by Joan Smedinghoff
February 06, 2017
For 383 miles, the Potomac River flows steadily down from West Virginia, through the nation’s capital and past Maryland’s Point Lookout State Park until it reaches its final destination: the Chesapeake Bay.
For the group of Ojibwe women leading the Potomac River Nibi Walk, their destination is the same as the river’s.
In Ojibwe tradition, a Nibi Walk is an act of spiritual devotion. These women have traveled from their home in Minnesota to the river’s beginning in West Virginia to perform the walk. The goal is to carry water collected at the headwaters of the Potomac in Fairfax Stone, West Virginia, down to where it meets the Chesapeake Bay, praying to and honoring the spirit of the water with every step.
Sharon Day, the organizer of the walk, says that she and others from her community took this act of prayer and meditation out of their homes and communities into the “geopolitical landscape” because they feel that waterway health in the United States needs to be a major concern.
Day’s trying to bring this message around the country. Other walks have covered the Cuyahoga, James, Minnesota and Ohio Rivers among others. “I urge all the walkers that the walk is just the beginning,” she says. “How do we–every single one of us–be a part of the solution?”
The last day of the walk takes on a certain rhythm: the steady pace of the human body punctuated by fluid handoffs and quick footsteps on asphalt. One or two people walk with the water at a time, down stretches of road that may or may not be pedestrian-friendly. They relay the water every mile or so and keep it moving from the early morning until about the time the sun goes down when they rest. In Ojibwe life, women are the keepers of the water, so they are the ones who carry the vessel. Men act in supporting roles, such as carrying the eagle staff.
The group completes the last 20 or so miles of their journey and ends on a rocky shoreline at Point Lookout State Park as the sun sinks low in the sky. Once people steady themselves on the jagged rocks, a moment of calm settles over what had been a day of constant movement. The water laps and gurgles beneath as Day removes the beaded cloth that covered the copper bucket and acted as a metronome throughout the walk, clinking against the vessel with every step. She raises the water three times before releasing it from her possession into the waves of the Chesapeake Bay as the group lets out cheers of excitement.
The light fades as the travelers reflect on their journey, complete an offering ceremony and sing for the water all together one last time on the Potomac River Nibi Walk.
Video and text by Leslie Boorhem-Stephenson