So, I walk into the Grange Hall in Machias last Saturday and who is the first and only person I recognize but Brian Theriault of Fort Kent.
Dressed in the fringed regalia and be-feathered felt hat familiar to northern Maine parade- and craft fair-goers, the well-known maker of traditional snowshoes has come from Aroostook County to join the Eastern contingent of the 2011 Mother Earth Water Walk from Bad Little Falls in Machias to Bad River, Wis.
Identifying with his Micmac and Maliseet ancestry, Brian has participated in this consciousness-raising journey before, walking along the St. Lawrence in 2009.
“Water is the blood of Mother Earth. It affects everything,” he says. “We need clean water.” Brian wants to be part of this growing international effort to promote the protection of water from pollution and misuse. And so he walks with his native and non-native brothers and sisters and others, taking a turn carrying a staff bearing the head of an eagle, symbolic of the man’s role as protector of the woman carrying the water.
Marilyn and Harry Roper of Houlton have been feeding me emails about this event since January, so I put it on my calendar for May 7. Friends of indigenous people on both sides of the U.S.-Canada border, the Ropers got involved with the Water Walk when asked to help organizers find hosts for participants in the cross-continental trek. They joined the walkers and their support vehicles Saturday and Sunday as they moved along Routes 1A and 1 between Machias and Ellsworth.
“We are very honored to be part of this send-off of the walkers from the East,” Marilyn said.
Dating back to 2003, Mother Earth Water Walks have been held in the Great Lakes region before this year, when pails of salt water carried from the Pacific Northwest, the Gulf of Mexico, Hudson Bay and Maine will arrive at Madigan Lake in Bad River, Wis., in mid-June.
Conceived by two grandmothers of the Anishinawbe (Ojibway, Odawa and Patawatomi) in the Great Lakes region, the walks were inspired by the prophecy of the highly regarded Grand Chief of the Three Fires Midewiwin Society who predicted in 2000 that, if we continue our negligence, by the year 2030 “an ounce of water will cost as much as an ounce of gold.”
The grandmothers answered the question “What will you do?” by organizing water walks around each of the Great Lakes between 2003 and 2008 and along the St. Lawrence River between Kingston, Ontario, and the Atlantic Ocean in 2009.
“The person you want to talk to is Josephine, one of the grandmothers,” Brian says, pointing to an elderly woman in red seated at one of four long tables in the Grange Hall where members of the Beehive Collective for artists are serving a meal of wholesome food. Brian leads me to her side where I sit down as he introduces me. The elder and principal coordinator of the walk, Josephine Mandamin is surrounded by people, but she focuses on me.
“We are all united by water,” she says, praising the “collective consciousness” represented by native and non-native people walking together, not only across North America, but also in Asia and Europe.
For Josephine, an Ojibway from Ontario, the best possible result of the Water Walk would be “for big corporations to open their hearts and see what they are doing,” to understand that “Mother Earth pays the price” for activities such as oil drilling and mining. She would like to see “presidents and prime ministers endorse the Water Walk,” but they have yet to respond to the invitation.
I ask Josephine why only women are allowed to carry the copper buckets of water.
“You should know. You’re a woman,” she replies, fixing her eyes on mine. “When a woman gives life, there is water. Woman gives life. Water gives life.”
My time with Josephine is over. She jumps up onto a chair, arms upraised to grab the attention of the 80-100 people in the hall. It is time to begin the westward walk, but first a few ceremonies.
Giving thanks for the food and hospitality, she acknowledges the Wabanaki people: “This is the place where the migration started. We left here and we have come back. We are your family.”
Passamaquoddy tribal historian and former legislator Donald Soctomah steps forward holding a dark blue beaded hat in his hands.
“I present this traditional peaked woman’s cap from Aroostook County for you to wear for the day,” he says, placing the hat on Josephine’s head. He tells me later the cap is perhaps a hundred years old, passed down in the Slagger family of the Houlton Band of Maliseets, the Metaksonihkek (Maliseet/Wolastoq).
The gathering becomes a procession as people move from the Grange Hall across the road and over a bridge to a terrace above the turbulent Bad Little Falls in the Machias River. Followed by a film crew from an aboriginal network in British Columbia, Josephine carries the copper bucket of water collected in a tribal ceremony at Picture Rock in Machiasport earlier in the day. A young native man walks next to her holding the head of the eagle high on the staff. Both sing prayers in native languages.
“We have a ceremony at every water crossing,” Brian tells me, so this is one of many rituals to be performed across the country.
I catch up with the walkers as they make their way toward Milbridge where they will spend the night. Cars with blinkers flashing spread out on the right side of Route 1A opposite the cluster of walkers.
A woman waits beside the road beating a drum. I have been told that, like water always flowing in one direction, the woman carrying the water can only look ahead of her. The woman leading the approaching group passes the bucket to the woman with the drum.
“Don’t look back,” she says.
If they maintain their schedule, walkers from the East will be in Victoriaville, Quebec, when this column appears. Visit www.motherearthwaterwalk.com for more information.
Kathryn Olmstead is a former University of Maine associate dean and associate professor of journalism living in Aroostook County, where she publishes the quarterly magazine Echoes. Her column appears in this space every other Friday. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or P.O. Box 626, Caribou 04736.
An earlier version of this article incorrectly spelled the name of the principal coordinator of the walk as Madamin; her name is Josephine Mandamin. In addition, it incorrectly referred to the Houlton Band of Maliseets as the Metasonihek; they are the Metaksonihkek.