By Rebecca Kemble*
Posted Feb. 10, 2014, on The Progressive
Reprinted in part with permission
In the year 2000, a spiritual elder of the Ojibwe tribe in northern
Wisconsin warned of massive water pollution and shortages of clean water in the
years to come. "What are you going to do about it?" he asked Josephine Mandamin, an Ojibwe
grandmother. Mandamin could not get the question out of her head.
Keweenaw Bay Indian Community (KBIC) member Terri Denomie, left, carrying water, joins Josephine Mandamin of Thunder Bay, Ont., carrying the ceremonial eagle staff, during the 2011 Mother Earth Water Walk, on the way to the final destination, Bad River, Wis. (Keweenaw Now file photo © 2011 and courtesy Roxanne Ornelas)**
In Ojibwe spiritual teachings, women are responsible for water. Their special relationship to water spirits is related to their ability to carry and generate life.
So, in April 2003 Mandamin decided to organize a water walk. She and other Ojibwe and non-indigenous women and men helped carry a pail and ceremonial eagle staff on a 1,000-mile journey along the shores of Lake Superior that took thirty-six days.
Every spring since then, Mandamin has organized and participated in water walks around each of the other Great Lakes and along the St. Lawrence and Mississippi rivers. In the summer of 2011, one year after the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster, four groups of water walkers set out from the Atlantic Ocean, Hudson Bay, the Pacific Ocean, and the Gulf of Mexico and converged at the mouth of the Bad River on Lake Superior, the origin of the first water walk.**
Josephine Mandamin of Thunder Bay, Ont., speaks to walkers and visitors during the reception held by Keweenaw Bay Indian Community members on June 8, 2011, at Ojibwa Community College in Baraga, Michigan. (Keweenaw Now file photo)**
But as the water walkers from the four directions arrived, a political battle that could spell doom for the area and its watershed was heating up 300 miles to the south in the state capitol building in Madison.
West Virginia coal billionaire Chris Cline had just incorporated the Gogebic Taconite (GTac) company and announced plans to build one of the largest iron mines in the world.
The twenty-two-mile long, 1,000-foot deep open pit would obliterate the Penokee Hills that form the headwaters of the Bad River watershed, leaving in their place a wasteland of 910 million tons of sulfuric acid-producing waste rock, depleted aquifers, poisoned rivers and streams, and a film of asbestos-laden dust for miles around. Cline, who made his fortune blasting off mountaintops in West Virginia for coal, now aims to bring the natural, social, and economic devastation wrought by this kind of mining to one of the most ecologically sensitive and important places in Wisconsin. ...
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* Rebecca Kemble is a writer and political reporter for The Progressive. She is also a founding member, writer, and editor in the Wisconsin Citizens Media Cooperative.
** See our Aug. 5, 2011, article, "Updated: KBIC welcomes 2011 Mother Earth Water Walk participants," with more photos of the 2011 Water Walkers' visit to the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community in Baraga.