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Native American Water Walker Blesses Cuyahoga River

Sharon Day prepares to pour water from the Cuyahoga River headwaters into the river's mouth to conclude her sacred river walk. [ideastream]

This week for the 50th anniversary of the Cuyahoga River fire, Native American Sharon Day led an ancient, ceremonial river walk. 

Nicole Christian, Sharon Day and Chaz Jewett prepare for the river walk at the Cuyahoga River headwaters in Geauga County. [ideastream]

Along with a small group of Northeast Ohioans, the Minnesota-based Ojibwe elder carried water from the river headwaters in Geauga County to the mouth at Lake Erie in Cleveland. 

Members of the Cleveland Print Room gather for the ceremonial start to the walk at the headwaters in Geauga County. [ideastream]

The group travelled about 100 miles over three days carrying the water in a decorated bucket that can be heard as they walk.

Nathen Steininger and Sharon Day begin the river walk along the Cuyahoga. [ideastream]

"We're going to follow the river as closely as we can. We do this to honor the water, to speak to the water and to let her know that there are still people who love and care for the water," Day said.

Sharon Day hands off river water to Nicole Christian during sacred river walk along the Cuyahoga River. [ideastream]

For Day, whose given name is Singing Wolf, each walk she does along America's waterways is different because of the local folks who participate. 

Chaz Jewett blesses the Cuyahoga River with an offering of tobacco as Cleveland artist John Carlson escorts her with sacred eagle staff. [ideastream]

But each river walk, or "nibi walk" as it's called in Ojibwe, has the same spirit.

Sharon Day leads the sacred river walk along the Cuyahoga River for 50th anniversary of the infamous river fire. [ideastream]

"We hope that as we walk people become more connected to these waterways and have this realization that water is life. Without clean water there can be no life," Day said.

Nicole Christian and Sue Wolpert continue sacred river walk with ceremonial pail of Cuyahoga River water for the 50th anniversary of the infamous river fire.

Debbie Wright has walked with Day before and returned for the commemorative walk this week.

"I'm not a native. I just think this is a very beautiful ceremony, and I like being able to help with it. It's a religious ceremony of honoring the water, honoring the earth," Wright said.

Debbie Wright and Nathen Steininger walk through Geauga County for sacred Cuyahoga River walk. [ideastream]

Wright was one of Day's companions who took turns carrying the ceremonial pail of river water in relay style.

Nicole Christian, Nathen Steininger and Debbie Wright head to the Abbey Road bridge along the Cuyahoga for sacred river walk. [ideastream]

At the end of each day's walk, Day left the water where they stopped, blessing it in Ojibwe and telling the water to behave while the walkers stopped for the night. 

"This comes out of Ojibwe spiritual traditions, and this walk is not just a walk it's an extended ceremony. We begin with ceremony every day and we end every day with ceremony," Day said. 

Nicole Christian, Nathen Steininger, Debbie Wright, Paul Galbreath, Shari Wilkins and Karen Long on Abbey Road bridge for sacred Cuyahoga River walk. [ideastream]

The next morning, the journey restarted after another short blessing and the walkers pressed on until they reached the mouth of the Cuyahoga in Cleveland and poured the water into Lake Erie.

Chaz Jewett, John Carlson and Debbie Wright approach Whiskey Island as sacred river walk comes to the end. [ideastream]

"These come from the traditions of my people. These water ceremonies have taken place since the beginning of time," Day said.

With her walk, Day wants to stress to people that this week's river walk is just the beginning.

Shari Wilkins, Chaz Jewett and John Carlson head to final destination of Coast Guard Station on Whiskey Island [ideastream]

"It's what do you the day after the walk is finished and the day after that and the day after that. Hopefully people will have gained enough knowledge and rekindle that love for the water. That they do in fact continue those restoration efforts not only with this Cuyahoga River but many of the other streams and creeks that run into Lake Erie," Day said.

Cuyahoga River walkers Nicole Christian, Nathen Steininger, Chaz Jewett, Shari Wilkins, John Carlson and Sharon Day [ideastream]

One of the walkers who travelled with Day was Nicole Christian who summed up the walk simply.

"Every step is a prayer," Christian said.

View a map of Cuyahoga River walk

View this post on Instagram #SharonDay sacred #CuyahogaRiver walk for #Cuyahoga50 on her way to #LakeErie for @CleveFoundation #CreativeFusionCle Waterways to #Waterways with @ClePrintRoom @SharetheRiver

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Dave DeOreo is coordinating producer for Ideastream Public Media’s arts and culture team.