(L to R) Renee, Vanessa, Tara and her son Mictla
Reflections on Chalchiutlicue… notes from the Indigenous Women’s Water Policy and Leadership Training, March 20-23, 2008 @ Lake Itasca Biological Field Station.
Before I read the evaluations that I’m just patiently waiting to unfold, I want to leave a written reflection on the weekend’s event. I returned home to a fresh, soft blanket of snow and a new pint of sap in our maple bucket. It was 40 degrees in Northern Minnesota when we left early this afternoon, and 25 in St. Paul when we arrived here at 5 pm… interesting temperature change.
This weekend was the most recent culmination of years of work toward an endeavor to bring together the scientific and cultural knowledge of our local indigenous communities in an effort to boost our community readiness to engage in strategic systems change in water policy and management in local, state and federal arenas.
We started the journey toward this weekend with months worth of planning, logistics, location, ideas and timelines. Next was the content, resource guide and invitations to presentors and participants. Finally were the reminder calls, registration forms, supplies and sleeping assignments. Thank goodness for teamwork!
We invited all the women we could think of who are engaged in strategic, political, educational, or cultural work with water, especially those who regularly share their knowledge with other people in their community. We even invited women who we know would not be able to join us but who might be inspired to engage their own communities in similar endeavours.
When it finally arrived, the day of travel was difficult and filled with all sorts of obstacles, from snow, to rain, to ice, copy machine problems to vehicle space limitations… many of us made it to our departure point feeling anxious, uncertain and stressed out! But we were determined to begin in a positive and peaceful manner, and so we gathered in the Maynidoowahdak Community Center in honor of the call for 8,000 drums for Mother Earth, and we shared some food, thoughts, tobacco and songs to recenter ourselves and focus on our intentions for the training and on the road ahead.
The road ahead was long, it seemed to take forever to get there. And along the way, it was after all, the first day of Spring, we decided that we must add a workshop on tobacco seed planting. I had to stop at three different stores in Park Rapids, MN, before I could find soil that did not bear the Caution, Warning, Danger, Poison label that indicates the presence of toxic chemicals. Our next plan was going to be digging out frozen soil from the earth to plant the seeds… I am ashamed to say that I found it at the last stop, Walmart. The purchase of the only available package of organic potting soil, which was actually Canadian sphagnum peat moss, intruded on my five year boycott of the monster store. I’m sorry that Simone couldn’t join us from IEN, at least she could have used my scab peat purchase for a discussion about the peat mine that’s being proposed for the Red Lake bog, and the environmental and political impacts that are expected.
When we got to the park, it was dusk; we found a beautiful homey cabin filled with smiling women, and a feast of corn, rice, meat and berries spread out and steaming ready. We ate, and then headed out to find the fire, which had already been lit for the full moon ceremony. It had been snowing the whole day so we weren’t even sure which direction was east. The fire was magnificent, though, warm, huge and welcoming. There were wooden benches arranged around the fire, just enough for everyone to have a seat. We had a beautiful ceremony, and just before the end of it, our grandmother shone through the icey mist, a reminder of how the first water must have looked when it first arrived to surround our gwenawjiweengay mide wahkeeng.
After the ceremony we shared some social singing, drumming and snacking in the main cabin, then retired to our various sleeping quarters. Morning came very soon, I awoke, very uncharacteristically, at the break of dawn, despite my best efforts to sleep for as long as possible, I had to get up and get ready. Beautiful dreams about what lay ahead gave me strength and inspiration to go and talk to the other Midewiwin women about how we could create the offering ceremony that would happen next. I had dreamt about our teacher, gweewisence daywayigun. He was sitting with us, teaching us about the various elements we all have in common with him, each other and with all our living relatives on our mother the earth.
It was he who led us on our walk to the headwaters of the Mississippi. We could hear the loud, strong voice of the water speaking, singing to us, as it went flowing through, over and under the line of rocks that spanned the river; they could be crossed in two or three strides. Our grandmothers arrived first, and began their work, we all followed, set up a place for our teacher to work on the ice which was still strong enough to stand on, over the water at the shore of the Mississippi Headwaters. It was a timeless moment, I think we all felt like we remembered having been there before, remembering the memories carried by our ancestors, realizing as we stood there, that we are making a connection that was lost long, not too long, ago.
Next came the beautiful sounds of creation in harmony. Together we observed, felt and witnessed the coming of a new beginning. After the first song, the sun shone through the icey mist; after the second song, tiny black manidoons appeared among us, barely visible, hopping around on the snow. After the third song, the women spoke, sending their voices of observation, memory and intent into the future, near and distant. The speaking was a collective teaching, all voices equal, all participants active, engaged. The voices identified changes that had occurred over historical time, compared them with previously held observations, qualitative and quantitative measurements encoded in the memory, songs and teachings handed down for generations. The women analysed the differences between our historical and current situation, with the water, the earth and the environment. They posed hypotheses for how things could change, and identified an agenda of the most pressing issues… our voice and Midewiwin perspective in the development of land and water management policies, including a retroactive ban on the commodification and privatization of water; water quality restoration worldwide; access to clean, safe water for all human beings now and into the future. Then they spoke of solutions, benchmarks, what it would take to turn the present course of events to a series of desired outcomes. In the next 500 years… we would like to see the rivers restored to drinkable quality. We do not need to worry about the health of the earth, she will survive, it is us, human kind who are in danger. What befalls our brother the wolf, who walked the earth with Waynaboozhoo, will befall the Anishinabe. What will it take to ensure the survival of our people? What will we do? What will I do?
