Painting of Water Ceremony, “Revolution of Love” by Christi Belcourt. 

How the Grand River Water Walk Came to Be

Mary Anne Caibaiosai tells the story of healing and community-building of the 2018 All Nations Grand River Water walk, which took place from September 15-29, 2018 from Dundalk to Fort Erie.

BOOZHOOBOOZHOO! Nodin Ikwe ndizhinikaaz, mkwa ndoodem. Wiikwemkoong Manido minising ndoonjibaa. Ojibway Anishnaabe kwe ndaaaw. Kitchener endaayaan.

My English name is Mary Anne Caibaiosai, the spirits know me as Wind Spirit Woman. I am bear clan, Ojibway Anishnaabekwe from Wiikwemkoong Unceded Territory, Manitoulin Island. This article outlines how the Grand River Water Walk 2018 came to be and offers some of our experiences during the walk.  First I talk about how the water walks first started.

In 2003, Josephine Mandamin an Anishnaabe woman from Wiikwemkoong, Manitoulin Island began to walk around the Great Lakes after being asked by an Elder what they would do for the Earth. Josephine said she would walk for the water. She believed that when we sing, talk to, lift and pray for the water, it becomes clean. Since then Josephine and others, including my sister Violet who has passed, have walked around the Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence River. She started an environmental movement to help the waters and now the water walks happen globally.

In my spirit these three events were significant, so I heeded the messages to walk for the Grand River.

In hindsight, I recognize I received validating messages well before the Grand river water walk started. The first came at the close of the 2017 walk when Josephine emptied the pail of water carried from Duluth Minnesota, and poured the water into the St. Lawrence River. During the final ceremony, she gave me a sacred megis shell that had been in the pail and instructed me to take care of it. I asked if this meant I was to walk for the water. She responded: “you will know”. A second message came from a local Elder I’d met with to discuss my future upon graduating from Wilfrid Laurier University. The Elder asked; “what did you do last year?” I responded “I walked for the water with Josephine”. She responded: “walk for the Grand River. It needs help.” The third message came when a sweat-lodge keeper stood and wiped the inside of a brass pail before the ceremony. I said, “that’s a nice pail you have there”. He handed it to me and said: “it’s for you”. I was surprised, wondering if I was meant to use it in a water walk. In my spirit these three events were significant, so I heeded the messages to walk for the Grand River.

In late fall of 2017 at a women’s gathering, I shared the vision to walk for the water. One of the women, told me this resonated with her and we agreed to meet again. I shared my previous water walk experiences with her, how the walks transformed me and re-connected me with Creation. She admitted that she shared this connection to the land and from then onward, we decided to make the walk for the Grand River happen. Knowing the amount of work involved in these walks, I suggested we ask for help. We arranged a meeting inviting those we thought may be interested. Women came from varying backgrounds; some were strong involved in community outreach, in event organizing, some proficient with social media and others at fund-raising. The women came from academia, environment groups, community services and faith groups and many of them were non-Indigenous women.

I shared Josephine’s teachings about the water; that the walk is a ceremony

Each time the group met to plan the walk, I shared Josephine’s teachings about the water; that the walk is a ceremony and then I shared the protocols. I contacted Joanne Robertson, another Anishnaabe woman who had helped Josephine with her walks and asked her about the work that was done behind the scenes. She sent me a partial list of tasks, and the list seemed daunting. Once more we reached out for help. Soon, we had a Grand River Water walk Facebook page and a Grand River Water walk web-site. Once these were in place, we knew we had to confirm dates, plan the route and put out a call for walkers.

I contacted Josephine who suggested the walk be a memorial for our late sister Violet, whom she knew as a friend and fellow water walker. I told her that most of the helpers would be non-Indigenous and she said “Good, all two-legged have to walk for the water”. We decided to name the walk the All Nations Grand River Water walk, hoping to bring together all peoples who live next to the Grand River and we would honor our sister Violet during the walk.

After consulting with Josephine and family, we decided to walk from the source near Dundalk and follow the western edge of the Grand River and finish that part of the walk at Lake Erie. We would then walk back along the eastern side to Luther Marsh and have a final ceremony there. We calculated this would take two weeks. Knowing how challenging walking through developed areas can be, we met with members of the Grand River Conservation Authority who created maps for us to use throughout the walk.

Author Mary Anne Caibaiosai by the Grand River. Photo: Michele Martin

As we planned the route we realized we would walk through Haudenaushonee (Mohawk) territory and so to honor territorial protocol, I addressed the traditional chiefs at the Onanandaga Longhouse. I spoke of our vision to walk through their territories in ceremony carrying the waters of the Grand River. They listened, spoke among themselves and agreed to offer support in the form of traditional feasts for the walkers.

The organizing group knew we had to raise funds; that the walkers would need food, accommodations, gas, and water.  I knew the walkers would come long distances from the four directions to walk for the water, and we needed to ensure they were well accommodated. As fund-raising events and educational events were organized, they were posted on the Grand River Water Walk website. These included a “Bike along the Grand”, educational speaking events at churches; a fund-raising porridge breakfast, a coffee-house entertainment evening, and on-line auction with help from Tasha Beeds, another water-walker known for this work.  One of the women designed T-shirts; one to honor our sister Violet to be given to family members and a “Water is Life” T-shirt used for fund-raising.

Now to talk about the walk. Josephine says water walks are ceremonies; so we adhere to certain protocols. One of these is to smudge the pail, the eagle staff and ourselves before we walk. This involves lifting smoke from burning sage medicines over ourselves, taking away any negative thoughts, visions, words and feelings. It prepares us to carry the water in a good way.

