A few days ago, I told my friend Melissa about my dream of walking the full length of the Mississippi River — from its headwaters in Itasca State Park clear down to the Gulf of Mexico. Having grown up along the river’s course — in Rock Island, Illinois, about 1/3 of the way down its length — I almost think of that river as family, a strong and steady cousin who lives ten minutes from my house. I’d just gotten back from a trip to New Orleans where I couldn’t shake the impulse to congratulate my river-cousin for growing up so big and strong, to send good luck as she pours out in the world while I quietly worry about how filthy and wild she’s become. So dirty. So harsh.
In that framework, I suppose my hometown Mississippi — my Illinois/Iowa Mississippi — is stuck in a perpetual state of pre-teen awkwardness, already corrupted but far more pure. I told Melissa that I’d like to get to know my river-cousin as a baby, to wade across her in her Minnesota infancy and watch her grow over 2,530 miles.
To which Melissa replied, “Hold on. You’re going to love this.”
The “this” to which she referred is the story of the Mississippi River Water Walk 2013 and its leader, Sharon Day, (aka: my new hero). Day, a member of the Ojibwe tribe, is Executive Director of the Indigenous Peoples Task Force. On May 3, she completed a 2-month, 1,200-mile walk, joined at points along the way by other Native American women dedicated to protecting our waterways. From sunrise to sunset, the women trudged, carrying a bucket of the Mississippi’s clear headwaters all the way down to the Gulf, where they poured it into the river’s toxic mouth — a reminder, a warning, a prayer on foot.
From the Daily Gate:
“According to Day, the Mississippi River is the second most polluted river in the United States with toxic chemicals from municipalities, agriculture and industry all accumulating as the water flows to the gulf, taking their toll on the health of the river.
“By the time a drop of water reaches the ‘dead zones’ near the river’s mouth, the water is nearly depleted of oxygen,” Day said. “In some times of the year, the dead zones are the size of the state of Delaware. The walk intends to raise awareness of what each individual can do along the way to help change the health of the water in the Mississippi as well as other water resources in the local community.”
In an article on Indian Country Today Media Network, Day goes on to articulate that feeling of kinship I have toward the river … far more eloquently (and, well, maternally). “You know how you hold a child on your lap, you have certain feeling about it,” she said. “That’s what I experienced with the water … I couldn’t leave that water. I had to see it all the way through.”
The project’s Facebook page features incredible photos and more information on protecting our nation’s waterways. The Indian Country Today Media Network article does a beautiful job of illustrating Sharon Day’s extraordinary record of walking the walk.