Boozhoo Nindawemaganidoog! Nodin Ikwe Ndizhnikaaz. Mukwa ndodem. Wiikwemkoong Manido Minising ndoonjibaa. E-kinomaagaziid ndaaw. My English name is Mary Anne Caibaiosai and I am the lead for the All Nations Grand River Water Walk. I began this journey after I walked with the late Josephine Mandamin; our first Anishnaabe water walker who walked around all Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence, starting in 2003. During her last walk in 2017, I was hooked.
Each morning we started at pre-dawn, watching Creation open up to our spirit, our ears, our eyes and our hearts. There is magic in the sound of the smallest beings at that time, the crickets, bees, and frogs as they start their chorus of songs. Our ears heard the symphony of robins, red-winged blackbirds, crows, loons and blue jays; and our spirits thrilled to recognize this pattern each morning while we watched Creator’s palette in the eastern sky. Peach, pink, lavender, soft purple, robin’s egg blue; all of this opening for our eyes after watching the stars emblazoned like diamonds against the black. Those sky beings, who we call our original teachers, watched from above each day and we witnessed the sunrise each morning. This was a gift.
As we began each day of the walk, we smudged to clear our minds, eyes, ears, and our hearts. We laid down our tobacco, our prayers and intentions. After those words, we walked following the protocols and teachings Josephine-baa had shared and gifted; the women carrying the pail and the men walked next to her or behind her, carrying the eagle staff. The staff represents vision, and so it was the men who ensured the safety of the pail and the women. In today’s world; in this time, it would be good if we remembered and honoured those teachings; that we help one another.
When we walked through the countryside and within the cities, we were confronted with many challenges that affected the weight of the pail and the staff; making them heavy. Life too is like that; we don’t know what will come our way, yet we continue to walk. The traffic and frustration of drivers rushing to their destinations was the hardest part; sometimes we were jeered and yelled at, but sometimes we heard supportive words or honks from drivers. We were challenged to cross busy roads safely; but we had support from many allies and helpers. When we had the pleasure of walking along country roads, we felt the support from the four legged; horses and cattle that we passed as they stood in fields along those roads were more honouring of the good work we were doing. They danced, some ran to the fences to watch us; staring at the eagle staff and neighing, seeming to cheer us on. We saw egrets, loons, blue herons soar overhead as they watched the eagle staff. All of Creation was good to us.
There were many teachings on that journey; many challenges that we overcame. It would take a book to write those teachings about humility, connection to Creation; commitment to a cause bigger than ourselves; continuing the work for the waters and walking in her footsteps. We came to understand who had access to the waters; the wealthy, the privileged, golf courses, tourism, businesses and farmlands. Those who originally lived there, the Haudenosaunee, the Anishnaabe, they had to ask permission to walk next to the waterways. That too was a teaching.
Along that journey, I thought of our people and how they once lived along the waterways; how they respected her, showed reciprocity; and lived with a responsibility to ensure she always flowed as she was meant to flow! Her power may have been diminished because of dams, but she is still stronger than man! She will flow once we have stopped!
Megwetch! I look forward to our September walk; and encourage those who cannot walk, that you think about Nibi, about her spirit; without her we would not be here. We all ask that she be acknowledged, sang to, greeted and held! She is life! Nga’ zichigee, nibi onjii. We do it for the water!
After I took several pictures of this Great Egret fishing in the Grand River, I noticed he had aquatic weeds wrapped around his neck. Then, with a few flaps of his majestic wings he landed on this shoal, where he tried to pull the weeds off with his beak.
To see these snowy white birds is a real treat as they were hunted nearly to extinction in the late nineteenth century. The Great Egret is the symbol of the National Audubon Society, which was incorporated in 1905 to protect these birds from plume hunters.
It would have been nice if I could have removed the stringy weeds from his neck, but he flew away. Maybe he thought I was going to pluck some of his plumes.
I have the honour of helping organize and also participate in the All Nations Grand River Water Walk from its inception to our upcoming walk in September 2020. A great many gifts have come to me in being of service to the water, specifically to the Grand River—gifts that have become life lessons. Though there are many, here are five transformative lessons.
