as the rains touched them, some sharp and pungent; others soft and mellow. We felt the rain and wind against our faces, we heard the rumble of the thunder-beings, we felt the cold, and yes, the heat of Grandfather sun making us walk faster or slower.

Creation controlled our movement, how far and how long we walked. The workings of humans also controlled our journey: road construction, traffic, noise, racist attitudes and comments in settler communities, or welcoming kindness from First Nation communities. All of this contributed to our well-being or lack of it.

Many aspects of this walk had lessons that come back to me. The most profound for me is the realization that what is around us, our environment, words, thoughts, and ways of being affect not only the water on the earth, but also, our bodily water. Chemicals and waste that people pour into the waters; toxins that manufacturing creates; the wind turbines, … all affect not just humans, but also the wildlife, birdlife, swimmers and sacred creatures of the Earth. We are all affected. This is what I learned, felt, saw and what my spirit felt. I believe more people should walk this way; to sing and pray for Mother Earth and for Nibi, our sacred water.

The walk has transformed how I see the Earth when I drive over it. I now measure distance as if I were walking it. I see all of Creation as medicines and as if I were walking past them. When I say medicines, I refer to the plants, the winged ones, the insects, and the water. I now use water at home differently and try to live frugally. I appreciate our original helpers on the Earth differently. Our teachings say we are all connected. This I witnessed and this I felt. It is said by the Elders that the Earth and wildlife don’t need us; however, we are reliant on them. How true that is. We rely on those relatives on the land for their gifts of song, for the medicines of the trees such as maple syrup, birch sap, and for the barks that we use in healing. All of this, all of Creation is medicine. It is healing, yet we have forgotten it and destroyed it. We have used water along construction sites and drained much of our wetlands on the road for destruction, not construction. It is not progress that this society has done. It has gone backwards.

The full version of this article will be published soon in Alternatives Journal 44:1 (2019). Josephine Mandamin’s 97-day walk around Lake Superior is chronicled on Facebook @FortheEarthandWater​Walk2017FromWesttoEast. Connect with the water walking community on Facebook @GrandRiverWaterWalk. Find more at grandriverwaterwalk.com. 

Mary Anne Caibaiosai is an Anishnaabe woman from Wiikwemkoong Unceded Territory, Manitoulin Island. She currently resides in Kitchener where she is a helper in the community. She is now in the planning process for the second  2019 All Nations Grand River Water Walk (June 15 to 21).

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