Mary Annette Pember
Sharon Day, Ojibwe, begins the first leg of the day of Nibi Walk along the Ohio River in Cincinnati.

How Strong Ojibwe Women Made Mother's Day Special by Fighting for the Waters

Mary Annette Pember

Walking through the city in the rain while carrying a copper bucket of water and an eagle feather was not how I had planned to celebrate Mother’s Day.

Although I frequently think otherwise, however, my plans are usually not very important. Such was the case this year when my niiyawen’enh (godmother), Cleora White from the Lac Courte Oreilles Reservation in Wisconsin, called to inform me that the Water Walkers were passing by my community here in Cincinnati.

“Maybe you’d like to support them,” she suggested in that Ojibwe woman way that is impossible to disobey. 

I was recovering from a virus and resting in bed when she called. I was reminded of her phone calls to me during my college years when I lived the lush life on many nights. I hated her early morning phone calls then. My head would throb in response to her chipper voice. “Get out of bed, you ol giiwashkwebii (drunk) squaw!” she would tease, “come over and feast with us!”

I would show up at her house, my eyes like two pee holes in the snow as my dad would say, and she would put me to work. She mothered me when I needed it most in those early days. Somehow, she knew I still needed her gentle urging and reminder that I am an Anishinabikwe (Ojibwe woman) and I have certain responsibilities. The most important of those duties is to care for Nibi (the water).

The Ohio River Water Walk is the third Nibi walk lead by a group of Anishinabe grandmothers who pray for the water and raise awareness about the pollution that plagues this element that is essential to life. Sharon Day, Ojibwe, is leading this walk.

“Carrying the water in a ceremonious way every day creates transformation,” she said.

RELATED: From Beginning to End: Walking the Mississippi River to Celebrate and Cherish Water

She and others believe that this act of ceremony will change the way people view the water in a personal way.

“When we spend time respecting and thanking the water for keeping us alive, it becomes impossible to abuse it,” she said. “When we spend time praying for the water, we spend time praying for ourselves; in praying for ourselves we pray for all of our relatives.”

RELATED: Walk on Water, Walk for Water

Walkers and supporters take a lunch break alongside the river on the Kentucky side, the Cincinnati skyline is in background. A special ceremony allows the walkers to take a short midday break for food.  (Photo: Mary Annette Pember)

And so, humbly, with purpose and urgency, they stride along the river carrying an eagle feather and a copper bucket of water taken from the confluence of the Ohio, Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers in Pittsburgh. As they walk the 981 miles to the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers in Cairo, Missouri, they pass the water and feather forward, relay style. Sometimes it’s just the two Ojibwe women who started the walk—Day and Barbara Larush—and sometimes they are joined by many, many others. In keeping with Ojibwe ceremonies, once started the walk continues without break from sunrise to sunset. Always in forward motion, never backward, through whatever weather presents itself. They began walking on April 22, Earth Day, and plan to end around Memorial Day.


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LBanner's picture
Submitted by LBanner on
I may have to start carrying a bucket of water around with me here in Los Angeles. You are all wonderful for doing this. Thank you.