Some people just talk about protecting our rivers, lakes and oceans from contamination.
Not Sharon Day. She walks the talk — literally — leading people on long treks across the country to call attention to pollution problems.
She and her companions travel hundreds of miles along roads and trails nearest to the rivers and lakes, moving like the current.
“Water has to move to be healthy,” Day said.
So far, she’s led at least 14 Nibi Walks, winding her way along the St. Louis River, the Kettle River and other major waterways. (Nibi is the Ojibwe word for water.)
She recently returned from walking the Missouri River — a journey that began at its headwaters in Montana and continued for 54 days through North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Iowa and finally Missouri.
The walks are not protests, she stressed. They’re ceremonies to pray for the health of bodies of water for future generations.
“As Indigenous people, we believe water has a spirit. It’s that spirit we’re speaking to every time we walk,” said Day, who is executive director of the Indigenous Peoples Task Force in Minneapolis and a member of the Bois Forte Band of Ojibwe. “We say things like: ‘We love you.’ ‘We thank you.’ ‘We respect you.’ ‘Please forgive us.’ ”
As part of the ceremony, the walkers take turns carrying a copper pail full of water, singing prayers for the water and offering tobacco to any streams or rivers they cross.
Day, 66, is a lifelong protester, but a few years ago she found a new way to promote social change through the Nibi Walks movement (nibiwalk.org). She counts among her teachers the woman considered the grandmother of the movement, Josephine Mandamin.
“I spent almost all of my life protesting,” Day said. “My generation, we thought we were going to change the world, and we really didn’t. But in walking, and having people join me … I realized there’s another way to change the world. And it’s by having people reconnect with the water.
“When I was a kid, we had to haul water,” she continued. “You had to go to the well and gather the water. It was the first thing you did in the morning and the last thing at night. By carrying the water, you have a different relationship with it.”
Anyone is welcome to join for part or all of the water walks she leads. On the recent Missouri River walk and the Mississippi River walk a few years earlier, Day had a core group of five water walkers with her every step of the way.
“We became like family,” she said.
It took them 65 days to reach Fort Jackson on the Mississippi River, south of New Orleans. There, they brought forth the pail of water — clear and pure — from the headwaters and poured the clean water into the river.
“We wanted to give the river a taste of herself — the way she began — and tell her: ‘This is how we wish you will be again,’ ” she said.
Then something happened.
“When we poured that water back into the Mississippi River, there was a wave that came over our feet. The last wave reached our knees. It was almost as if we were being kissed by the river,” she said.
For Day, that moment reinforced her belief that there is a deep personal connection between people and water.
“It’s not just that we love the river,” she added, “but that the river loves us.
“There can be this transformation in people. They can move forward to change the way we treat our water, the way we treat each other, the way we treat the land.”