Wendy Newell Dyer

Mother Earth Water Walk

When I began walking in the Eastern portion of the Mother Earth Water Walk that began on May 7, 2011, in Machiasport, Maine, I had little knowledge of the story behind the walk or of the remarkable Anishinaabe elder, teacher, water protector, and human being Josephine Mandamin. I understood the intent, but I wasn't fully aware of how transformative of an experience that it would be to take my place in her effort to promote awareness for the conservation and preservation of this planet's most essential natural resource.

There are moments in one's life when there is a sense that you are right where you are supposed to be. There is a realization that all of your life experiences combined have led you to a monumental place and time, and that despite the trials and tribulations that you have endured thus far on your human journey, to be in that moment is worth whatever hardships, suffering or sorrow that you have endured.

I experienced this feeling when I joined Josephine for the Mother Earth Water Walk during the first four days of the Maine portion of the walk in May 2011. I felt it even stronger when I caught up with Grandmother Josephine in Michigan three weeks later to rejoin her and the others for the last three days of that history making event that led me and the others from the four directions to the Bad River Reservation in Wisconsin.

As I drove a solo, thirty-six hour, nonstop drive to Michigan, I reflected back to early May when I had helped Kani Malsom Sapiel, a Passamaquoddy tribal member from Sipayik, Maine, and several others build a sweat lodge on my lunch break so that the lead walkers could purify and cleanse themselves before beginning the remarkable thirty-six day journey that they were about to undertake walking from Maine to Wisconsin, a portion of which through Canada, carrying a copper pail full of Atlantic Ocean and an eagle staff.

It was the first time that I had seen how a sweat lodge is built. As I helped, I thought about my ancestors building similar structures for thousands of years. I felt it a great honor and I found it a very humbling experience. After a few hours of finishing my work day, doing errands, and getting organized to walk with them for the next four days, I was able to enter the sweat lodge at Picture Rock in Machiasport, Maine, on the next-to-last round. It was a round specifically focused on forgiveness and letting go.

Inside the sweat lodge had been my first contact with Josephine Mandamin. She sat directly across the sweat from me. As I peered over at her, a look of pure love radiated from her being. As the door to the sweat closed, and as I sat there in the darkness, I was overcome with emotion as I thought about my ancestors, my offspring, our planet, and of the current state of affairs among human beings. I released many tears in the warmth of that experience. We came out of the sweat feeling cleansed, refreshed, and renewed.

Early the next morning Grandmother Josephine dipped the copper water vessel down below the surface to fill it with salt water from our precious Atlantic Ocean. We all watched as this sixty-eight year old woman began the Eastern portion of what became for many of us, the experience of a lifetime. Walking each of the Great Lakes and the Saint Lawrence River in the years prior to this walk, Josephine had established some basic expectations.

We rose before dawn and walked all day. We prayed, sang, and made offerings of sema (tobacco) to the bodies of water that we passed. We helped educate and include those that we met along the way and passed out cards that explained who we were and what we were doing. At day's end we nourished our bodies, bathed, and found rest. Josephine kept us on task in order for us to move the water forward to its destination. She was the first to rise each morning and would often be walking while some of us were still wiping the sleep from our eyes.

After a day or two of walking in the darkness just before dawn, I began to realize how much that we miss out on each day while we slumber through sunrise. In all of the craziness that we have created and perpetuated in the human world, it is a calming experience to pull away from all of that chaos and confusion, to observe and witness the natural world come to life as the sun makes its way up in the morning sky.

One cannot help but be moved by the balance and harmony found in the world beyond humans. The natural world has much to teach us, particularly the water, but we have lost touch with the seemingly magical aspects of the natural world that once mesmerized us as children.

I caught up with Josephine on the evening of June 9th, 2011, just east of the Wisconsin state line. After less than five hours of sleep, I arose the next morning just as she drove off in the darkness. I scurried into my car to catch up with her as we began our last full day of walking. I purposely walked alone a lot that morning, carrying both the eagle staff and the water. I needed time to think and to contemplate on what we were doing. Later in the day I met a young woman originally from the Pikangikum First Nation which is in northwestern Ontario.

