Water Walkers, women of the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community, take the floor and welcome the audience to Tribal Water Day. I sit at a bingo table near hanging art created by local schoolchildren. One poster reads, “Water feels no bad vibes.” My daughter, Radio Geek, is interviewing guest speakers who range from state representatives to PhDs from the Great Lakes Research Center at Michigan Tech. On the way down from Hancock to Baraga on the Keweenaw Bay of Lake Superior, we plowed through lakes of melting snow while a spring squall spit more flakes at our windshield.
So it goes with transitions — are we rain or snow? Are we who we were or who we have become? Transitions tread the space between. For us, on this day, the focus is on water. Outside Nibi (the Ojibwe word for water) moves from one state to another in a gritty arrival of spring. Melt is not beautiful, and yet it gives way to what we know as the most inspiring time of year. Snow breaks down into icy pebbles, shedding its fleecy white coat. Sand from road traction piles up and mud emerges as the first glimpse of soil hidden for months.
Radio Geek tells me she wants to add a question to her interviews. Among queries about mercury in white fish, tribal data, and water-related research, she wants to ask, “What does water say to you?”
One of the Water Walkers introduces herself at the front of the room in what usually serves as a Bingo Hall. Today it transforms into a community center. She speaks in her native language and then explains she has identified herself as an Anishinaabe woman, her clan, her name. She says, “We welcome you today. Community members of sincere heart, mind, and spirit join us in seeking truth, knowledge, and healing through the original sacred way of life.”
Notebook open, colored pens laid out before me, I can’t deny the feeling of awe in being here. Having grown up out west, I can’t remember a time when a native tribe opened up teachings to the general public. This is not an anthropology class or a dominant culture history-speaking over a marginalized one. This is the Anishinaabekwe — the Women — providing teaching. This group refers to themselves as the Water Walkers because they carry the sacred Nibi in a bucket to honor her. To speak to her.
To answer Radio Geek’s question, the Anishinaabekwe agree that Nibi speaks. But they want us to understand that we must first speak to her. I smile, hearing Nibi personified as a woman because I knew Lady Lake Superior was female. I came here this morning, rising earlier than I’m inclined to because I wanted to glimpse the Water Walkers in action. It feels like a cultural transformation is taking place — borders and boundaries give way like warming ice.
And I anticipate beauty carried in a water bucket.
A secondary motive drove me across wet roads today, as well. In my novel, Miracle of Ducks, I’ve constructed a project for my character, Dr. Danni Gordon. I had to give her an archeological task not only for her profession, but to explain why she lives in North Idaho. I also wanted it to be a source of tension. Earlier drafts focused on her dislike of children and had her leading a volunteer site further south. After pouring over Forest Service records I finally found a poosibility in North Idaho, and it was multi-agency, including tribal input.
In 2017, while the Hub and I were limping toward Michigan, beaten down by our homeless travels, we took a break at his sister’s home in Kansas. Several days earlier I had turned 50. In Kansas, Sis had a birthday surprise for me — archeology school. It infused a greater sense of topic authority for my character. I met and interviewed archeologists, worked alongside them in grids and labs, and kept in touch with several as alpha readers.
One gave me a great backstory for Danni and then joked that it might look like what he lived. I felt honored to have someone share their story with me — a fiction writer who will take that story and mold it into something new. The experience gave me greater confidence as a novel writer to interview people. For so long, I’ve interviewed people for articles and profiles that doing so for an imaginary story felt off. I’m glad I got over feeling that way. Interviewing authorities provides great research.
That is what has brought me to Tribal Water Day. I’ve been drafting scenes around the project I gave Danni, and one includes a public presentation led by the Kootenai Tribe of North Idaho. I’ve never experienced such a gathering and wondered how it would differ from a presentation led by the Forest Service or a local special interest group.
Before me, I have two pens — turquoise for general notes and purple for drafts.
Danni joins me at the bingo table, and I begin to feel her nervousness. Unlike me, Danni hates public speaking. Her palms tingle and she can’t feel her feet. Danni’s greatest desire in life is to belong. But she’s often thwarted by her greatest secret fear that she doesn’t believe she belongs anywhere. I can feel her tensions as I look at the unfolding presentations through her lens. Danni relaxes, inhaling deeply of the smoldering sage, her heart beating in rhythm to the deep drumming of the tribal Singers. Then Michael Robineaux walks in, and she flinches, remembering she is an outsider.
Not once throughout the day do I feel like an outsider. I marvel that every speaker is a woman! Several are official water specialists, working for their tribe. Others are wildlife and environmental biologists. My daughter is the media representative of Michigan Tech. The men serve in supporting roles. The Tribal Singers drum for the Water Walkers. Many men assist the water specialists and biologists in their work. A tribal artist displays his portraits of Anishinaabekwe.
As a woman, I feel affirmed. I observe a room full of leaders among my gender. I feel hope for Danni in her chosen profession and gaining the credibility she needs to make her project work. I feel hope for the water surrounding us. And I decide to accept the invitation to walk next time the bucket of water is carried from Copper Harbor to Sand Point.
Life is good.
Officially, Macaroo is a workhorse, and I’m almost back in the swing of things. A flu-bug is winding its way through the Keweenaw, and I’ve caught it, though it’s not so bad. I just feel low on energy. Nonetheless, the snow is receding slowly, our local township group is progressing, and I’ve officially been accepted into the MFA Creative Writing program at Southern New Hampshire University. It’s online so I will travel virtually. Miracle of Ducks will be my thesis, and I’ve also added studies to get certified to teach writing online for universities.
I’m pleased with how everything is settling down like a bucket of clean water from an artesian well. Dare I say, the rough ride is mellowing out.
Grab a bucket. And as the Anishinaabekwe said to me, “Come with an empty mind, open heart, open hands” and scoop a story in 99 words among a community of literary artists.
March 21, 2019, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story that features a bucket of water. What is the condition of the water and what is the bucket for? Drop deep into the weel and draw from where the prompt leads!
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When It Felt Full (from Miracle of Ducks) by Charli Mills
Unable to stop smiling, Danni bought a galvanized steel water bucket. After twelve years of studying, summer digs, teaching undergrads, and crediting her work to advisors, Danni had completed her Ph.D. She promptly married Ike and bought a horse.
“I was thinking we might need a house,” Ike said, staring up at the stars above their sleeping bags.
“We can find a barn by winter.”
“Mrs. Gordon, we need more than a barn.”
Ike’s uncle sold them his small spread when he moved to town. Danni’s bucket of water felt full for ten years. Until Iraq poked a hole.