From the beginning of our gatherings, Mary Anne Caibaiosai taught us the protocols for the water walk ceremony. As I absorbed these teachings, I began to see my own blindness. When we really open our heart-mind to these teachings, something new awakens within because the teachings, like the Grand River, are alive.
1. Water is life. It is alive.
Of course it is. I know we are 70% + water and without water we would die. Still, this knowledge was in my brain, not yet fully alive and awake in my heart. But something awakened in me carrying the pail of Grand River water. She is my life. I need water, the Grand River, to be healthy and happy. Her water is the water in me. If she is sick, so will I be sick. If she is contaminated, so will I be—not only my body’s water, but my thoughts will be contaminated, as body and mind are connected.
2. Water flows forward. It doesn’t stop and look back.
Of course. I know this. But do I? My worries and fears paralyze my body’s water flow inside me rather than allow the natural and organic flow forward. I can feel the slowing down and freezing in my fear. When I restore mindfulness and notice the way of water, its natural activity, I see the Grand River simply flow forward. It does not stop in fear, reminding me to let flow.
The Grand River never changes who she is. She is always a flowing river. Her destination is always clear to her and she never waivers from her destination. And though she winds and loops around, admiring herself and her environment, her overall destination is clear and continuous over centuries. During the water walk, women carry the pail of water. We never stop while carrying the pail. Once we begin touchup in the wee hours of the morning, we walk until touchdown.
Water flows. She doesn’t stop. It is the true nature of the Grand River to flow. Even when we dump toxins in her, she flows.
In one moment in 2018, I was carrying the pail of water. I was deep in song and looking forward. Someone drove by and called my name. I was momentarily brought out of my inner state of prayerfulness and in this surprised moment, began to respond. Before I could turn, the Anishnaabe man carrying the eagle staff, put his hand on my shoulder and firmly said, “ Keep looking forward. Walk.” I was so grateful for his guiding hand to remind me of the protocols and to focus on the task of walking forward, of allowing the water to go in the direction she flows, unimpeded by my momentary distraction. After handing off the pail, the person who had called my name also apologized for causing the distraction and then said, “It all got sorted out”. Yes, that’s right, let what’s behind sort itself out if I am not responsible to sort it out. Keep moving forward, staying focused on the task.
3. You never need to reach your destination alone.
The Grand River starts as a collective of small springs and begins to flow, not yet being a big river. I was surprised and shocked that it begins rather like a creek. The watershed along the Grand River is rich and diverse and abundant. The Eramosa, Speed, Conestogo and Nith Rivers all join and merge with the Grand River. At each confluence, the Grand River grows in size and strength. At the mouth of Grand River into Lake Erie, she is a river to be reckoned with. Indeed, she is big enough to sustain a port (which she did for a time).
So I realized, if my projects arise from the ground of my being, do not worry how small me and my project may look at the beginning. Just start flowing with what I have. Let what needs to, arise. Come together with the small arisings of like-hearted others and start flowing. Trust that those who wish to join the flow, the movement of my project, will come along. There will be confluences that grow my project organically, especially if it brings life to the community. Just like this water walk is doing for our community. The Anishnaabe water walk ceremony contributes to the healing and spirit health of the Grand River, the infrastructure and life of our community.
4. Let go of fear. Water will always find a way.
This lesson is linked to the lesson that water, by nature, flows. Along the route of the water walk, we carry the water through very busy centres, streets and high traffic areas. To honour water, the Grand River, we must allow her to be who she is. When we pick up the pail, we cannot stop walking and wait for traffic to stop, for example. In such a moment, we must remember to walk in circles and pool as water does, while never going backward.
At rush hour traffic when people are focused on getting to work, not thinking about their relationship to water, navigating the flow of the pail forward can be very challenging. These moments call all walkers to become fully present to the moment, always looking and aware of the opening to the way forward. But as Josephine Mandamin taught us, “water will always find a way” to flow. She is a river. When we block her from flowing, she will simply create new routes that allow her to flow. It is her truth to flow.
Now, when I encounter a problem, I think to myself, ‘become like water and flow.’ Where is the way forward? Where is the opening so that I can be who I am meant to be and do what is mine to do? Let go of my emotional attachment to my fear or my restricted thinking. Let go and flow like the Grand River does. As soon as I return to this state, the opening to the flow arises, and I can see my way forward and I move.