The question most people ask when I talk about the water walk is; what happens during a water walk? The answer is: a woman and a man walk together, the woman carries the pail of water and the man carries the staff and walks next to or behind her. The pail and the staff are seen as sacred and once they are smudged, the walk begins.  The man and woman step forward, while other walkers queue up in parked vehicles, and wait for the pail to reach them. The walkers wear reflective vests for safety and carry tobacco pouches to offer prayers before they receive the pail and staff. The eagle staff represents vision and is meant to guide and protect the woman with the pail; protecting and keeping the pail in motion is of utmost importance during the walk.

As she is walking, the woman looks straight ahead, signifying water is flowing forward.

As she is walking, the woman looks straight ahead, signifying water is flowing forward. Once the pail is lifted and smudged each day, it does not stop moving nor touch the earth until what is called “touch-down” at the end of each day. When walkers approach intersections the Eagle staff is lifted high to be visible; traffic usually slows down or stops so the pail can keep moving. Stronger walkers are asked to walk more difficult routes, crossing long bridges, ramps and construction sites to keep the pail moving safely. At the end of the day the pail and staff are smudged, eagle feathers wiped with water, and staff laid to rest. One of the men cares for the Eagle staff, and a woman tends to the pail, which is set on thick material and covered with red cloth.

The most demanding part of the walk along the Grand River was through city streets in the morning hours just at rush hour. We were challenged psychologically and physically as we walked beside heavy traffic. We passed irritated and stressed drivers, some seemingly disturbed we were slowing their progress. Those times were hard on the spirit, the mind, heart and body of the walkers and we prayed the hardest during these times. It took internal strength and courage to walk through these areas; trying to stay together while protecting the water.

The easier and most soothing parts of the journey was alongside rolling farmland. As we traversed the countryside, we noticed a particular relationship between horses and the Eagle staff. We watched as horses ran across fields, came to a stop and stood still as we passed. Some pawed the earth and kept their eyes fixed on the walkers; other horses bowed down and some pranced. We don’t know why this happens but it lifted our spirits to witness their response, so opposite to some of man’s negative responses.

As we carried the pail through hard areas, I reflected on the work of Masaru Emoto who looked at effects of positive and negative energy on crystals in water. Emoto speculated when negative words were affixed to water, their crystal formations became deformed, while the opposite was true of the crystals when positive words were voiced. I believe this energy affected our bodies and minds as well. I believe Emoto’s work addresses a significant truth: how we treat others and ourselves impacts us directly. When we walked through toxic environments, we felt our spirits and moods become heavy. We were conscious of that, and some felt the need to smudge at the end of the day.

A prevailing spirit and sense of purpose moved us forward. Some walkers suffered from sore feet, stiff knees and hips, some felt anxious and others low. Some of us were exhausted from the stress of the cities which affected all parts of us. Through all of this, we understood the need to carry the water to her destination. This sense of purpose and spirit moved us onward.

It was healing to watch the universe wakening, to see the skies change from black, to navy, to lavender and then powder blue

Most of us loved walking during the early mornings, for at that time all we heard were our footsteps on the roadways as we whispered prayers and sang to the water as the earth beings woke up. Then the birds began to sing; the robin, dove, the red-winged blackbird.  Then we heard frogs, crickets and other small beings. We saw fox, muskrat, beaver in their territories. We saw the stars and moon against the brightening sky. It was healing to watch the universe wakening, to see the skies change from black, to navy, to lavender and then powder blue. One of the men who came to walk said he was fascinated by appearing in the dark and then seeing the faces of the walkers as day appeared.

I was ever grateful for those like him, who joined us along the walk. There were some who came at the beginning of the day and walked with us for several kilometers. Some came to walk for a few hours, some walked for the day, some joined us for several days. The core walkers, those who walked the full distance, included the Caibaiosai sisters and nephew Adam; some core organizers (Shirley-Lynn Martin, Liz Hietkamp, Laura Hamilton, Laura Lemieux, Tasha Beeds, Nicola and Michele Martin, just to name a few) and helpers from Mennonite communities and those who fed us along the way every day.

It was a blessing to get this help; to have those ones tending to our needs each day. It was hard work, but it was valuable for those who came. We heard many and differing stories from settlers and non-settlers alike. Throughout the walk, each of us learned many lessons. It was healing, it was profound and it was transformative.

One of the themes I continually reflect on is the understanding that what is around us, our words, our thoughts, and ways of being affect not only the water on the earth, but also our own inner water. We are made up of 85% water.  The impact of man and what he calls progress has affected not just us, but also the wildlife, the birdlife, the forests, the water beings, the very air we breathe. We are all affected. We all must care for the earth and for our own waters.

I am grateful for the help from the Indigenous and settler community and my family of sisters and nephew who came to help the waters and honour our sister Violet.

Megwetch to the supporters from faith communities, those who cooked, those who organized and for those who prayed and walked with us.

To walk is to witness and from that, to learn. We will walk for three more consecutive years!


Follow Up:

The 2019 All Nations Grand River Water Walk is coming up soon! It will be taking place from June 15th to June 21st. To find out more information about how to get involved by volunteering, hosting walkers along the route, or donating, check out the Grand River Water Walk website.

You can also check out and follow their facebook page to to bid on beautiful items in their online auction (May 17th to 30th) and find out more about other fundraising events.

Part of the Indigenous in the Greenbelt series, a special editorial collaboration between Friends of the Greenbelt Foundation, and Alternatives Journal.




Mary Anne Caibaiosai is an Anishnaabe woman from Wiikwemkoong Unceded Territory, Manitoulin Island. She currently resides in Kitchener where she is a helper in the community. She is now in the planning process for the second  2019 All Nations Grand River Water Walk (June 15 to 21).