Deb Sewell lives on Sand Creek in the St. Croix River watershed, near Sandstone, Minn. She is Assistant Area Fisheries Supervisor for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, a job involving stewardship of fish populations and water quality in lakes and streams in the Kettle and St. Croix watersheds. She finally bought a kayak this year.
We are standing in a small circle at the T intersection of State Highways 18 and 23, north of the town of Sandstone, Minnesota. As pickup trucks rush by on this Sunday morning, I think to myself “what an odd place to hold a ceremony.” But it is part of the Nibi Walk ritual: The water must start in the exact location it stopped at the end of the previous day’s journey. Two days of walking has brought a copper vessel holding water from the headwaters of the Kettle River, near Cromwell, Minnesota, to the place we now stand, a distance of roughly 50 miles by road. Today the water will end its journey at the confluence with the St. Croix River.
After a brief ceremony, Sharon Day, leader of the walk, picks up the vessel and an eagle feather and immediately begins walking up Highway 23 towards the river. Paul follows her with an eagle head staff, a symbol of protection for the journey. Once the walk begins, the water vessel must never stop moving forward until the end of the day, or when the mouth of the river is reached. Because water in the river is always moving forward. I have thought about the symbolism of this; when water in a river hits an obstacle, it will form an eddy and flow back in a slow circle. But the act of walking the water is a ceremony, every step being a prayer in gratitude for water, the giver of life. We do not want our prayers to flow backwards, get stuck moving in circles. At least that is my interpretation.
There are about ten of us participating in the walk on this day, some for the full day, others joining or leaving as their schedules permit. Most of us are women, wearing long skirts to honor our connection with the earth. Only women may carry the water vessel; men or women may carry the eagle staff. According to the Nibi Walk website, “Water Walks respect the truth that water is a life giver, and because women also give life they are the keepers of the water.”
The logistics of the walk require at least a couple vehicles, one to drive behind the walkers for safety, and another to shuttle walkers ahead. The walk is a relay, each walker taking a turn that lasts about 0.8 miles. Sharon explained, that way walkers don’t get fatigued. To cover up to 25 miles in a day, the water needs to keep moving at a brisk pace.
Sharon had planned the route a week earlier, using Google Maps, and had driven some parts of it, but not all. Her plan is to walk a road on the west side of the river, from Sandstone to Highway 48 east of Hinckley. In July this area had experienced severe flooding, and I am pretty sure one washed out part of the road had not been fixed yet. Sharon had heard there might be a bridge out, so she asks if another woman, Kim, and I would drive there right after the walk started to check it out. I realize that I am the one member of this group who has a good knowledge of the area. I had felt a calling to do this walk because the Kettle River, with its sandstone cliffs and bedrock and waterfalls, is sacred to me. But I understand now I am called to be with this group of people, on this day, to be a guide, to provide my local wisdom.
The road in question is indeed washed out, not to be repaired anytime soon. A reminder of the power of water, and of the consequences of our fossil fuel burning lifestyle. This was supposedly an 800 year rainfall event, by some accounts. There have been two such rainfalls in the area in the last 4 years.
It was an act of the Great Spirit that Kim and I went on this mission together. As we talk, we find we have a lot in common. She had even been at Music as transformation the night before at our friend Charrie’s house. Kim and I rejoin the walk just as they are turning off Highway 23 onto a gravel road, after having crossed the deep river valley. We drive ahead to the next point the relay will take place. Sharon decides that I will be the next one to carry the water. I am excited, and nervous. What if I do not do it right? There is not tine to think. I am passed the water, and I am walking….
“Ngah izitchigay nibi ohnjay!” I do it for the water.
These are the words that are spoken as the beaded copper vessel is passed from one person to the next. The transfer is swift, done while both women are walking so the vessel does not stop moving forward, like the water. As I take the vessel and eagle feather into my hands for the first time, I feel awkward. I arrange the GPS that is attached to the vessel so it faces up. The GPS is sending a signal so the walk can be tracked by others in real time. Here is our route for the day:
My footsteps settle into a quick rhythm and I walk in silence. Paul is walking behind me carrying the eagle staff. All I can think is “wow, I’m actually doing this!” I have read a lot about Native American ceremonies, but this is my first time participating in one. I am still rehearsing the words in my head: “Ngah izitchigay nibi ohnjay.” Like a mantra, but I keep stumbling over the words.
