Water is life.
It’s 4 a.m., and I’m brewing a pot of coffee in the Hub’s stainless steel pot. I pour the water into the reservoir, scoop coffee grounds dark as dirt into a filter, and hit brew. Back upstairs, I shower beneath hot water, letting the flow ease the stiffness from my body and revive my senses. I dress in layers to prepare for the biting cold of Gichigami — the Big Sea called Lake Superior. It’s October, and I have no plans to dip a toe in the sea, but I will be spending much of the day along her frigid fall shores. In a skirt.
Skirts feel like a foreign language to me; I’m never sure if I’m wearing one correctly. But I’m part of something sacred, and protocols state that kwe wear skirts so the earth can recognize that we are women. Fortunately, protocols also allow for pants underneath (translation for Brits in case you thought I might go commando, pants as in trousers). I’ve packed extra socks, a first-aid kit, communal drinking water in a 10-gallon cooler, snacks baked or donated by my Warrior Sisters, food for tonight’s feast in a small church basement, and the steel coffee pot.
Forty-five minutes later, I’ve avoided the deer hanging out alongside the road and drive in the pitch dark past Copper Harbor. It’s 5:30 a.m., and I park my car at Astor Shipwreck Park across the road from Fort Wilkins, which is shuttered until next spring. My car companion is going to drive a truck behind two senior citizens who will ride behind a group of women who are gathering this early morning to walk the water from Copper Harbor to Sandpoint Lighthouse in Keweenaw Bay, home of the Anishinaabe. They are meeting us here in the dark, teaching us their protocols so we might unite all peoples to do the work of the water. The Anishinaabekwe — the women — all wear traditional ribbon skirts and good walking boots or tennies.
It’s so dark, we don’t know each other and laugh as we begin to figure out voices. The air is cold, and the weather forecasters predict mixed precipitation. The Water Walkers of the tribe plan to make the 90 mile trip in three days. I’ve been helping with logistics — social media, communications, securing food and shelter. No one is in charge, but without a doubt, the Anishinaabekwe lead us. They hope to break down cultural barriers and teach us to protect the water according to their traditions. Gichigami is their Big Sea. The lands we walk across are ceded territories. To do the work of the water is to take a spiritual journey.
A small motor put-puts in the dark, heralding the arrival of two elderly women in a golf cart. People move and shift in shadows. Terri has the copper pot with Nibi (water), and another person carries the Eagle Staff. I can’t see, but I hear the pitch of excitement in her voice. The walk has begun. We are all asked to place acema (tobacco) in our left hand, the hand closest to our hearts, and say a prayer for the water as we cross over Fannie Hooe Creek and follow the kwe carrying Nibi in a copper vessel. Once the water is in motion, it cannot stop. Kwe take turns conveying the water, and any gender or non-binary can hold the staff. Several young and robust women from the Copper Harbor area will take turns with the Anishinaabekwe.
My friends are among those who have gathered — Cynthia and Laura (rodeo judges, they are, too). I set out with them at a brisk speed. It’s so dark and silent as we walk to Copper Harbor. We chatter and laugh. I start to worry that the pace is faster than I anticipated. My friend, Bon, is waiting at her house along the lake route with breakfast for the walkers. I plan to walk and catch a ride back to my car, but no one seems to know how far ahead the relay van is. So, I turn back and walk alone to my car, my thoughts on my role to support the Water Walkers. I feel like a contrary clown, walking backward.
That was October 19.
I had planned to offer snacks and water. Bon gifted me with the use of her air-pots for coffee and a recipe for omelets on the go. The ones she made for the walkers were a huge hit. I had set up the feast at Bethany Church in Mohawk. I would feed people. The next day, I might fill in where I could, but I knew another person was managing that night’s feast, and the following day, I’d touch base. The Tribal Council was in charge of that feast. I felt like the event was going smoothly, and I’d be needed less and less.
Well, you know what they say about the best-laid plans? Nibi had other intentions.
Fourteen years ago, my daughter was a junior in high school. I had hoped she would attend secondary school at my alma mater — Carrol College in Montana. But she was also interested in another liberal arts college — Northland in northern Wisconsin. We made trips to both places, and the first time I saw Bayfield, Wisconsin, I fell in love with the Chequamegon Bay. For years, we had camped in northern Minnesota, and the North Shore of Lake Superior captivated me. The cliffs and waves of the North Shore are terrifying and majestic. Along Chequamegon Bay, the Apostle Islands buffer the inland sea.
