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Monday, November 11, 2019

Guest Article: Experiencing People of the Heart Water Walk

By Charli Mills*
With photos by Charli Mills and other water protectors

Charli Mills of Hancock (right), author of this article, offers omelets for "breakfast on the go" to People of the Heart Water Walkers. (Photo © and courtesy Cynthia Drake)

It's one thing to know something in our heads. Science and technology fill our minds with facts and discoveries. It's good to learn, to have a growth mindset, and an open mind. But we also need heart. We need that spiritual knowledge for growth that is humane. It's easier to be a thinker in our modern world because opening up the heart risks vulnerability. This recent Water Walk (October 19-21, 2019) called for "people of the heart." Participation doesn't ask anyone to change their minds or beliefs. It doesn't compare traditions or cultures. It simply asks that you show up with a loving heart for the Water we all share.

No matter our differences or political leanings, no matter if we are scientists or ministers, none of us can deny the simple truth that Water is life.

Water protector Laura Smyth of Calumet makes an offering to the Water at Jacob's Falls, near Eagle River, Mich., on Oct. 19, 2019, the first day of the People of the Heart Water Walk. (Photo © and courtesy Charli Mills)

As a literary artist and storyteller, I felt drawn to the movement. I wanted to experience the story of a Water Walk. I helped where needed. I used what skills I could share. Everybody did. We learned to trust Kathy Chosa when she said everything would all fall into place. And it did. People showed up with bologna sandwiches, others brought ones made with nut butters and homemade jams. No one made judgements and everyone tasted satisfaction.

I walked the first day before dawn with the group out of Copper Harbor in the inky dark. We knew each other by voice. Alone, I peeled off to return to my support car and get ahead four miles to my friend Bonnie Harrer who had fixed omelet muffins and air-pots of coffee. We passed them out to the Walkers, and she lent me the air-pots to use throughout all three days. Exactly as Kathy said. What we need when we need it.

A view of the supplies in the trunk of Charli Mills' support vehicle. (Photo © and courtesy Charli Mills)

Hospitality became my role, making sure Walkers had nutrition, hydration, caffeination, and an encouraging smile.

On the second day, when we crossed the bridge into Houghton, I wanted to walk in support. Everyone wanted to walk across the Lift Bridge! That meant someone had to drive a support vehicle ahead of the Walkers. I stepped in to do that. After parking, I found a spot to pan the scene and catch the moment Kathy Chosa emerged with Nibi (Water) in the copper pot. Her son Jacob walked the Eagle Staff and on her other side her mother, Florine, walked. Three generations, walking for the future of Water.

People of the Heart Water Walkers cross the Portage Lift Bridge to Houghton on Oct. 20, 2019. Organizer Kathy Chosa (front, center) is accompanied by her mother, Florine, and her son Jacob. (Photo © and courtesy Charli Mills)

The urge to join with them pulled me in, and I cut off my video to walk. Like a tributary, I flowed into the Walkers. The Water unites us.

After crossing the Portage Lift Bridge, the Water Walkers head through Houghton along the Waterfront Trail to Nara Park. (Photo © and courtesy Charli Mills)

The third day, I followed my friend’s recipe and made omelets-on-the-go and coffee. Another friend brought bananas for the hospitality car. Everything has been a communal effort, not the work of one person but of many hands and hearts. Two churches -- Bethany Lutheran and Good Shepherd Lutheran -- opened their doors to us. People told me they were praying.

One of the Walkers, Erika Vye, asked if I wanted to carry Nibi. I told her I didn't think I could. The Water has to keep moving and I’ve had three back surgeries, which stunts my stride. I felt like the most unlikely woman to carry the Water. Gently, like waves on Lake Superior when it's a sunny summer day, Erika encouraged me. Another woman offered to drive my support car. And Erika agreed to walk behind me with the Eagle Staff.

Charli Mills carries the copper pot of Nibi (Water), while Erika Vye of Copper Harbor bears the protective Eagle Staff. (Photo © and courtesy Donica Hope Dravillas)

When I stood along the road to relay the Water, I faced the power coming directly at me the way I have faced gales on Superior for photographs. Here, I could not keep a safe distance. I had to leap, to carry Nibi. Though afraid, I was willing. The whole walk, I stayed prayerful, grateful, focusing on what Water gives us. At one point I could feel all the Kwe, all the women who had walked or will walk the Water, surrounding me and flowing with Nibi. It was transformative.