5. The Grand River is my Elder. She is my relative.
I have known this concept for a long time. Walking beside her and participating in water ceremony every 2 months has restored my heart connection to her. She now knows me by name. And I remember her as my Elder. She holds great wisdom as she remembers what we have done to her, done for her and with her. Water has memory. The Grand River has memory. I want my relationship with her to be harmonious, to be kind, healthy and just. When I die, I want her to remember me with love and fondness, as I do her. She and the Conestogo River watched me grow up. She has given me life for 50 years. I drink from her watershed. I play in her. I sing to her. I offer her prayers. I offer her Reiki healing. I pray that my relationship with her is healing for both our spirits.
She flows between the Six Nations on the Grand and settler communities. She links us. She gives life to us both. And I hear her say it is time we honour the Haldimand Treaty and the Haudenosaunee and First Nations land titles. She loves us equally and is the Elder to us all. She grieves and feels the deep sadness of the grave injustices to the Haudenosaunee, Anishinaabe and Attawandaron (Neutral) peoples, being denied their treaties. You may wonder how a River grieves, but she does. I say again, she has memory. She is my Elder and the only response to her is love and respect. And when I do remember her as Elder and relative, who sustains life, I will protect her. Such clarity of relationship brings clarity to my lifestyle choices, values and decisions.
These are but five lessons which transformed my way of being. The Grand River has given many experiences and provided rich learning that I now carry as wisdom. I am grateful to the Grand River for my life, for wisdom gained and for her beauty that opens me to Love. And when I live these lessons, this wisdom gained, Love flows. Like ee cummings’ poem, to the Grand River I can whisper,
i carry your heart with me(i carry it in
my heart)i am never without it(anywhere
i go you go,my dear;and whatever is done
by only me is your doing,my darling)
~ ee Cummings
My passion for rivers began in my childhood days when my family lived on a farm in Embro. A creek flowed through the property where I spent many carefree days exploring and observing wildlife. It was there that I discovered a huge, grey bird, with long legs, struggling to fly away with his foot stuck in a muskrat trap. It was a Great Blue Heron. After freeing the bird, I got a stick and snapped all the remaining traps on that farm.
Over the past 35 years I have lived in the Waterloo Region, close to the largest river in south western Ontario, the Grand River. I have come to love exploring this beautiful waterway and taking pictures of flora and fauna that surrounds it.
The Grand River and its major tributaries – the Conestogo, Eramosa, Nith, and Speed rivers – were designated Canadian Heritage Rivers in 1994. The designation recognizes human heritage values as it has been home to Indigenous peoples for more than 10,000 years. There are over 2,500 archeological sites and 687 bridges in the Grand River Watershed, covering a vast area the size of Prince Edward Island. This area is the source of potable water for over one million Canadians.
Originating in the Dundalk area, the Grand River flows south for 300 kilometers, through the industrial and farming heart land of Ontario to Port Maitland, where the water dumps into Lake Erie. So whatever we dump into the Grand will affect the water quality of the Grand River, Lake Erie but also the North Atlantic.
My vision for cleaning up the Grand River Watershed began many years ago when I started noticing more and more abandoned shopping carts in the Region of Waterloo. A lot of these carts end up in our ponds, creeks, drainage ditches and rivers.
Because I live and walk in the south end of Kitchener, I decided to observe the stores that allow customers to walk off with their shopping carts. I found many carts, from many different stores abandoned in residential neighbourhoods, in some cases a kilometer away from the store they belong to.
I met one grocery store manager on Fairway Road and showed him photos of what is happening to his carts and he told me it was a matter for their head office to deal with. Head office told me to deal with the store manager.
In the spring of 2020, after a few years of collecting photos of abandoned shopping carts I decided to patrol the banks of the Grand River to do a photo journal of all junk in the river and on the flood plains. I took hundreds of pictures. It was overwhelming and shocking to find so much pollution in our water system.
Categories of junk I have discovered along the river include cigarette filters, rubber tires, plastics of all sorts, picnic tables, propane tanks, scrap metal, dog poop bags and railway ties. In future posts I will highlight some of these categories and make suggestions about how we can deal with them.
