Wikwemikong water walkers set out on 14-day trek

An aerial view of the first arrivals taken from atop the gazebo, as the water walkers gathered in the parkette across from the Wikwemikong water treatment plant and the Wikwemikong Heritage Organization offices. photo by Gordie Odjig

WIKWEMIKONG—In a tradition that has captured the imagination of the Wikwemikong community since it was founded nine years ago by the late Karen Manitowabi, a troupe of about 150 community members have set out on a water walk that will see the hardy band complete a circumnavigation of the Wikwemikong Unceded Indian Reserve.

The walk is both a physical and spiritual journey, as women carry a bucket of water along the shoreline of the reserve, often traversing ankle-bending boulders and knee shattering crevasses with little more than a balsam walking stick for support. A group of men––warriors––accompany the walkers, with Ms. Manitowabi’s son Brad Pitawanakwat-Manitowabi taking the lead and Mark Eshkawkogan acting as “the caboose,” ensuring that no walker falls behind and unassisted.

The journey is not without its dangers, although wild animals are kept well at bay by the accompanying warrior escort, much of the rough terrain being traversed is inaccessible even by boat and a good portion of the journey takes place beyond the range of cell towers.

Before setting out on the water walk, the walkers set their staffs and canes in the water and prayed. The 14-day trek around the shorelines of one of Canada’s largest First Nations is a tremendous challenge and one that a number of walkers have repeated for each of the past nine years.
Before setting out on the water walk, the walkers set their staffs and canes in the water and prayed. The 14-day trek around the shorelines of one of Canada’s largest First Nations is a tremendous challenge and one that a number of walkers have repeated for each of the past nine years.

“This is not a race,” advised Elder Urban Majacki, who conducted a pipe ceremony and smudged participants prior to the group setting out. “Once you start walking, do not look back, look ahead, when you look back you start thinking about how far you have to go. Looking back is negativity, let everything that is behind you go, let go and look to the future. Support each other on this journey.”

As the walkers gathered, including a large group of Native Studies teacher Sandra Peltier’s students from Wikwemikong High School and many of Ms. Manitowabi’s family members and friends, sister Maureen Trudeau-Manitowabi sang a water song with the hand drum, encouraging other walkers to join in. As the walkers set out, Harvey Bell Jr. sang a water song to see them on their way.

Community member Louis Francis unloaded a large number of hand cut staffs and walking sticks that he provided to the walkers without cost. Made of balsam, the walking sticks were light as a feather, but strong enough for the job.

Family members, including Ms. Trudeau Manitowabi, sister Cindy Ominika, nieces Seneca Manitowabi and Tessa Rose Ominika, along with son Brad Pitawanakwat, also took up the walk, honouring the memory of their departed family member.

“This is a very spiritual journey for mankind,” said community member Gordie Odjig, addressing the walkers before they set out. “Without water we could not sustain ourselves. This is not a leisurely walk, put your heart and soul into it. We are walking for the water, but also the earth and the sun that shines upon us every day. The spirits walk with you, don’t be frightened if they speak to you on this journey. Open your minds and your hearts to the kind of things they are telling you, they are acknowledging your presence on the earth.”

The midges were out in full force to greet the water walkers as they prepared to set out on their  journey to circumnavigate the reserve. Harvey Bell Jr. sang a water song to send the walkers on their way.
The midges were out in full force to greet the water walkers as they prepared to set out on their journey to circumnavigate the reserve. Harvey Bell Jr. sang a water song to send the walkers on their way.

Mr. Odjig concluded his remarks by voicing the hope that soon all people will walk in unity.

“I am looking forward to some of this walk,” admitted Wikwemikong Chief Duke Peltier. “There are some parts of the territory that you don’t see very often.”

Wikwemikong is one of the largest First Nation communities in Canada and its boundaries encompass a significant portion of deep bush and heavy forest. The community is very proud of its heritage as having never surrendered its land to the Crown.

The water walk traditionally takes place in the spring, a time of natural re-growth of the natural habitat, symbolizing a time of renewal, re-growth and re-birth.

M’Chigeeng First Nation also held a water walk in their community on the weekend, although that traverse takes a single day to complete.