Tennis shoes brush the hem of a long ribbon skirt as a woman walks along a rural Wisconsin highway, carrying a copper pail of water. Step by millions of steps, the water makes its way around Lake Superior. Small metal cones — the same ones that adorn Ojibwe jingle dresses — dangle from the pail. They sway in sync with her stride, creating a rhythmic tinkle.

It's Day Two of a monthlong, 1,200-mile Lake Superior Nibi Walk (nibi means water in Ojibwe). This journey isn't like advocacy walks for, say, breast cancer or Alzheimer's, with their masses in matching T-shirts raising money and visibility for a cause. The Nibi Walks, which began two decades ago, are Indigenous-led ceremonies that express gratitude for water and pray for its health.

On Day One, the small group dipped the copper pail into Lake Superior (Gichigami) to collect its precious cargo. Now, near Bayfield, the woman carrying the water prepares to hand the pail off to the next walker: the group's leader, Sharon Day (Nagaamoo Ma'aingen, or Singing Wolf), who has participated in more than 20 water walks since the movement's inception.

An Indigenous advocate and M'dewin (an Ojibwe spiritual leader), Day, 71, of Center City, Minn., has a long history of carrying water. She grew up near the Bois Forte Reservation in northern Minnesota, in homes that typically didn't have running water.

"Every morning you hauled in water, every evening you hauled water," Day recalled. "When you carry your water, you know exactly how much you're going to use. And mostly you use it twice."

If only everyone treated this precious resource with such care. Even in the Land of 10,000 Lakes, half of Minnesota's water bodies are classified as "impaired" by the state pollution control agency. The great Gichigami is warming three times faster than the average lake.

Day became a water protector in the late 1990s, when she joined one of the largest protests in state history to preserve Minneapolis' Coldwater Spring. She was arrested for her efforts.

The Nibi Walks, which Day calls a "walking prayer," take a more peaceful, inclusive approach. They form spiritual connections alongside human ones, Day said. "When you go on these long walks, you develop community and you create family. Bonds are created between people who are so different — and all for the love of the water."

One step at a time

Petite with cropped gray hair, Day looks like a grandmother who's hardcore enough to trek a thousand miles. Her arms are adorned with tattoos, her outfit accessorized with a beaded necklace and smartwatch. Day's demeanor is friendly and gentle, but with a no-nonsense streak that you'd expect of someone who once said she hopes her headstone will read, "She was a good old dyke."

After finishing her turn carrying the pail, Day climbs behind the wheel of her Mazda. Now her job is to drive ahead of the water walker, to the next handoff spot, and make sure the route is visible and free of hazards.

Each member of the ad-hoc group of walkers carries the pail for about a mile, like a relay. Sometimes other walkers follow, carrying a golden eagle feather or a wooden staff topped with a taxidermic bald eagle's head. The group travels 30-some miles a day, often along walking paths, but mostly following busy two-lane highways, with 18-wheelers roaring past.

Day invites anyone to join the Nibi Walks. And all sorts of people — Indigenous, non-Indigenous, little kids, 80-somethings — participate. Along well-populated sections of the Lake Superior route, such as Minnesota's North Shore, there might be 10 to 20 walkers in the group. Most join for a day or two. But in remote areas on the Canadian side, the group will dwindle to Day and four other core walkers who plan to make the entire journey.

The water walkers begin their day smudging themselves, wafting tobacco smoke over their faces and feet. Instructions are minimal. Look straight ahead. Don't speak. Focus your thoughts on the water. (No earbuds!) When the route abuts the water, or crosses over it, drop a pinch of tobacco as an offering. Same thing for roadkill.

A small GPS transmitter attached to the pail's handle pings its position every 10 minutes, marking a digital map. From morning to evening, the water never stops.

There's a lot to notice along the roadways when you aren't traveling 55 mph: abundant wildflowers, dragonfly swarms, a cluster of obscure mushrooms. Those waiting their turn with the pail pick wild juneberries. Passing bikers stare at the procession. A few drivers honk their horns in support.

Midafternoon, the caravan pulls into a marina. "Let's sit on the chairs like we belong here," Day said, heading to a row of Adirondacks overlooking the water. The lake, a band of deep blue, stretches across the horizon. The sun beams bright and hot. "Tomorrow I'm breaking out the bandana," Day said. "Put some ice cubes in it."

Traditional roots

Carrying the water pail is a silent, solo meditation. But riding in the car caravan provides time for conversation and camaraderie. The walkers-in-waiting share cucumbers and cookies. They talk about Indigenous dance and agricultural runoff. They learn from one another and make jokes. (After Day explained that the Ojibwe word ba attached to a person's name means they are deceased, a walker chided her, "So we should not call you Sharon'ba?")

Day sometimes shares stories from her past, as one of 13 siblings who caught fish, snared rabbits, harvested maple sap and wild rice. Her father was a hunting and fishing guide who was gifted in many ways, Day says, but his alcoholism ruptured her otherwise happy childhood. When Day was about 3 years old, her mother wanted to leave her father. But when Day's mother asked the government for help, her kids were sent to foster care.

