We are standing in a small circle at the T intersection of State Highways 18 and 23, north of the town of Sandstone, Minnesota. As pickup trucks rush by on this Sunday morning, I think to myself “what an odd place to hold a ceremony.” But it is part of the Nibi Walk ritual: The water must start in the exact location it stopped at the end of the previous day’s journey. Two days of walking has brought a copper vessel holding water from the headwaters of the Kettle River, near Cromwell, Minnesota, to the place we now stand, a distance of roughly 50 miles by road. Today the water will end its journey at the confluence with the St. Croix River.
After a brief ceremony, Sharon Day, leader of the walk, picks up the vessel and an eagle feather and immediately begins walking up Highway 23 towards the river. Paul follows her with an eagle head staff, a symbol of protection for the journey. Once the walk begins, the water vessel must never stop moving forward until the end of the day, or when the mouth of the river is reached. Because water in the river is always moving forward. I have thought about the symbolism of this; when water in a river hits an obstacle, it will form an eddy and flow back in a slow circle. But the act of walking the water is a ceremony, every step being a prayer in gratitude for water, the giver of life. We do not want our prayers to flow backwards, get stuck moving in circles. At least that is my interpretation.
There are about ten of us participating in the walk on this day, some for the full day, others joining or leaving as their schedules permit. Most of us are women, wearing long skirts to honor our connection with the earth. Only women may carry the water vessel; men or women may carry the eagle staff. According to the Nibi Walk website, “Water Walks respect the truth that water is a life giver, and because women also give life they are the keepers of the water.”
The logistics of the walk require at least a couple vehicles, one to drive behind the walkers for safety, and another to shuttle walkers ahead. The walk is a relay, each walker taking a turn that lasts about 0.8 miles. Sharon explained, that way walkers don’t get fatigued. To cover up to 25 miles in a day, the water needs to keep moving at a brisk pace.
Sharon had planned the route a week earlier, using Google Maps, and had driven some parts of it, but not all. Her plan is to walk a road on the west side of the river, from Sandstone to Highway 48 east of Hinckley. In July this area had experienced severe flooding, and I am pretty sure one washed out part of the road had not been fixed yet. Sharon had heard there might be a bridge out, so she asks if another woman, Kim, and I would drive there right after the walk started to check it out. I realize that I am the one member of this group who has a good knowledge of the area. I had felt a calling to do this walk because the Kettle River, with its sandstone cliffs and bedrock and waterfalls, is sacred to me. But I understand now I am called to be with this group of people, on this day, to be a guide, to provide my local wisdom.
The road in question is indeed washed out, not to be repaired anytime soon. A reminder of the power of water, and of the consequences of our fossil fuel burning lifestyle. This was supposedly an 800 year rainfall event, by some accounts. There have been two such rainfalls in the area in the last 4 years.
It was an act of the Great Spirit that Kim and I went on this mission together. As we talk, we find we have a lot in common. She had even been at Music as transformation the night before at our friend Charrie’s house. Kim and I rejoin the walk just as they are turning off Highway 23 onto a gravel road, after having crossed the deep river valley. We drive ahead to the next point the relay will take place. Sharon decides that I will be the next one to carry the water. I am excited, and nervous. What if I do not do it right? There is not tine to think. I am passed the water, and I am walking….