On Saturday, members from several Native American communities around the Great Lakes region will be traveling to Flint for a water ceremony.
Needless to say, this has left a number of Flint residents wondering what a water ceremony is.
One of the event organizers, Don Lyons of Lansing, explains, “The Flint gathering was intended to be a grassroots gathering to promote healing, prayers, and unity as we move forward from what happened with the water and community around Flint.”
For Theresa Cojo-Chingwa, coming to Flint is both a personal matter and a matter of principle.
“I was born and raised in Flint and moved to northern Michigan the year after I graduated from Flint Central High School,” she told us. “I’m Native American, Cheyenne, Arapaho, Choctaw, Odawa and Ojibway. Growing up, my family was one of the few native families in Flint.”
Today, Theresa still has family member living in Flint, two older sisters and their children.
A conversation has been going on since February of this year about holding such an event in Flint.
“I attended training and introduced myself and said I was from Flint,” recounts Theresa. “The conversation went to talking about a water ceremony and how we were surprised one wasn’t done yet.”
Since then, Theresa has been working with Don Lyons as well as Patricia Shawnoo of Kettle Point, Ontario; Joann Carey, Jannan Cotto, and Dawn Sineway-Nephler of northern Michigan; Dana Sitzler of Ann Arbor; and Celia Perez-Booth of Flint.
“I also wanted to mention that Celia Perez-Booth has also done some smaller water ceremonies and a sweat lodge for Flint,” says Theresa.
So what about the water ceremony? According to Theresa, they “are done frequently everywhere by different tribes—and just like other ceremonies, they’re showing respect and acknowledging the element as a living being.”
One of the indigenous spiritual leaders directing the ceremony will be Josephine Mandamine, Lead Mother Earth Water Walker. In 2003, she traveled nearly 11,000 miles around the Great Lakes by foot, all while holding a staff in one hand and a copper pail of water in the other.
A potent symbol for a city whose own copper vessels—pipes, in this case—have wreaked such havoc after the water source was switched from Lake Huron to the Flint River without proper treatment.
This act of walking nearly 11,000 miles—nearly half the earth’s circumference—earned Josephine the name “Water Walker.”
“She did this to help people understand how important water is to everyone,” Theresa says of the 2003 voyage.
Michigan, surrounded by 20 percent of the world’s fresh surface water and more than 80 percent of the fresh surface water in North America, has been playing host to an increasingly contentious battle over clean water and who should have access to it.
“I feel everyone should be concerned about water no matter where they live or where concerns arise,” says Theresa. “We all need it to live and it affects us all.”
Beyond the obvious irony of the state’s seventh-largest city unable to drink their water less than an hour from the pristine shores of Lake Huron, there’s an added level of irony in Nestle profiting from the water crisis as they extract 200 gallons of water a minute from Mecosta County on the west side of the Lower Peninsula for practically nothing.
The gallon-size water donated by the Little Traverse Bay Band includes flyers that read, “Please don’t purchase these Nestle products so they don’t profit from this crisis as they continue to sell from our Great Lakes.”
Theresa is a member of the Little Traverse Bay Band of Odawa Indians; they aren’t alone in putting together the event. Other tribes that have helped organize the ceremony include the Saginaw Chippewa Tribe, the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians, and the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians. People of all faiths and backgrounds are welcome to attend.
Prior to this weekend’s ceremony, the elders of the Little Traverse Bay Bands hosted a water drive in Harbor Springs. Community members—including the Odawa Casino and Resort and students from Harbor Springs High School—helped collect 400 gallons of water, which they will bring with them the day of the ceremony. The water will be available to city residents at the event; leftover water will be dropped off at a local church. The location was chosen specifically because it does not require that people picking up water present ID.
Participants, says Theresa, “should expect a beautiful ceremony, meeting new people and seeing old friends. I hope they take away a sense of unity, a start to healing, and new friendships.”
According to the event page, those in attendance should bring a small amount of drinking water from their community for the ceremony.
“We want to put the water together for the ceremony to show unity,” explains Theresa. “Some people cannot make it to the ceremony, but will send drinking water from their area so that they can still be a part of the event.
“This came together with the help of many and would not have been possible without it. We have received positive feedback and some people from other tribes that were thinking the same thing, a water ceremony should be done in Flint.”
For those attending, organizers request that you please be mindful of when it’s appropriate to photograph or take video. Further announcements will be given on Saturday. For more information, please see the Flint Water Ceremony and Unity Gathering event page on Facebook.