I share this information with you because I want to do my part and give back to the river that has given me so much.
For much of my life the Grand River has been a wandering stranger. I knew the river existed, and would occasionally nod to its beauty while riding my bike along its shores or dipping my body in the coolness of the Kauffman flats. But I did not know the river as a friend, recognize its life-giving presence in our midst, or seek it out as a source of wisdom winding through my days.
For much of my life the river has remained at a distance. Its otherness allowed me to pivot easily from ecological concerns that might be raised, or to dismiss troubling historical facts about Indigenous ownership of six miles of land on each side of the river as being way too complex and time-bound to warrant sustained attention.
Yet somehow, in recent years, I have come to know the Grand River in a more intimate and cosmic sense. It no longer skirts the edges of my awareness. The river now runs through me.
Early Morning On The Grand
As usual, my Grade 5 students were at the heart of this change; pulling me, and being pulled by me, down paths of learning.
Throughout my career as an elementary school teacher I worked hard to connect kids to the natural world around them. In his book, The Last Child In The Woods, Richard Louv diagnoses a common condition among children, which he labels “nature deficit disorder”. Children are increasingly disconnected from nature, he claims. Even though they may know more about the rain forest than their predecessors, their experience and tactile love of real natural places is thin. Only this kind of embodied love can give us the courage we need to make deep changes required if we are to survive as a species.
I resonated with Louv’s analysis, but how could I help my students connect with the natural world in this deep way? Over the years I tried a number of approaches, from schoolyard nature spots to three-day immersion visits at a local Earth Keepers camp, with varying degrees of success. The experience that changed me the most was “Early Morning On The Grand”.
I would meet a group of six or seven students and a volunteer parent driver at 6:30 AM in the school parking lot. We would go to the Grand River where, armed with binoculars and whatever energy we could muster at that hour, we would enjoy the river and catalogue what we had seen and heard. Back at school by 9 AM, with the whole class present, we would share our impressions and experiences. Over the course of a week, each child in the class would have a chance for an early morning on the Grand.
After a couple of days, even the reluctant students who were initially unwilling to participate, signed up. By the end of the week my class convinced me that we should try this two more times during the year: once in the winter and once in the spring.
Our experience of the river evolved and deepened over the course of that year. In the spring we learned how to use the macro lens on the school’s fleet of small digital cameras. This changed our experience of the river dramatically. Instead of being oriented to the long view through binoculars, we were now looking at very small things right in front of us. Seed pods, snails and spider webs caught our attention. After one early morning on the Grand, Janelle sparked a writing frenzy with her haiku:
dew diamonds dancing
on sunny silk necklaces
a world of wonder
Even though it took a lot of energy for me to conduct Early Morning On The Grand for an entire week, I arrived back at school each day by 9:00 AM strangely refreshed. I remember thinking that mornings at the river were good for me.
In the fall of 2011 my father was dying and I began to think about retirement. In an act that was part resistance, part inspiration, I decided to write my report cards down by the river.
Years earlier I had conducted my Masters research on the topic of elementary teachers’ experience of writing report cards. I concluded that these documents, situated at the busy crossroads of educational discourse, carried far too much weight to be alive with truth.
While kingfishers chortled on the other side of the river, I compared each student’s learning skills to the animal spirit they had adopted in September as guardian of their life dreams. There, beside the stream, I learned that it was possible, even delightful, almost inevitable to tell the truth.
When my principal declared, only partly in jest, “No more animals in your report cards,” I knew that it was time to retire. That spring I buried my father and said goodbye to a life work that wound its way through my heart and soul. Yet I knew that when the dust settled, I would be returning to the river to watch and listen and write, that beside this stream I could find new life in a world of wonder!
Amidst the grief and loss of that summer, I found some solace by going down to the river. I happened upon a perfect “office”. It was a secluded section of riverbank, well shaded by trees on both sides, with an amazing window out onto the river. I came with my bike, books, a journal, binoculars and of course, a steaming thermos of tea. Often I would just sit, looking out my window. At first this riverside world, so alive with purpose and meaning, highlighted my own deep emptiness.
