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Ojibwe woman leads sacred water walk from White Earth Reservation through Otter Tail County

Starting on the morning of Saturday, Sept. 18, at the landing in Elbow Lake on Hwy. 113 on the White Earth Reservation, those participating in the Nibi Walk on the Otter Tail River, gathered some water from the lake before carrying along down the river toward the direction of Perham.

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Sharon Day leads the Nibi Walk down Hwy. 10, entering Perham on the afternoon of Sunday, Sept. 19. (Elizabeth Vierkant/Focus)

Complete silence, except for the sounds of nature… the swishing of water and the breeze in the trees — this is what Sharon Day, the director of the Indigenous People's Task Force in Minneapolis-Saint Paul, feels as she leads a Nibi Walk along a river.

"Nibi" means "water" in Ojibwe. A Nibi Walk, a sacred water walk, is described as an Indigenous-led extended ceremony to pray for water. As an Ojibwe woman born and raised in Minnesota, these walks — which she started leading in 2011 — allow Day to connect with the world around her as well as raise awareness on the need for clean water.

In fact, a Nibi Walk recently passed right through the town of Perham. Starting on the morning of Saturday, Sept. 18, at the landing in Elbow Lake on Highway 113 on the White Earth Reservation, those participating in the Nibi Walk on the Otter Tail River gathered some water from the lake before carrying it along the river toward the direction of Perham and Fergus Falls.

Gathering water from the source of a river, those that lead the walk carry that water alongside the river, walking about a mile before passing it along to another person to carry it. They're followed by someone who carries an eagle feather staff, which is there for protection.

"We're so far apart from nature most of the time unless you're fortunate to have a garden and put your hands in the dirt," Day said. "Most people are disconnected from the water and disconnected from the earth. That's what we're trying to do as we take people along."

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Those who participate in the walks are asked to be silent, to mediate and to focus their attention on the water. Day said she wants them to make a connection with the earth.

Walking up along Highway 10 into Perham on the afternoon of Sunday, Sept. 19, Day had already been participating and meditating on the Nibi Walk along Otter Tail River for a bit over a day. She described the way an eagle would fly over to watch them, how horses approached them in greeting and how different trees make different noises, such as between ash trees and pine trees.

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Sharon Day, an Ojibwe woman, has led many Nibi Walks, especially in the state of Minnesota. (Elizabeth Vierkant/Focus)

Connecting and meditating with the earth and nature is a large part of the Nibi Walk. "When we care about the water and the earth, we're going to make different decisions," Day said. "If we want any kind of habitable world for our great-great-grandchildren, several generations from now, we've got to do something (to help the environment) now."

Having sat on the state's Clean Water Council for three years, Day is also quite passionate about environmental preservation and the need for clean water. The Nibi Walk, as well as a spiritual event, is also a way for Day and others to raise awareness about pollution and the need for clean water.

South of the Twin Cities, Day said, people can't drink their well water or give it to their babies because it contains so much nitrate — a salt or ester of nitrous acid. She's personally witnessed how in southwest Minnesota, people need to treat their water before drinking it, and they can't swim in lakes.

There are many farms throughout the state of Minnesota, and, as found in a study published by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency , runoff from fertilized crops contributes to 73% of Minnesota nitrate pollution. On the Minnesota River, cropland runoff is the source of 95% of nitrate pollution. The runoff also contributes to the erosion of rivers.

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As discussed by the Friends of the Mississippi River , nitrate pollution can put the lives of people at risk, such as causing blue baby syndrome, and high nitrate levels are also harmful to water life and habitats. They also mentioned that Minnesota is the sixth highest contributor of nitrogen to the Gulf of Mexico dead zone, which is suffocating aquatic life and hurting the fishing industry.

"Walking along the highway, I see things people throw away," Day said. "If people would think — a cigarette butt or filter. I saw so many. That's never going to decompose."

While Day mentioned that an individual person can make a small difference by recycling or not littering, but that's not going to tip the balance. She believes that what's going to tip the balance is by looking at large industries and the pollution they contribute toward, such as how much water a power plant uses.

She also brought up how Enbridge, the company constructing the Line 3 replacement pipeline through Northern Minnesota, was recently fined $3.32 million by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources for an environmental violation, as they dug a trench several feet deeper than they were supposed to. In early August, the MPCA found several inadvertent releases of drilling fluid into 12 river crossings, which then flowed into the wetland. This was not allowed under Line 3's certification.

"We're just way out of balance (with nature), and we need to come back to the center," Day said. "To refine the balance, ask, 'How much do I need? When I take something, how much am I leaving?' Only take what you need. Leave the rest."

The Nibi Walk along Otter Tail River, which ended in Fergus Falls on Tuesday, Sept. 21, was able to happen thanks to the donations of the community and interest from the organization, Clean Up the River Environment. If you're interested in learning more about Nibi Walks or wish to donate toward them, go to nibiwalk.org .

Day shared a story of the time she asked her grandson where the spirit lives. He looked up to her with tears in his eyes, and patted his chest, saying, "Right here." She asked him who we should be kindest to and he said, "Who we love."

Though Day is the director of the Indigenous People's Task Force, which is where they receive the funds for Nibi Walks, she organizes them and participates in them in her own time without pay. She does this because she's passionate about the environment from a scientific and spiritual standpoint.

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Reflecting back on that story about her grandson, Day continued, "The spirit does live here in each of us. If we can just start doing our work based on what we do or don't do and how that's going to affect our (descendants) seven generations from now, we may be making different decisions today as opposed to this idea of progress and wealth and attainment of material things."

Elizabeth (she/her), 23, graduated with a degree in Journalism and Communications from the University of Wisconsin–Stout in 2020. Elizabeth has always had a passion for telling stories about people and specializes in community features, which she uses for her Perham-centered content.
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