“lis-ten to your heartbeat, lis-ten to your heartbeat,” my three year old son chants…
The grandmothers echo his instruction. And inspiration. We have knowledge, technology and the power to create the change that we seek. Our only responsibility is to remember our teachings, offer our tobacco, pay attention, reflect and act. Do. Plan. Seek. Talk. Organize. Work. Walk. Speak.
We left the headwaters with a lighter step, and a stronger inspiration, and headed for the classroom, three miles downriver, on the shore of Lake Itasca’s East Arm.
The classroom was actually a basement science lab, with windows looking out on the Lake. At first, the transition from ceremony to classroom seemed too harsh, but we engaged our self discipline and entered together into the academic world of power point public policy, dotted with examples of real life situations that brought us back from intangible social theory to context that we could readily understand. We realized, I realized, that what we are doing is social change theory, only we don’t talk about it or write about it, we just do it. And keep doing it. And keep trying, even if the doing it doesn’t work out! I guess that is called 500 years of resistance and survival in my bedrock guide of (bedrock = below grassroots) growing up indigenous. For me, the development of political consciousness was inseparable from the development of social identity as an indigenous person. Citizen engagement and social activism was a given part of who we are and what we did, not a job acquired skill or a required reading. The lecture was good, though, a primer on what public policy is, means and needs in order to be a successful tool of social change.
Next we came to Grandmother Josephine’s presentation about the Mother Earth Water Walk, a remarkable committment to the ever present question: what will you do? Raise awareness, send a powerful message, work with the water, lead by example, follow our teachings. Josephine and her helpers will be walking through Chicago this May 1st- 7th and there is some concern for the safety of the walkers in this high profile water diversion area that is dominated by corporations who profit from the undeveloped consciousness of the majority of the masses. Josephine would like as much press and media attention as possible on the Water Walk for this year, and is inviting all women and men to participate and support the Walk to raise awareness and bring healing to the water.
After the classroom presentations, we returned to our eating cabin and feasted on buffalo stew. The third part of our day turned traditions and academics into creative practice. We transitioned, this time, into spring seed planting mode. Sharon shared the fruits of her trial and error tobacco seeding efforts. Smudge, tobacco, seed, tobacco, song. No water directly on the plants, only on the soil around the edges, till they’re big enough to plant in the ground about June. Keep covered, warm and constant temperature. Our seeds were planted, ready for us to take home and, hopefully, sprout in four days, a reminder of ourselves and our commitments and intentions.
Then, after watching a youth video and listening to a poem that reflect our work, our history and our intentions for the present and the future, we were challenged to take on a commitment to produce a creative message, one that reflects the learning that had taken place. In other words, it was everyone’s turn to work together or separately, to do something. Anything. Somehow! This is the exercise with the push that we need to turn the theory, back into action. Two hours later, we had a wonderful time, sharing what we had created. There were posters, skits, singing, drawings, paintings, beading, and cutting:
• Mainstream messaging through music (Mississippi River lyrics, karaoke)
• A Water = Life collage illustrating the interdependence that all the elements of our creation history share, surrounded by four pairs of moccasins that represent the Mother Earth Water Walk
• A red cuxtal and charcoal drawing representing the relationship between water, women and mother earth and reminding us of our responsibility and what could happen if we do not fulfill our obligations.
• The capers of Wally and Dory, the Minnesota walleye, and their run-in with a Red Lake fisherwoman.
• A Publicity Poster for the 2008 Mother Earth Water Walk, incorporating the issues of corporate commodification and privatization of water; bottled water quality, shelf life, and the generation of plastic bottle waste.
• A worldwide water quality and access comic strip storyboard.
• A beaded lace representing the free flow of living water running through the arteries of mother earth (undiverted and undammed).
• A poster for a Midewiwin culture based Younger Youth Water Education Project
• A room-wide game of ring around the rosey, exemplifying the movement of water
The sharing of our creative productions was followed by popcorn and an in-depth documentary titled “Green Green Water” filmed by a Minnesotan woman, about the relationship between Minnesota based Xcel Energy Corporation and Manitoba Hydro. The film focused on the effects of dams and electricity generation on the lives and livelihood of Crees from northern and central Manitoba. It was sobering to see the destruction that a dam produces, so that we can flip on the lights.
At the conclusion of the video, a call to action was spurred by a presentation by participants in the weekend workshop who are also danzantes from Danza Mexica Cuauhtemoc. They related the experience of the Manitoba Hydro dam to the many dams that have been and are being built throughout central and south American right now as part of Plan Puebla Panama and Nafta, Cafta and the current country by country trade agreements that are being negotiated, such as the trade deal with Columbia that is before congress right now. US internal and international policy is driven by the voices of powerful corporations that profit from exploiting and destroying common natural assets such as rivers, acquifers, and land based deposits of minerals and rocks. These trade and “implementation” agreements are taking away the power of indigenous people to provide for and protect our people and common natural assets. The only way for us to regain our power is to reclaim our power. Reclaim our power. As the grandmother shines brightly, watching.
We closed with evaluations the next morning, written and shared, one more offering of tobacco, and a song to celebrate our milestone accomplishment. We have stood together, we will continue to stand together. To Stand Strong. We are the buffalo. The wolves. The turtles. We are the grandmother, Waynaboozhoo, the fire and the water. Atl tla chinolli… the fire and the water. We are agitated, like boiling water, spurred to action. To reflection. To figuring out the answer to our ever present question: What will you do?
Meegwetch. Ome Teotl.
Bawshkeeng Wabigun (Tara Chadwick)
March 23, 2008, Upon returning home from the Water Retreat.