No longer was I support; I was a Water Walker. I am still me -- my core values have not changed. But I have a new sensitivity to Water. Now, when I cross the Lift Bridge, I get tears in my eyes. I stood over a grated water drainage in my neighborhood last week just to be with the water. I'm taking walks in the rain and snow, less conscious of my stride. I love each and every woman I walked with and fed. When Kathy called me Mama Bear at our last feast, I accepted it. We did the work of the Water and will continue. I am Kwe. Water is life.

* Note: Charli Mills is a storyteller and lead buckaroo at, an online literary community. World headquarters is located at Hancock within ceded territories of the Anishinaabe. Her literary art is 99-word stories. The following are from a collection inspired by and dedicated to the People of the Heart Water Walkers:

SONGS OF KWE (A Collection of 99-word Stories)

Roadside Education

You lower your car window along M26 where it curls around Cat Harbor, following a small pageant of people walking down the road. The truck in front of you has a magnetic sign that reads, WATER WALK. What is a Water Walk, you ask? Good question. It’s a relay of water scooped from Copper Harbor, making its way to Keweenaw Bay. Women pass the vessel between them, walking without stopping. The Anishinaabekwe teach us that this is the work of the water. We pray for water’s future, contemplate water’s gifts. You nod, accept the explanation and say, "Thank you."

People of the Heart Water Walkers head down M26, followed by their security truck. (Photo © and courtesy Charli Mills)

Grandmothers on Wheels

Elvera Lantz of L'Anse (left) and Diane Charron of Baraga, Keweenaw Bay Indian Community elders, ride in Diane's golf cart the 90 miles from Copper Harbor to Sand Point (Baraga) during the People of the Heart Water Walk. (Photo by Keweenaw Now)

Don’t underestimate Grandmothers in a golf cart. From their perspective, they see all -- the younger ones trudging forth, the husks of four-leggeds on the pavement, the silent soaring of eagles overhead. They notice the tilt of the Eagle Staff, the sway of Nibi’s copper kettle. As Kwe relay the water, the Grandmothers speed up or slow down. Like Nibi they are always flowing, always in motion, moving forward. For three days and 90 miles, the Grandmothers keep pace. It would be a mistake to think them insubstantial. They lead the future from behind. Fierce in a golf cart. Proud.

The Seventh Generation

Madeline, daughter of Donica Hope Dravillas of Copper Harbor, carries Nibi while Jacob, son of Kathy Chosa, carries the Eagle Staff during the People of the Heart Water Walk. (Photo © and courtesy Charli Mills)

She rounds the bend, walking the shoulder of the highway, her gaze intense. She has grown from child to the woman-she-will-be in a span of three days. The women, Kwe, follow. In her hand she grips the handle, carrying the life-force of us all -- Water.

He saunters a step behind, proudly holding aloft the Eagle Staff of his people, bringing balance. He will grow into the enormity of his spirit, guarding the procession, the women, and the Water.

Children, Aunties, Grandmothers. Uniting to do the work of Water to keep it clean and alive for the next seven generations.


Kwe, the women carrying the Water, must relay the copper kettle of Nibi while they walk to keep it moving. (Photo © and courtesy Charli Mills)

In my dream, women dance around me, skirts against skirts, shawl tips held to shawl tips like outstretched wings of ravens. The safety of the circle lulls me to sleep, a song of Kwe, a women’s lullaby. I would have forgotten this dream had I not walked the water. Work is not meant to be easy. Each of us push our limitations, open up to willingness, triumph over fear. In that moment when the work hard-pressed me, the water lifted me up and I glimpsed the shadows of the dream, felt the flow of my skirt touching other skirts.

Honor Guard

From the darkest hours before dawn until the sun set, the Water Walker truck drove honor guard behind the Grandmothers who watched over the Kwe and the copper kettle. It was not about the walk; it was about the water. Traversing the Portage Canal Lift Bridge, Hancock and Houghton City Police protected the procession. From there, Water Walkers continued their relay along the Waterfront Trail to Nara Park, Grandmothers in pursuit. A man mowing his lawn paused and placed his hand over his heart with the reverence of eleven eagles that later welcomed home the People of the Heart.

People of the Heart arrive at the Sand Point Lighthouse in Baraga, on Keweenaw Bay (Lake Superior) on Oct. 21, 2019. (Photo by Keweenaw Now)

Editor's Note: If you missed Keweenaw Now's videos and photos of the People of the Heart Water Walk, see the article: "Native, non-Native water protectors complete 90-mile Water Walk near Lake Superior."

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