Keeping the Water Moving: Nibi Walk Ceremony for the Health of GitchiGami

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Cristin Curwick, Minnesota Environmental Partnership

Sunday, Aug. 5th, around 8:30 a.m., I catch up with a caravan along the scenic byway along the shore of Lake Superior. They’re following two people: one carrying a copper pail, the other trailing behind with a staff, an eagle head perched on top.

As a community organizer, you are supposed to meet people where they are. This morning, people were gathered, walking for the water. 

I’d received word of the opportunity to be a part of the Nibi Walk, a 33-day Ojibwe ceremonial relay of carrying a copper pail filled with water from GitchiGami – otherwise known as Lake Superior –  and traveling by foot all along the 2,800-mile long shoreline of the lake.

In Ojibwe tradition, the pail must be carried by a woman, wearing a long skirt, followed by a protector carrying a staff. They walk in silence, occasionally offering tobacco to any roadkill, and when crossing rivers or streams along the way. They pass the pail and staff after about a mile of walking, so others get a chance to take on the task. 

Another aspect of the tradition: women are responsible for taking care of the water. I was surrounded by powerful women, and they told me about the importance and purpose of the Nibi Walk. It is a time to speak with the water spirits, to show respect for the water, and pray.

The idea is that water must move to be healthy. Unfortunately, GitchiGami is facing many threats to its health, which in turn, threatens our health. Harm from climate change heating up an otherwise frigid lake, and threats of pollution from our extractive industries, such as mining along the North Shore, have jeopardized the waters of GitchiGami.

Sharon Day of the Bois Forte Band of Ojibwe, who led the walk, said “I don’t know what else to do but to walk, pray, and sing to the waters.” (

With everything that is at stake with the lake, it’s easy to feel defeated. But defeat was not accepted at the Nibi Walk. There were elders and youth, men, women, non-binary, and two-spirited folks that walked. Community members from various religious, ethnic, and cultural backgrounds showed up for the water.

There was an overwhelming sense of community, as I was offered food, water, advice, stories, anything I needed to keep moving forward, just like the water. As folks carried the copper pail, they told me about how the water spoke to them. It provided comfort, encouragement, and reassurance. 

I left the walkers that day feeling empowered, fueled by what I had heard and seen. The stories of what brought us together that day were varied, but all surrounded by one thing: the respect of water, and the responsibility to protect it.

I encourage you to read the Minnesota Women’s Press article that Sharon Day wrote about the walk, its origins, and its purpose. I encourage you to keep moving, keep fighting for the health of our water and our community, and in times of doubt, fear, or hopelessness, listen to the water. She will provide comfort, and She always listens. 

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