Part 1 of this series can be found here.
“Ngah izitchigay nibi ohnjay!” I do it for the water.
These are the words that are spoken as the beaded copper vessel is passed from one person to the next. The transfer is swift, done while both women are walking so the vessel does not stop moving forward, like the water. As I take the vessel and eagle feather into my hands for the first time, I feel awkward. I arrange the GPS that is attached to the vessel so it faces up. The GPS is sending a signal so the walk can be tracked by others in real time. Here is our route for the day:
My footsteps settle into a quick rhythm and I walk in silence. Paul is walking behind me carrying the eagle staff. All I can think is “wow, I’m actually doing this!” I have read a lot about Native American ceremonies, but this is my first time participating in one. I am still rehearsing the words in my head: “Ngah izitchigay nibi ohnjay.” Like a mantra, but I keep stumbling over the words.
As I walk on, I am thinking of the Kettle River and what it has meant to me over the last 25 years. Much of my contact with the river has been through my job as a fisheries specialist with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. When I first started working at the area office in Hinckley, where I still work today, we were just in the beginning stages of a long term project monitoring the lake sturgeon population in the Kettle River. Lake sturgeon are prehistoric looking, long-lived, slow growing fish. They have been extirpated, and now reintroduced, in some Minnesota river systems due to overharvest, dams, and pollution. The Kettle River has no major point pollution sources, but there was concern that, even with a harvest limit at the time of one per season, the sturgeon population was dwindling. An old hydroelectric dam at Sandstone also prevented their movement upstream. Fortunately, thanks to a closed season beginning in the mid 1990’s, and the removal of the dam, the sturgeon population appears to be recovering in the Kettle River.
“Ngah izitchigay nibi ohnjay.” Try as I might, the words don’t quite come out right as I pass the water to the next woman. I go to my car, which someone has moved ahead for me, and grab my water bottle and take a long drink. I am sweating already from walking; the sun is out and it is a warm morning for September. I chat with some of the other walkers before we drive to the next relay point. And so the caravan and walk continues into the morning. The next time I carry the water, we are near the town of Sandstone. As I walk over a small creek, I reach into the pouch that is hanging around my neck and offer a pinch of tobacco as a gift of thanks. That ritual is done whenever we cross water, encounter a dead animal, or a cemetery or memorial.
As the Kettle River flows through Banning State Park and the town of Sandstone, a stretch of about 9 miles, it cuts through a deep, narrow gorge of pinkish orange sedimentary rock that gave the town its name. Layers of millenia of sediment from an ancient sea are exposed, carved over centuries by the flow of water from Glacial Lake Duluth after the last Ice Age. As the water swirled around in eddies, it carved out the round potholes or “kettles” that give the river its name. The Ojibwe called the river “Akiko zibi”, which also means Kettle River. Around the turn of the century, quarries at Sandstone and the former town of Banning removed tons of rock to be used in buildings in the growing towns and cities of Minnesota. The quarries were only active for a relatively short time period, less than 20 years.
Many days after work I find myself drawn to the river, to the cliffs and kettles and caves and waterfalls, to the powerful singing of water against rock. The water music, a sacred song that has gone on through the ages, through many cycles of seasons. This is why I am walking for the river.
To be continued…