The message of Josephine Mandamin of the Anishinabek Nation of Ontario, Canada, was always the same.
Water, the source of all life, is a sacred gift. We, the people of this earth, need to adopt it, honor it, care for it, pray for it, fight for it.
Quoting Grand Chief E. Benton-Banaise-Bawdwayadun, a tribal elder she heard in 2002, Josephine Mandamin warned that “the abuses of water will result in severe shortages. And if we don’t do anything about it, thirty years from now our water will cost the same as gold”.
The key word, she said, was “if.” It didn’t have to happen. And when the chief finished his talk by asking, “What are you going to do about it?” she decided to start walking. Beginning with Lake Superior in 2003, this grandmother in her sixties—and then seventies—would inspire and participate in water walks that spanned over 15,500 miles alongside all five Great Lakes, the St. Lawrence River and other major waterways in the region.
Unbeknownst to me, during that same chilly month of April 2008 as I hiked north up the eastern coast of Lake Michigan, she and a group of Water Walkers were traveling south, carrying the symbolic copper pail filled with Lake Michigan water, praying for its health.
Josephine Manadamin, passed in February at the age of seventy-seven. What might I have learned from this remarkable woman had our paths crossed?
She admits in journal entries and video interviews* that these walks were tough physically and, in the beginning, emotionally. Passing motorists who did not understand taunted her, and the small group accompanying her, with war whoops and shouts like “crazy Indians” or “get a job.” But she and the others kept walking. And by 2008, the year they completed the last leg of the Great Lakes journey, there were native and nonnative people, men and women, young and old walking alongside.
“She had an aura about her that made her special,” Royce Ragland, founder of the Green Elk Rapids organization and an inductee into the Michigan Environmental Hall of Fame, told me. “Something emanated from her, a quiet peacefulness that grabbed your attention, made you want to be near her.”
Ragland asked Mandamin to speak to the Elk Rapids organization in 2010, and to return in 2018.
“She had such a powerful message it gave us goose pimples. She was so modest, humble, and focused on her mission. One of the warmest and most brilliant things about Josephine was that she accommodated all of us, especially those of us who did not know indigenous cultures and traditions. She walked the talk that this mission must include everyone.”
But women cannot walk alone. In addition to the copper pail, the Water Walkers carried a staff inscribed with an eagle, the symbol for caretaking and protection. “Just as men’s responsibility does not end when the seed is planted in the womb of a woman, men must accompany women on this critical work of caring for the water,” she reminded a gathering of chiefs encountered while walking Lake Huron. Men must help carry the load.
“In the culture of the indigenous people, everything is connected,” explained JoAnne Cook, a member of the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa/Chippewa Indians, a consultant, and former tribal court judge. “Peacemaking allows everyone a voice. Healing happens. The same thing for the water. When we pray, talk positively, and conduct water ceremonies, we are helping the water to heal.”
Cook participated for several days in three of the walks.
“Josephine was so inspiring. When she heard the words of the chief, she received her own personal message and followed it. It’s so easy to say ‘I’m just one person, what can I do?’ But look what she did!”
According to Ragland, she gave the term “grandmother” new meaning. “She saw something that needed to be done and she just did it. She didn’t let her age or her health get in the way.”
How do you measure the success of the Water Walk? Josephine Mandamin wrote in her journal after that first year hiking the circumference of Lake Superior. Is it the numbers of miles walked? Is it what we experienced? Is it the people we met?
I suspect it was all those things. For me, it is knowing her spirit walks alongside me as I carry a pail of copper in my heart. The pail is filled with Lake Michigan water.
*Found at the website of the organization she created, www.MotherEarthWaterWalk.com.
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