This is always what I longed to do: sit by the river and be one with the unfolding universe. Yet, I am strangely unsettled. While all around me know what they are doing, I remain ignorant. While all around me maintain a focus on survival and work, my mind is untethered and tangled in random observations and vague desires. I wish I had brought more tea. I’m tired. I need a hammock. Did I buy the right bike? What am I going to make Chris for supper? What am I going to do with my life?
Gradually, this riverside world began to speak to me.
Today, I came to my office, wondering how I was going to find direction. As I sat there, I caught a glimpse of movement close by to my left. A small bird skittered along the shore — a water thrush! The little bird disappeared under the branch in front of me so I stood up slowly to catch another glimpse. The water thrush must have seen my shadow or something, and she quickly, but casually, slipped off. And I wondered, is direction a skittish bird, not easily forced or hurried or controlled?
Across the river I caught another movement. A great blue heron was stalking its prey. Every 30 seconds or so the heron would take another silent step forward and then stop, every fibre in its body perfectly still, waiting. Direction may be something that I need to stalk with patience and intelligence.
Suddenly my reverie was broken by the sound of air and wind. Past my window glided a flock of geese, mere centimetres from the surface of the water, in a perfect V. I heard them splash land upstream. And I thought, I am also part of a family, a community. Maybe my people can help me find direction.
I love the dialogue that can happen when I set myself down beside the river. Conversation usually begins after periods of silence, when some seemingly random element of the riverside world connects with something inside of me. Reading a book at my riverside office can expand the possibilities of dialogue immensely. This fall I had many three-way conversations between myself, the river and Richard Wagamese, through his wonderful book, Embers. This book ignited numerous tongues of fire, which I recorded in my journal:
“Aki. Earth. I will walk her skin today attuned to her heartbeat, the feel of her thrumming against the soles of my feet.”
~ Richard Wagamese, Embers, p.35
Walking her ‘skin’ and feeling her ‘heartbeat’. These can be meditational challenges for a day, a week, a month, a lifetime.
To sense that the earth is alive, a single living being, is a gift. For me, this is one of the gifts of the river. Riding my bike beside the river, with the sun slanting through trees , bands of insects high above the water streaming with the wind, framed by branches, leaves and bark ~ a window into an interconnected world.
Insects. Food for birds like cedar waxwings hawking aggressively, sun flashing off yellow-banded tails, skrilling in delight at suppertime. These same insects, food for fish who rise and flash at the surface of the stream. These same insects alighting amidst greenery and bands of colour, pollen-mules pulling life’s seeds from flowers and sharing this new life in their gregarious way.
Osprey circles, cocks her head, dives, at the last moment plunging feet-first, grasping that fish with that insect inside its belly, osprey rising high, triumphant squawk louder than the chirk of cedar waxwings, banking off towards her nest above the bridge.
This grand stream flows ~ a host of life, an expression of love, a heartbeat. Time, patience and attention, these are things that it takes to feel the heartbeat of the earth, to touch and be transformed by the touch of the earth’s skin.
“We live because everything else does. If we choose collectively to live that teaching, the energy of our change of consciousness would heal each of us ~ and heal the planet. We belong to each other.”
~ Richard Wagamese, Embers, p.36.
Since that summer I have continued to go to my office on the river, changing the location several times to escape the encroachments of civilization. In the midst of Covid-19 self-isolation, I have noticed a movement of more people towards the river. At first I resented these incursions on my privacy, but I have come to enjoy the enjoyment of others down at my office. One recent morning, while down at my office with my grandchildren, we saw a woman who comes regularly to meditate, a father and son enjoying the geese, two office workers sharing food together, a number of people walking their dogs and four kayakers skittering downstream.
The All Nations Grand River Water Walk has changed the way I come to the river. I met Mary Anne Caibaiosai in the summer of 2018. She was planning the first Water Walk alongside the Grand River that fall. Cycling Into The Future, the organization that I founded (Yes, I got some direction down by the water!), decided to host a fundraising bike ride along the Grand in support of the Water Walk.