Day experienced racial discrimination from birth, when her mother had to travel 80 miles to deliver her at a hospital, because the one closest to home had a "no Indians" policy. But Day says she wasn't really aware of her identity until she lived with a white foster family, and another child called her a "dirty Indian" as he pelted her with rocks. In a misguided attempt to make Day feel better, her foster mother dressed Day and her brother in feathered headbands and marched them in the community parade. "It was the most awful thing," Day said. "I remember being embarrassed."

A few years later, Day reunited with her parents. When she was 12, the family temporarily moved to Cleveland as part of the Bureau of Indian Affairs' ill-fated urban relocation program, which didn't live up to its promises. Back in Minnesota, Day's father's worsening binges spurred her mother to leave for good.

Day joined her mother in St. Paul and attended high school across from the Capitol. After class, she'd stop by the legislative sessions, listening to speeches about civil rights or the Vietnam War, planting the seeds for an activist future. "Here I was, this little Indian kid with hair down to my butt, but I felt like it was important to be there," she recalled.

Day's late teens and early 20s were rocky. She struggled with alcohol and drug abuse, especially after her father was found dead under suspicious circumstances. After getting sober, Day was a divorced single parent, struggling to make ends meet.

But her circumstances improved by the late 1980s, when she co-founded the Indigenous Peoples Task Force, offering culturally specific wellness programs, which originally focused on HIV/AIDS. (She remains the executive director.) Day went on to launch a theater group and charter school to help Indigenous youth establish healthy lifestyles. "If you can have a young person involved in their culture, and if you can have them participate in art, they won't need to use drugs," she explained.

Water walker

Day's water advocacy, as well as the Nibi Walks, grew out of the protests to protect Coldwater Spring, a sacred Dakota site, from the expansion of Hwy. 55 in Minneapolis. In the late 1990s, protesters occupied the site for months and chained themselves to construction equipment. In the end, the Transportation Department prevailed.

Afterward, an Indigenous chief entreated his people: "What will you do for the water?"

As an answer, Josephine Mandamin, a Canadian Anishinaabe, led the first international Nibi Walk in 2003. The group circumnavigated Lake Superior, and Day walked for two days. Then in 2011, Day joined Mandamin to carry water more than 40 days, from the Gulf of Mexico to Lake Superior. "I never had so many blisters on my feet in my life," Day recalled. "At the end of that walk, I felt stronger — physically, mentally and emotionally, and of course spiritually."

Day organizes Nibi Walks a few times a year, along routes as short as Minnehaha Creek and as long as the Mississippi River. Walkers have been harassed by law enforcement and landowners, Day said, and have endured scorching temps, driving rain and blizzards. "But you warm up, you dry off — those are just momentary things," she said.

She prefers to focus on the encounters with nature, and people who supply the walkers with food, shelter and funding. And, most important, the walks' spiritual aspect.

Like Day, Sharon Manitowabi, of Grand Portage, Minn., is an Anishinaabe grandmother and core walker who has been on about 20 water walks. The Nibi Walks, Manitowabi said, have reconnected her to cultural practices that skipped over her parents and grandparents. "Because we lost a lot of those traditions, we lost our relationship with the water, and the water is missing us, thinking we forgot about her," she said. "This is a reawakening of the power of Anishinaabe women."

In the spirit of love

Each day's walk ends as it begins, with a ceremony. As the sun descends, the group encircles the water pail, plays drums and sings. After a communal dinner and dip in the lake, sore ankles are rubbed and leg-cramp pills are popped. The next morning, the group rises early and resumes the cycle.

Two core walkers, Sara Thomsen of Duluth and Jane Ramseyer Miller of Minneapolis, met Day through a shared love of music. For Ramseyer Miller, the conversations and relationships fostered by the walks provide a sense of community that she used to experience in a church congregation before coming out as gay. And the walks are also a time of reflection. "I can be grounded and meditative in ways that feel really natural to me," she said.

Thomsen said she, too, appreciates the walks' blend of interpersonal connection and contemplation. "It's almost two kinds of prayer: The community building, which to me is its own kind of prayer, and the prayer for the water."

Thompsen met another core walker, Chas Jewett, on a 54-day trek along the Missouri River in 2017. Jewett, of Whitehorse, S.D., is member of Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe and longtime community organizer.

After participating in the Dakota Access Pipeline Protests at Standing Rock, Jewett felt demoralized. She found that the water walks eased her depression and transformed her life. "I'm here to heal my soul, which was ripped out by so many years of organizing for naught," she said. "Our bodies are affected by the trauma, and the steps take it away. I'm a different person than before I started walking."

Like Jewett, Day reflects on her earlier activism — she protested the Vietnam War, joined the American Indian Movement — with some disappointment.

"My generation thought we were gonna change the world, and we have not," Day said. "I wish to move forward in the spirit of love, and bring as many people along with me as I can."

It's an approach that resembles water itself: ebbing and flowing, picking up whatever — or whomever — may come, and carrying, ceaselessly, onward.