Two women marched down Highway 61 north of Winona as cars buzzed past and young reporters jogged in front of them for a picture. Unfazed by the roadside media attention, they said a prayer in a language strange to most modern Minnesotans as they passed a staff and a pail of water to women waiting to receive them.
"You have to wear a skirt to carry the water," one of the women informed a newcomer to the march who was about to take the pail.
A slip-on skirt was produced from an idling van, which had the words "Mississippi River Walk 2013" emblazoned on its rear window. The pair set off at a brisk pace.
The marchers are participating in an adapted Ojibwe women's ceremony. The skirt, the pail, and the staff are all traditional elements of Ojibwe water ceremonies, but the group's itinerary is extraordinary. The pail contains water from the headwaters of the Mississippi River—Lake Itasca—from which the group set out on March 1. The staff and its eagle feathers act as the guardian of the water, walkers explained, as they carry the water to the river's terminus at the Gulf of Mexico.
Seventeen walkers set out from Lake Itasca. They take turns walking, about 15 minutes at a time. Several support vehicles guard the walkers from traffic and drop off fresh water carriers. By taking shifts like this, they are able to cover an impressive 30 miles a day. If they keep up that pace they will reach the Gulf of Mexico by the end of April.
"We're walking for the Mississippi River because it's the second most polluted river in the United States," explained walk organizer Sharon Day. The most polluted river in the U.S., the Ohio River, flows into the Mississippi River at Cairo, Ill., but Day will not get there till April 9.
"What we're trying to accomplish is for the water to hear our prayers," she said. "We sing a song that says, 'Water we thank you. We love you. We respect you. And then, secondarily, [our goal is] to get people to pay attention, to create awareness."
The group has stayed with families and churches along the way as they have followed the river. Participants come and go; eight were with the group as they entered Winona.
Annie Maday came from the south shore of Lake Superior in Wisconsin to spend a week walking with the group. She said as soon as she heard about it she did not think twice. "This is an issue that crosses all barriers. It is an issue that affects everybody. Nobody can live without clean water."
Maday, a grandmother, kept up her quick stride but paused her speech to breathe. "Corporate America is just spending too much, wasting too much, and polluting too much," she continued. "This is my way of trying to make people aware of what we need to be taking care of."
When asked if Maday was reconnecting with her heritage as an Ojibwe woman, she said, "I never left it."
Debbie Niebuhr, of Winona, joined the group for the day. She was the woman who was loaned a skirt. "It is a beautiful thing that the women realize how sacred water is," she said. "I just want to honor what they're doing."
"Every step we take we will be praying for and thinking of the water." Day said. "The water has given us life, and now we will support the water."