For several days in early August, I was part of a nibiwalk, a water walk led by Indigenous women. On Aug. 1, we dipped a copper pail into the headwaters of the Red River at Breckenridge/Wahpeton — on the North Dakota/Minnesota border — at the confluence of the Ottertail and Bois de Sioux rivers. We covered it with a red cloth, blessed it with tobacco and began walking. Eleven days later, on Sunday, Aug. 11, we ceremonially poured water from that same bucket into Lake Winnipeg in Canada
While the Red River wound its way northward in snakelike pattern for 550 miles, a group of us walked alongside it on a more or less straight path for more than 330 miles. We walked on country roads, small and large highways and through towns large and small. We stayed as close to the river as possible, feeling much excitement when we were very near to it. Even when we were not immediately in proximity to the river, we knew it was there, flowing onward. It was our unseen companion.
Women, both Native and non-Native, carried the water retrieved from the headwaters in relay for 10 or 11 hours each day, never, ever stopping. The bucket was passed hand to hand, always with a simple prayer of intention: “I will do this for the water,” said in Ojibwe. Without stopping, we kept moving northward, mirroring the flow of the river itself.
As walkers, we were well-protected by an eagle staff. We also carried a branch of an ash tree that was tied with 134 red strips of cloth bearing the names of 134 Indigenous women who were murdered or missing, women who had lost their lives in towns and on reservations, at the side of roads, in the fields or in the river itself.
Each step that was taken by one of the two dozen women who walked the journey together was a prayer — a prayer for the water, a prayer for our planet, a prayer for the women who were no longer with us and a prayer for healing. As we walked, we prayed for clean, pure water, for protection of the Earth, for peace, for the well-being of future generations and for the families of the women who were lost. We even prayed for those whose violent actions had taken away those precious lives.
Sometimes I walked in complete silence, hearing nothing but the gravel crunching beneath my feet and the birds singing overhead. Sometimes I recited the names of some of the murdered women to myself, especially remembering my namesake Pamela Lentz and her mother, Dorothy, who were brutally killed on the same night in 1987 in Grand Forks. Pamela Lentz, a college student in Wahpeton, N.D., was three months pregnant, and it is presumed she traveled to Grand Forks to tell her mother. The person who killed them has never been found.
Overwhelmed with the violence that had occurred, I sometimes walked offering what the Buddhists call a “lovingkindness” meditation:
“May I be peaceful. May I be happy. May I be safe. May I be well.” “May my loved ones be peaceful. May they be happy. May they be safe. May they be well.” “May all people be peaceful. May they be happy. May they be safe. May they be well.” And so on … Still other times, I would sing softly to remind myself why I was walking. Whatever I did, I tried to do it with intention, focus and my full presence.
We began each day of walking in ceremony and ritual. We sang for the water. We offered tobacco to the copper pail, to the eagle staff that protected us, to the murdered women and to one another. We began and ended each day in community. Some days the sun was blazing hot with not one tree in sight. Some days the road was dusty, while other days there was a gentle rain. Occasionally, we were privileged to see the river; mostly it was an act of faith to walk nearby but rarely see it.
In Winnipeg, we were invited to gather at The Forks … the confluence of the Red and Assiniboine rivers, a place sacred to the First Nation’s peoples of Canada. There we were greeted by Anishinabe leaders and others who warmly welcomed and honored us with their drum, songs and prayers. They reminded us that among the Anishinabe there are no borders between the U.S. and Canada.
While at the Forks, we were introduced to a young Métis woman, Jaime Black, whose vision created the REDress Project that has called attention to the disproportionate violence experienced by Native women. When Jaime learned of the thousands of Indigenous women who had been murdered or were missing, often with no one held responsible for their deaths, she was very alarmed. She had a vision to begin displaying empty red dresses to call attention to the issue. It is now a worldwide movement.
On the 11th day, we reached our final destination, the southwest shore of Lake Winnipeg. Having walked alongside the Red River from its source to this point, we were overcome with emotion and the sacredness of the journey. A Native grandmother and her granddaughter led the final approach to the lake, carrying the copper pail. The eagle staff and the staff holding murdered women’s names followed and behind them walked the embodied red dress.
Once we had gathered in a circle, the water was ceremonially poured into Lake Winnipeg, a huge and stunningly beautiful lake. There were more prayers and songs and one final offering. A bundle containing sardines, blueberries, corn and tobacco was tied in a red cloth and thrown into the water. At that precise moment, a magnificent bald eagle arched across the sky in front of us, framing the spot where the offering was given, and then it flew away. I believe it was a response to our prayers and our intentions.
Witnessing the care, patience and reverence that moved a small bucket of water across hundreds of miles and an international border through the hot sun, pouring rain, dusty dirt roads and the chaos of busy urban streets was an experience I will never forget.
Reciting the dead women’s names, while tenderly holding their spirits, was our way of inviting them to travel with us as we made our way forward with one another. I will hold them in my heart forever.
Coming together daily to build a community of healing and reconciliation that strives to respect the land, the water, one another and all creation was a lesson I hope to pass on to my grandchildren.
All creation is connected, and all creation is one. When we finally recognize we are not separate from other people, other beings, all the elements that create and sustain life — our Earth, air and water — nor the life force itself, I believe we will experience the true joy of living and belonging. May it be so.
For more information on these walks, go to nibiwalk.org.