When I first wrote Miracle of Ducks, I set it in Bayfield. I knew that Ike’s best friend, Michael Robineaux, would be from the band of Red Cliff Ojibwa. That’s how he came to me, in the way characters do.
What I didn’t know, until after the walk, is that Bayfield is ceded Anishinaabe lands. Madeline Island, where I studied the W-story structure at MISA, is a spiritual place for the tribe. It’s a sacred water place. In 2012, I seriously contemplated making it my home, the draw of the water had been so strong that summer I had lived there, writing and bobbing in the bay. Instead, I went to Idaho to be with the Hub. My eldest and her husband moved to Missoula, Montana. Our middle daughter moved out west, and we joked that our son would come next. But the water called us back. Gichigami called me home — Lady Lake Superior.
Day two of the Water Walk I learned that it is not about the walk. People peeled off, leaving a small core group. We had to strategize relaying the water, keeping it flowing forward. My focus shifted to the Grandmothers — the two in the golf cart. I felt drawn to carry Nibi and asked the Hub if he’d carry the Eagle Staff. He said no, citing his other knee, which will need surgery. That deflated me. I’ve had three back surgeries, and I’m fit to run a desk. I realized I was not one to walk the water. And I had a role to play. I was doing the work of the water, too. When the Water Walkers crossed the Houghton Bridge, more people joined. I wanted to walk across the bridge, too, but someone needed to drive the Tribal van.
Arranging for police escort was tricky. They wanted to meet the walkers at a certain point and time, but the water doesn’t stop or wear a watch. Neither does the woman carrying Nibi. I stayed in contact with our officer as another woman, and I scouted the route and where we could cross. By the time the Water Walkers caught up, the group had grown to twenty. At that point, I took over the van (“Look Native,” Kathy told me). I parked on the other side of the Keweenaw Waterway, the great canal large enough for lake freighters, and hoofed it back up to the bridge, camera in hand.
The video catches an awkward cultural miscommunication — the Water Walkers recognized me and shouted oo-waa! I did not shout back. Sometimes I’m slow to understand social cues. Later, when I learned more about this vocalization, Kathy told me she likes to go into the woods and shout. Sometimes she gets a call back. It’s the early communication system of the Anishinaabe: “I’m here, I see you, where are you.” But I knew I was seen, I was called to merge with the walkers as they passed me on the bridge followed by the flashing lights of the Hancock Police.
People asked what we were protesting. The police asked if we were carrying signs, and what did they read? One of my roles was to educate people, and I made small handouts to explain the Water Walk. Our message joins all colors, philosophies, faiths, and beliefs — no matter our differences, no matter our political standings, no matter our knowledge of science, one simple truth binds us all — Water is life. Cutting through the bike trails to avoid traffic in Houghton, our Water Walkers passed homeowners mowing lawns and raking leaves. One man dismounted his riding mower and salutes the procession with his hand on his heart. The Grandmothers teared up, touched by the simple recognition.
Our mixed group is called People of the Heart. Kathy and Terri come from the same Lodge where they practice traditional healing. Their teachings clearly state that they are for “all people.” In fact, 500 years ago, the Anishinaabe left their eastern lands to adhere to prophecy. They were to go where the food grows on the water (wild rice, manoomin) — the Northland (north Minnesota, northern Wisconsin, and the upper peninsula of Michigan). There would come a time when the world would need the teachings of the Anishinaabe. The time has come for us to protect our water
Water is life.
Not oil, not money, not the latest iPhone or Unicode emoji. Kathy is not only a Water Walker, but she is also a biologist for the Tribe. For many years, she fought wildfires out west, leading a Native crew. Terri is an early childhood educator for the Tribe. The Grandmothers both serve on Tribal Council and sew. Sewing includes traditional skirts, shirts, and vests with ribbons, embroidery, and beading. The Anishinaabe traditions co-exist with the modern world, and it’s a gift packed with wisdom and experience and wonder. It’s teaching based on responsible use, respect, gratitude, and protection. Water is life, and we are to protect it not only for our generation but for the next seven.
How will decisions made today impact the future? Does policy or pollution threaten those seven generations from now? If we do this today, what happens tomorrow? Imagine if seven generations ago, those in power thought this way. We have become short-sighted. Doing the work of the water means taking time to contemplate its future, our future, a future we won’t live to see, but one we impact right now. Water has no voice. Corporations have personhood, but water does not. Kwe speak for the sovereignty of water, we are the life-bringers, the women with the capacity to carry a baby to term in a sac of water. Corporations have legal rights, but water is life.
