Walk puts spotlight on river’s importance

Nicholas Donaldson

Monday was the first day of the Youth and Elder Water Walk–a two-day journey along the Rainy River by local First Nations’ members to recognize the importance of the water and the responsibility to take care of it.
The day began with an opening ceremony at the Seven Oaks area of Point Park as participants listened to a talk by elder Willy Yerxa about the importance of the river.
Traditional songs were sung and tobacco was offered to the water before two grandmothers gathered some of the river water in two small copper pails.
The pails then were carried along the river as the walkers set off in small groups, taking turns walking as they made their way to Rainy River First Nations for the first day.
Laura Horton, who was asked to co-ordinate the walk on behalf of Fort Frances Tribal Area Health Services, made it very clear this was not a protest or demonstration.
“Protest is such an angry word and so is demonstration-although it is a demonstration of love,” she explained.
“That’s really what this is.”
Horton noted water walks are happening all over North America as a way for First Nations to remember their responsibilities to the land.
Perhaps the most famous of these have been undertaken by Josephine Mandamin, who began in 2003 by walking around Lake Superior with her copper pail of water to raise awareness and pray for the water.
She since has been around the Great Lakes, the St. Lawrence River, and other major rivers during her walks.
Horton said she personally has been praying for the water for the past 20 years.
She also noted that water walks happen fairly often, although usually without the organization and advertisement this one had.
“We don’t always talk about them, we just do it,” she remarked.
Horton said she was happy with the turnout of around 20 people. But she also admitted that years ago, they would have been able to get hundreds of people out for the ceremony.
“It is what it is and we love every person who showed up,” she stressed. “And as they walk and pray, we are hoping that more people come out and join us for a little bit of the way.”

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The plan Monday morning was to walk the roughly 60 km to Manitou Rapids, going along Highway 602 and through Emo, while taking turns walking and riding in vehicles.
At all times, there was at least one woman carrying a pail of the water and a man carrying a staff making the journey.
“We’ll end up the day at Rainy River First Nations, lower the water at the rapids there, then we’ll have dinner at the gym,” Horton said.
“Tomorrow morning [Tuesday], we lift the water at the rapids again, sing songs, and walk to the town of Rainy River,” she added.
The closing ceremony was scheduled for yesterday at Hannam Park in Rainy River to lower the water they have carried near the end of the Rainy River as it feeds into Lake of the Woods.
Stops also were planned along the way to offer tobacco and pray.
Horton noted one of the stops would be at the Canada/U.S. border crossing here, where rapids were dammed up.
“Our river is really easy because it’s only 100 km long,” Horton laughed, noting some of the women had just returned a few weeks ago from a roughly 5,000-km walk.
“It’s a joy to be able to do this,” she said.
Horton had just learned Monday morning about the recent spill of sulfuric acid into the Rainy River by the paper mill on the Minnesota side of the border, and she was not very surprised.
“It’s not new,” she remarked. “The mill has been doing this for as long as I can remember.
“Sometimes they get caught and sometimes they don’t.
“It is aggravating, and representatives from our community are at the international boundary waters conference right now talking about issues like this,” Horton said.
She noted people are doing many different things to raise awareness, but once again stressed the water walk is not a protest.
Rather, it is a way to show the water that they care.
“It is prayer so we ask people to come out and pray while they are walking and have good thoughts as they’re walking and pass that good energy to the water,” she explained.
The Ojibwe phrase “niin gaa izhichige” (I can do this) was repeated by the organizers and participants many times during Monday’s opening ceremony and preparation.
“It means I will stand up for the water, I will remember my teachings, remember my ancestors, and do this little bit,” Horton elaborated.
She also spoke about the New Gold mine north of Barwick and how happy she is that First Nations’ community members are getting work.
But she stressed they need to make sure they are respecting the environment, as well, and pushing for new technologies and renewable energy.
“The Creator has provided us with everything we need for life,” Horton noted. “We just need to take better care.
“Whatever belief you come from, whatever way it is that you have, think about the water,” she added.
“And in your own way, do good things for the water and think about your footprint,” she pleaded.