BRUSHVALE, Minn. — Two women — one carrying a bucket of water and the other carrying a staff tied with red ribbons and a single eagle feather — marched north along U.S. Highway 75.
They kept a brisk pace and remained silent. While walking, Sharon Day said she meditates on the water and on the 134 ribbons tied to the staff, each one representing an Indigenous woman found dead in the Red River.
Day, the leader of Nibi Walks, organized the two-week, 550-mile trek along Highway 75 following the Red River north in order to honor the water and bring attention to missing and murdered Indigenous women. The river forms much of the border between Minnesota and North Dakota before flowing into Canada.
“Every step we take we’re sending our prayers, our thoughts to the river,” said Day, a member of the Bois Forte Band of Chippewa. “And we’re sending a message to the world that we wish for peace and an end to violence.”
A group of 14 people, Native and non-Native alike, began the walk Thursday morning, Aug. 1, in Wahpeton, N.D., and stopped for the night 31 miles later in Comstock, Minn.
A Nibi walk is a relay. A handful of cars wait for the two women walking. Once the pair catches up, they pass the staff and bucket onto the next two volunteers. Their final destination? Chalet Beach at Lake Winnipeg, Canada.
Nibi, which means “water” in the Ojibwe language, has organized water walks along rivers, such as the Mississippi, Missouri and Ohio. In Ojibwe teachings, women are responsible for the water. So during the walks, women carry the water, sing songs and offer petitions for the water to be pure and clean.
Laura Youngbird, director of Native American art programs at the Plains Art Museum in Fargo, joined the group mid-day. It was her first Nibi walk, she said, adding that she joined the march because “water is sacred.”
“You can’t have life without water,” she said. “Water is life.”
Youngbird, who is a member of the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women Task Force in Fargo, also joined to commemorate the names of the victims on the staff.
Sharon Day gathered those names from the Sovereign Bodies Institute, which is dedicated to researching gender and sexual violence against Indigenous people. The institute said 134 bodies, four of which remain unidentified, have been found somewhere in the Red River over the course of decades.
“We need to walk the Red River because of all the pollution ending up in Lake Winnipeg,” Day said. “But also because of all the bodies found in it.”
The issue of missing and murdered Indigenous women is why 23-year-old Nicole Christian from Minneapolis decided to join the march. “I just can’t stay home for that,” she said.
Christian, a student at St. Thomas University, said she wanted to figure out a way to honor the 134 women during the walk, so she cut up red T-shirts, wrote the names of those identified on individual pieces, and tied them to the staff.
The trek is an adventure, Day said, adding that she hopes the small group can help bring attention to the importance of clean water and to the issue of missing and murdered Indigenous women.
“If we can treat our water with gratitude, respect and love, then maybe we can treat each other that way,” she said.