Day three dawned long after I had. Three mornings in a row, I rose at 4 a.m. to fix four pots of coffee, refill the water jug, pack snacks, and fix breakfast on the go for the Water Walkers. I have relaying down by day three. Our support vehicles leap-frog ahead half a mile. My warm car is ready for walkers to take a break. We are operating lean — one kwe to carry Nibi, one person to carry the Eagle Staff. Once the sun comes up, several other women walk in support, and we continue the half-mile to a mile relay. The water moves forward, not stopping
The Grandmothers have accepted me, and they laugh and joke, waving their mugs my direction for more coffee. They take my succession of snacks, loving bologna sandwiches the best. Kathy calls it “Indian steak.” In America, it’s the comfort food of the poor. I know bologna well. When we were broke down and homeless in Gallup, we shared all the poor food I knew growing up with the Natives in New Mexico. Never had pinto beans tasted so good as when shared by others who know life’s struggles and yet still smile and give all they have to give. At feast the night before, the Grandmothers claimed me, and the Hub says the Navajo wanted me, too. Kathy says, “The Dine can not have her,” and we all laugh.
It’s a wonder to me, a moment of serendipity, that Michael Robineaux came to me as an imaginary character for a novel years before I’d come to be known to his people. When I felt the draw to Lake Superior, I was called by Gichigami to know her fully, to know all nations touching her shores. Oo-wa! I am seen. This time I understand enough to call back. Oo-wa! I see your humanity, too. We are one. The water unites us.
At dawn on the third day, I found a snowmobile bar open and willing to let us use the restrooms. By then, the whole UP had heard of the Water Walkers with news coverage. All the kwe used community connections and news media to get the word out. Somehow, an officer with the State Troopers missed all that. He pulled over Terri’s truck that drove behind the Grandmothers like an honor guard. In her absence, I slid in. The Grandmothers are all-seeing from behind. They watch the walkers, the water, the staff, the land, and the sky. They speak up when they need to and stay silent to let the younger ones experience for themselves. We need all generations in unity.
We need all peoples, all nations. Water is life.
One of the walkers asked me to walk Nibi. I didn’t think I could. But I tried. She said she’d walk with me, carrying the Eagle Staff. This kwe, whose dog was dying as we walked, focused on life, not death. This strong woman wanted all of us kwe to spend time in contemplation, carrying Nibi no matter our levels of strength. As I faced the Water Walker coming my way, I confessed my fear — it’s the same one that hits me when I submit my writing — it’s not enough, I’m not enough. Old recordings, debilitating doubt, lies we believed. I focused on the truth. Water is life. I grabbed the copper bucket, I did not look to the left, I did not look to the right, I walked forward. At my own pace.
I’m surrounded by women dancing circles around me in skirts and shawls. Why was I ever averse to skirts? They flow like water, skirts to skirts, shawls to shawls, women encircle the work, doing the work of water. I carry Nibi in me. Gitchigami rises overhead in a thick bank of clouds pushing away the storm that was supposed to hit us during the walk. Water kept us dry. Eleven eagles greeted us at the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community border. We walked the Anishinaabekwe home. I walked the water. I am a Water Walker. I am kwe. This time the story caught the story-catcher.
November 7, 2019, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story that includes Water Walkers. It does not have to be in the Anishinaabe tradition; in fact, it would be more interesting to see interpretations from across all nations and walks. It can be a title or used as a phrase. Go where the prompt leads!
Respond by November 12, 2019. Use the comment section below to share, read, and be social. You may leave a link, pingback, or story in the comments. If you want to be published in the weekly collection, please use the form. Rules & Guidelines.
NOTE: Contest winners from all the flash fiction contests during the 2019 Rodeo will be announced on November 28, 2019.
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Water Walkers by Charli Mills
My Nakomis shields my body with hers when they pelt us with rubber bullets. They don’t understand why we don’t die like all the others around the globe. They think we hoard a stash of stolen science. We are the Water Walkers, and we speak on behalf of the world’s poisoned water. Scientists can now alter the DNA code of entire families to survive the hydro-toxicity crisis. Only select families, though. They want to know why we aren’t altered or dead. Threatened us to give up our secret. Nakomis says we never held back. We tried to teach them.