Sunday September 06, 2015

Water walkers: Indigenous women draw on tradition to raise environmental awareness

Tasha Beeds (bottom right) on the 2015 Sacred Water Walk, stopping just outside of Quebec City. Also in photo, Liz Osawamick,  Jerry, Elizabeth Brass Elson, Danielle LeBlanc, Josephine Mandamin, Nelson Footman, Monique Mathieu, Michele (Eagle Staff Holder).

Tasha Beeds (bottom right) on the 2015 Sacred Water Walk, stopping just outside of Quebec City. Also in photo, Liz Osawamick, Jerry, Elizabeth Brass Elson, Danielle LeBlanc, Josephine Mandamin, Nelson Footman, Monique Mathieu, Michele (Eagle Staff Holder). (Gabriel Peltier)

Listen 7:22

Tasha Beeds is a water walker.

She and other indigenous women carry an open vessel of water great distances, relay-style as a way to bring awareness to endangered bodies of water.

Beeds says it is based in the traditional belief that women are responsible for caring for the water.

"It's very much a prayer," she explained. "It's like a walking prayer if you will. We carry the water in copper according to Anishinabe ceremonial tradition, specifically the Medewewin traditions."

'It's very much a prayer. It's like a walking prayer if you will.' - Tasha Beeds, Water walker

The Cree and Métis Ph.D student in Indigenous Studies at Trent University says it's more difficult then it seems. The water vessel cannot be transported in a vehicle, and the water walkers can't spill one drop.

"You cannot go backwards with it and you cannot come to a stop," Beeds said. "As the woman carrying that water, you enter into ceremony for that water."

Over the last few years, Beeds has joined in several water walks and has logged more than 850 kilometres in her moccasins. On a recent walk, she joined a group carrying water from the Atlantic ocean. The walk began in Matane, Quebec and ended at Madeline Island, Wisconsin.

Life-shifting experience

Beeds says even though the history of water walks is contemporary, the act of walking is something Indigenous Peoples have done for thousands of years.

For her, it has been a life-shifting experience because it made her grateful for the simple joys in life.

"For instance, on the sacred water walk at times there was no Tim Hortons," she said. "There stretches,very long stretches where there was no coffee."

Saving our water

But for Beeds, who resides in the Mississauga Territory of the Anishinaabe Nation (also known as Peterborough, Ontario), it is not just about prayer and ceremony, it is about saving our water.

"It's raising that consciousness to understand that we cannot live without water. It sounds so simple but it's amazing how many people don't actually think about water consumption today and the way we treat the water," she said.

That's why Josephine Mandamin — the Nohkomis or grandmother water walker — began the water walks in the first place, says Tasha Beeds.  

"In the effort to raise awareness and consciousness about pollution, laws and any issues that impact water, and for the Spirit of the Water, Nohkomis Josephine Mandamin has walked the shorelines of all five Great Lakes … she has literally walked more than 20,000 kilometres for the water — equal to nearly half the earth's circumference."

She hopes that the water walks will remind people of their connection to water and encourage people to preserve it.

"You as an individual, no matter whether you are indigenous or non-indigenous, you can take steps in your day to day life in ensuring there is clean water for future generations."