She told me of the condition of the water where some of her family members still live. It was hard for me to grasp that in many places in Canada, indigenous people lack safe water and indoor plumbing. Many people become ill from the water that they drink, wash their dishes in, and bathe in. Some have sores on their skin from the toxins in the water. Many have intestinal problems. I thought to myself, "How can this be?"

When we reached the Bad River reservation the next evening for a feast and celebration, one of the speakers talked about the proposed iron-ore mine that will be located just off the reservation in the headwaters of the Bad River. Tribal members worried that the pollutants could enter Bad River and the tribe’s reservation, onto the sacred, fragile crop of wild rice that grows there. There were concerns about what a mine would do to the fish. Many were afraid that the pollutants could impact their way of life, yet there was little that they can do to stop it. I have read similar stories as I followed the Water Walk progress online. There were many stories shared across the continent of how our waters are being contaminated and exploited.

The Eastern walkers had so much support that they only had to pay for hotel rooms three or four nights because of the donations that were made along the way. People all along the route voiced their fears about what humans are doing to the water on this planet and because of their concern they contributed in numerous ways to help in the effort to bring awareness. Many told us that they were praying for us and the water.

After briskly walking over a dirt road on the last three miles of our journey on June 12th, we gathered at a beach on Lake Superior. I was given a glass container filled with Atlantic Ocean water to hold and protect until the land part of the ceremony began. As I stood there with my arms wrapped around the container, the water felt like it had a heart beat. It was as if I could feel it pulsing with life. It was an indescribable sensation that penetrated my being as I poured the container of ocean water into the large copper pail that would be brought out onto the lake.

The lake was so calm that it looked like glass. The sky was blue and nearly cloudless. The conditions could not have been better. As we rode in the boats parallel to the beach toward the ceremony destination, an eagle made its presence known on the shoreline. Numerous times it left its perch to fly in a circle ahead of us, relocating each time parallel to where the boat was positioned. It was as if the eagle was giving its approval for our efforts. Many of us sat with tears in our eyes as we watched that majestic creature giving its nod to us.

Songs and prayers for the healing of the water were offered and then the copper pails full of ocean water from the four directions were united together in the lake after an offering of sema. As I thought about the many miles that Josephine had walked through much of her sixties, and of the sacrifices that she had made to promote awareness, I was moved beyond words to see her eight years of work come full circle. And when I reflected on how many hands had held the water since it left from the four directions, I was overcome with gratitude to have been a small part of her important work.

At the conclusion of the ceremony I dipped my hands into Lake Superior and brought some toward my heart, my head, over my torso, and my eyes. I said a prayer to the water asking it to heal my heart, mind, and spirit and that my eyes would see more clearly. I asked another prayer that I may continue to work to help heal the water. After those prayers a feeling of peace washed over me and I realized that my life has been made richer through knowing Josephine Mandamin and the other water walkers.

I did not know at the start of the walk that I would be so profoundly and deeply moved by the experience. I had no idea how much that I would learn about the water and of the urgency with which we need to act in order to preserve, conserve, and protect the waters of this planet for future generations. I came away inspired by the experience with a strong desire within me to do whatever I can in some small way to continue to bring awareness to this issue, and to be part of the solution to this problem rather than contribute to it.
*Beautiful Josephine Mandamin left this world after a brief illness in late February 2019, at the age of seventy-seven. Though she has gone on to the spirit world, her work will continue as she touched countless people along the way in her efforts to bring awareness to the sacredness of the water and the importance of trying to keep this life-sustaining resource preserved for future generations.

Wendy Newell Dyer's Biography

Wendy was put up for adoption at birth due to racial indifference and was raised in a non-native family on a small island on the coast of Maine. At the age of twenty-five, she located her biological parents. After her husband’s prostate cancer diagnosis in 1996, she went to college and graduated magna cum laude from the University of Maine at Machias in 2003. She then became full-time caregiver to her husband who died in 2007. Together they homeschooled their three sons. Wendy testified before the Maine Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 2015. She helped write educational materials for the Maine Coalition to Fight Prostate Cancer and recently won a national writing contest sponsored by the Prostate Cancer Foundation for a piece on care giving. Two of her stories have appeared in two "Chicken Soup for the Soul" books this Spring. Wendy has written for several newspapers and magazines. When she’s not writing, she enjoys traveling to see her three grandsons, climbing mountains, working on her property, and taking long hikes with her black lab Jackson Liam.