Many things about this Water Walk resonated with me. Here were people deeply concerned about the Grand River. They were planning to give the whole watershed a loving embrace, from start to finish to start again! Mary Anne’s practice of water walking is based on the teachings of Josephine Mandamin, an Anishnaabe Elder who honoured the water by walking around the Great Lakes.
The Water Walk coincided with our busy season for Cycling Into The Future, so I could not become a core walker. I did, however, have the honour of walking with Mary Anne one beautiful (and very early) September morning. Mary Anne carried the copper pail with water from the source of the Grand. I walked slightly behind her and to the left, carrying the eagle staff. Interspersed with periods of ceremonial walking together, which ended by handing off the copper pail and eagle staff to other water walkers, we had plenty of time to talk.
In talking with Mary Anne, it became clear to me that the Water Walk has a central purpose that seems different from what I am used to. I am used to people acting from political or environmental motivations, where our actions are hinged on some very practical purposes. Mary Anne is not unaware of the political or environmental implications of the Water Walk, but she is moved by a central spiritual purpose. “We are going to honour the water, pray for the water, sing to the water,” she said.
The practical purposes of the Water Walk are not tangible. What is tangible is the quality of relationship between the walkers and “Nibi” (the water). There is a definite sense of being friends with the water, something that I could identify with because of my riverside practice. But beyond this is an understanding that we are utterly dependent on water, water is our life, and in some crucial way we are part of the “Nibi”. We are all connected, and this ceremony of honouring the water vibrates with these interconnections.
There is much in Mary Anne’s teaching that I do not understand. But since my first Water Walk, when I go down to the river, I carry with me a deep sense of gratitude and belonging.
Now, when I arrive at my office, I offer tobacco, sprinkling it into the stream that dances over rocks as it feeds the larger body, and then into the river itself as it slowly moves by. Some may consider this to be a shallow and improper cultural appropriation. For me it recognizes the truth of Mary Anne’s teaching, that water is life. It also helps me to acknowledge and live within the tension around the historical/political situation of this very water. While I am increasingly able to call this riverside “home,” I also know that great injustice has been done, and is still being done, to Indigenous peoples for whom this watershed is an actual and promised “home.” Offering tobacco challenges me to find strands of creation-centred spirituality that wander, often as strangers, through my own faith tradition. It challenges me to work for shalom (justice and wholeness) in relationship with my Indigenous neighbours and with this whole ecosystem of the Grand River.
About a year ago I decided to make a pilgrimage down the Grand River. I wanted to decompress, unwind, and simply enjoy the river from a different perspective.
Mid-June I loaded up my canoe with everything I would need (including way too much food), hooked it up to a trailer behind my bicycle and, on one of the hottest days of the year, rode up to Elora.
Two weeks of meandering slowly down the Grand River to Lake Erie were wonderful, and having a bike and canoe trailer increased my mobility. At any point I could leave the river and ride to a conservation area or into town. Along the way I ended up talking with a lot of people.
During this journey I was struck by the diversity of the Grand, in both the qualities of the river itself and in the many people who live along it. I understood that my own experience of the Grand River is quite privileged – every meaning of that word intended. I came to realize there is a wide world out there beyond the bubble of my riverside office.
“What does this river mean to you?” is a question that I asked about a hundred times, and it’s a question that was answered in about a hundred different ways.
A woman in Elora described, in painful detail, the utter destruction of her trailer by flooding waters of the Grand.
A man stopped his pickup truck in front of my bike and canoe tandem in Ohsweken to snap a picture of my traveling system. It was something he’d been dreaming of all his life, and in return he gave me a rumpled copy of “Land Rights: A Global Solution for the Six Nations of the Grand River.”
Five kids and their teacher in some kind of behaviour program met me in Cayuga’s Tim Hortons and ended up telling me how to deal with the frustration I was experiencing as I battled wind on the river (“Count to 10.” “Breath deeply.” “Just let it go!”).
“What does this river mean to you?” is an invitation for storytelling. It comes with a second question, “What do you mean to this river?”, which is an invitation for living.
The river is always moving; that is part of its being. In my life, the Grand River begins as “wandering stranger” and moves towards “sacred presence.” I am moving too, and the river is often mid-wife of this change, providing a sacred space of orientation, silence, conversation and friendship. In a very real sense, the river runs through me.