Potomac water on a prayerful, 400-mile journey


Last Updated: 6 years

“Ni guh izhi chigay nibi onji,” I do it for the water. The walkers recite the phrase in Ojibwe as they hand off the water. In a 13-day relay, Davila-Day and dozens of fellow participants in a Native American ritual are walking the entire length of the Potomac, praying for its return to unpolluted health.

They will speak to the water, sing to the water, and pray for the water. They believe the water has a spirit, and as spiritual people, they need to speak to that spirit.”

It’s noon on a Thursday, and Reyna Davila-Day would ordinarily be sitting in her AP Human Geography class, memorizing the rivers of the globe.

Instead she’s stumbling in and out of a gully alongside a busy road, ignoring the cars and trucks that whiz past, walking as fast as her 14-year-old legs can carry her. Instead of memorizing the world’s most important rivers, she’s walking one of them: The mighty Potomac, 405 miles from its source in West Virginia to the Chesapeake Bay.

In a 13-day relay, Davila-Day and dozens of fellow participants in a Native American ritual are walking the entire length of the Potomac, praying for its return to unpolluted health. They will speak to the water, sing to the water, and pray for the water.

And now, on a Thursday afternoon half a continent away from her Human Geography class, Davila-Day is carrying the water.

“It’s us showing that the water needs to be cared for, and that we care about the water,” she says, beads clinking against the copper vessel full of a few precious pints of the river. “At school, they ask why I do it. I tell them that the water has a spirit. They’re like, ‘It does?’”

The Potomac River Water Walk began with a water ceremony — a tradition in the Ojibwe tribe — at Fairfax Stone, the 18th-century marker now located in a West Virginia state park that marks the source of the Potomac River. Participants took water from the clear pool at the start of the river and filled the copper vessel. Starting on Oct. 7, a band of Native Americans and supporters began walking that vessel all the way from the river’s clean source to its significantly more polluted end.

“We want the water to have a taste of itself. This is how you began, and this is how we want you to be again,” explained Sharon Day, the organizer of the walk and Reyna’s great-aunt.

The walkers plan to pass through the District on Saturday — walking right past the White House — and to reach the Chesapeake Bay on Wednesday, where they’ll pour the clean water into the polluted bay.

People tend to ask Day if the walkers’ goal is to raise awareness about water pollution. Sure, awareness is nice, she responds — but that’s a paltry goal. The intent of this walk is to speak to the water’s spirit, not to a human audience.

“All the while, we’re speaking to that water. We’re telling the water how much we care about her,” Day said. “We really do support the work of other environmental groups. We believe what’s missing from most of this work is the idea that the water has a spirit, and we as spiritual people need to speak to that spirit.”

That resonated with Beth Brent. On her first walk, she planned to participate for a week and ended up walking for two months. “It’s a prayer. Something about being in prayer every day, it’s powerful,” said Brent, who is the local participant on this walk, as a resident of Harpers Ferry right on the Potomac.

Brent, too, has worked with water cleanup organizations, and found something in the walking that was missing there.

“They keep it in the realm of science and water monitoring. That’s a very colonizing, Western white male way of engaging with nature,” she said, noting that Ojibwe tradition allows only women to carry the water on these walks, with men in supporting roles.

Day trained as a medewin, a spiritual leader for her tribe, and she has participated in traditional Ojibwe walks all over the country. She has walked the length of the Mississippi, the Chippewa, the James, the Ohio and others in the past six years. She squeezes all that walking into the vacation days that she gets off from her job, where she is executive director of a Minnesota nonprofit supporting indigenous Americans living with HIV.

It takes about $10,000 to pay for gas, food and other necessities for pulling off a walk like this one, she said. The funding comes from individual donations and grants from environmental nonprofits. When a supporter lets them stay in their home or pays for a hotel room, they sleep indoors; otherwise they stay in the RV that follows them on the road.

After all those exhausting days of walking, Day has seen the effectiveness of this sort of prayer-on-foot, she says. On an earlier walk, she carried water to Lake Superior, passing through the Penokee Range where mining companies were planning a project that could pollute the local waterways. The Native American walkers prayed for the Penokee — and twice the proposed mine has been blocked, she said.

“Those water spirits are more powerful than any bank, anything that money can buy,” Day said.

She doesn’t view her walks as a form of protest. A child of the ’60s, she protested plenty — against the Vietnam War, in favor of civil rights and feminists and lesbians and American Indians. “I spent my entire life protesting — until I carried that water,” she said. “It’s not a protest. It’s a movement toward something with love. You’re doing it because you love these rivers.”

This walk is no leisurely stroll. Day insists on a fast pace, roughly 15 minutes a mile, so that the group covers almost 30 miles a day. One person walks at a time, while the rest travel in cars and in an RV that constantly scoots ahead, about a mile at a time. At each stop, the RV pulls off the road and the next walker hops out, ready to seamlessly grab the copper vessel from the previous walker and keep rushing down the road.

The walkers — sometimes as few as two people, almost a dozen on Thursday, anywhere from 50 to 100 over the course of the complete 13-day walk — have perfected their handoff of the copper vessel, like relay racers passing the baton.

“Ni guh izhi chigay nibi onji,” Barb Baker-LaRush says as she grabs the vessel. I will do it for the water, the words mean in Ojibwe. They’re written on the back of her shirt in more than 30 languages. She speeds down the shoulder of Route 9, barely wide enough for a person to walk. They’ve recently crossed from West Virginia into Virginia.

She explains her fast pace: “We’ve orphaned this water from the headwaters. We want to get this water as fast as we can back to her relatives.”

Baker-LaRush has raised seven children — four of her own and three of her husband’s — and has brought countless more into the world. At home in Wisconsin, she’s a doula. “When a woman is pregnant, that baby is growing in water,” she says as she totes the vessel past beer cans tossed on the side of the road and cars zooming perilously close. “I feel like this is my life’s work. This is part of my job.”

The two oldest of her 18 grandchildren came along with her. Karley Corbine, who is 11, is already thinking about bringing her own children on a water walk someday. “I just think of how we’re going to, how I’ll walk when I’m older and how clean the waters are going to be when I have kids.”

That’s the sort of attitude Day likes to hear. She remembers that at the end of that walk that took her through the Penokee Range, a child asked her, “Auntie, do you really think this is doing any good?”

The child doubted that the women’s walk could prevent further degradation of the environment. “The mining companies, they’re so strong. They have so much money,” the girl said.

Day responded: “But the water’s more powerful. The water’s more powerful and that’s who we’re speaking to.”