As I walk on, I am thinking of the Kettle River and what it has meant to me over the last 25 years. Much of my contact with the river has been through my job as a fisheries specialist with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. When I first started working at the area office in Hinckley, where I still work today, we were just in the beginning stages of a long term project monitoring the lake sturgeon population in the Kettle River. Lake sturgeon are prehistoric looking, long-lived, slow growing fish. They have been extirpated, and now reintroduced, in some Minnesota river systems due to overharvest, dams, and pollution. The Kettle River has no major point pollution sources, but there was concern that, even with a harvest limit at the time of one per season, the sturgeon population was dwindling. An old hydroelectric dam at Sandstone also prevented their movement upstream. Fortunately, thanks to a closed season beginning in the mid 1990’s, and the removal of the dam, the sturgeon population appears to be recovering in the Kettle River.
“Ngah izitchigay nibi ohnjay.” Try as I might, the words don’t quite come out right as I pass the water to the next woman. I go to my car, which someone has moved ahead for me, and grab my water bottle and take a long drink. I am sweating already from walking; the sun is out and it is a warm morning for September. I chat with some of the other walkers before we drive to the next relay point. And so the caravan and walk continues into the morning. The next time I carry the water, we are near the town of Sandstone. As I walk over a small creek, I reach into the pouch that is hanging around my neck and offer a pinch of tobacco as a gift of thanks. That ritual is done whenever we cross water, encounter a dead animal, or a cemetery or memorial.
As the Kettle River flows through Banning State Park and the town of Sandstone, a stretch of about 9 miles, it cuts through a deep, narrow gorge of pinkish orange sedimentary rock that gave the town its name. Layers of millenia of sediment from an ancient sea are exposed, carved over centuries by the flow of water from Glacial Lake Duluth after the last Ice Age. As the water swirled around in eddies, it carved out the round potholes or “kettles” that give the river its name. The Ojibwe called the river “Akiko zibi”, which also means Kettle River. Around the turn of the century, quarries at Sandstone and the former town of Banning removed tons of rock to be used in buildings in the growing towns and cities of Minnesota. The quarries were only active for a relatively short time period, less than 20 years.
Many days after work I find myself drawn to the river, to the cliffs and kettles and caves and waterfalls, to the powerful singing of water against rock. The water music, a sacred song that has gone on through the ages, through many cycles of seasons. This is why I am walking for the river.
Part Three: Confluence
It is late afternoon, and the copper vessel of water is now entering St. Croix State Park for the last leg of the journey to the mouth of the Kettle River. Our route so far today has taken us along about 20 miles of roadsides ranging from quiet gravel lanes to busy state highways. Kim and I have been sent ahead to meet the team of walkers in the park; they have a couple miles of trail to walk, and the sun, though it is lower in the sky, is still warm. We will trade off with them if necessary.
At 34,000 acres, St. Croix is Minnesota’s largest state park. The walkers entered on a state trail at the northwest end of the park, but anyone driving into the park needs to take the one main entrance and follow eight miles of winding roads back to where it meets up with the trail. My job duties have taken me along these roads several times in the past, so I am happy I can use my knowledge of the roads to guide the group on this day.
We meet the walkers on the Matthew Lourey State Trail as it winds through the north side of the park. This trail is named for a local helicopter pilot who was killed in the Afghanistan war. I know the Lourey family; Matthew’s nieces and nephews attend school with my kids. I know the family would be honored that the water traveled along a portion of Matthew’s trail.
The gravel road to Head of the Rapids landing, our destination, passes over gently rolling hills covered with deciduous trees and occasional tall, stately pines. The dappled shade and rustling of aspen leaves are a welcome change from the hot sun and roar of vehicles on the highway. The walkers seem to pick up a new energy; sometimes there is singing, or shaking a rattle. For the first time today, I am handed the eagle staff to carry. I can somehow feel its power within me and I hold my head higher, my steps more confident.This eagle staff, along with the copper vessel, have traveled thousands of steps along at least a dozen rivers across the United States. We are walking in solidarity with water protectors around the world.
As sunset approaches, the water arrives at Head of the Rapids. Technically this boat landing is not at the true confluence of the Kettle and St. Croix rivers, but looking at a map of the area, it is hard to tell exactly where one ends and the other begins; they are braided and intertwined with a series of small islands. The water is all one. We gather in a circle to do a ceremony of thanks for this water that is life. We sing:
Ne-be Gee Zah- gay- e- goo (Water, we love you)
Gee Me-gwetch -wayn ne- me — goo (We thank you)
Gee Zah Wayn ne- me- goo (We respect you)
(words by Doreen Day)
*At the time of this writing, Sharon Day is leading a Nibi Walk along the Potomac River. For more information on Nibi Walks, please visithttp://www.nibiwalk.org/ . You can follow the progress of the Potomac River walk on the Facebook group “Nibi Walks”.