I awoke this morning, as every morning, to the voice of the Emcee at the Oceti Sakowin sacred fire on the PA system: “Get up water protectors! It’s a beautiful day! There is work to be done! Get up!”
This morning, instead of enjoying a slow rise, listening to the neighbor horse clomping and snorting, the birds chirping and flushing, I crawled out of my sleeping bag, pulled on my boots, tied my long, wrap-around skirt, grabbed my bag and took off on my bike across the river to Oceti Sakowin.
When I arrived at the sacred fire, I pulled a quart-size canning jar out of my bag, and presented it to the Emcee.
“I spoke with you last night about this water. I brought it from the Headwaters of the Missouri River. You told me the aunties would use it in their ceremony this morning.”
“Oh, yes! Thank you. Bring it here.” He introduced me to the aunties, and they held out their copper vessels for me to pour a little bit of my water into each one. Other waters were also mixed in. Speaking to the gathering around the fire, an auntie said a prayer over the water while the bearers performed a ritual with the vessels (which I followed with the water remaining in my jar): holding it up to the sky, gesturing in front of our hearts in the four directions, dropping it down to the earth, then back up to the sky.
The water bearers then walked around the circle, pouring a tiny drop into each person’s hand, which we were instructed to drink. I touched the water to my lips, but did not swallow – as an avid outdoorswoman, I have a healthy respect for all the little germies that live in water, even high in the mountains. As much as I love my Missouri Headwaters, I would not drink it unfiltered.
The procession began, with the Native aunties and water bearers in front, a few rows of women behind, followed by a mixed crowd of men and women. We sang a song in Lakota to praise the water:
Mni T'Hey La (audio-click to listen)
Water, I love you. Water, I respect you. Water, I respect you.
We walked all through the early morning camp, gathering people as we proceeded. We arrived at the edge of the Cannonball River, where a fire was burning. We stopped in prayer at the fire, then walked down the icy slope to the river bank. Some Native men came forward and lined the edges of a small wooden dock, offering assistance to the aunties and grannies as they carried their water to the end of the dock and offered it to the river. I asked if it was appropriate for me to offer the rest of my water, and they said yes.
As I knelt at the end of the dock, I thought about this water I had collected at the Headwaters. For me, it felt so significant – like the River was receiving a gift from her younger self. Like a living, flowing memory of more carefree times – before she was channeled and dredged. Before she was dammed and churned. Before she was treated, drunk, flushed and treated again. Before she was brought to a rapid boil, simmered, frozen, shaken, not stirred. Before she was polluted with oil, sewage, salt, agricultural runoff. She is older and wiser now – more experienced – but oh! what a special gift to feel the energy of her pure, wild, younger self.
I felt the tears burning my cheeks, and let them, too, fall into the river. Wouldn’t I love to receive this gift? Wouldn’t I love to feel the energy of my younger self, before the weight of this life had taken its toll? Perhaps that energy can help me find the strength and courage I need to fight the battles ahead.
Mni Wiconi! Mni Wiconi!
Water is Life! Water is Life!
Agua es Vida! Agua es Vida!
We stood on the bank, chanted, and sang songs of praise for about a half hour. Some white ladies started singing a Christian song, and I found myself bristling with discomfort. Given the horrific history of the Church in Indian Country, I wasn’t sure this song was appropriate in this context. I chose to take my leave. I biked back to the Rosebud Camp and got to work.