A small group of women and men gathers at the south end of Seneca Lake for a sacred water ritual of gratitude and protection. I wrap a Tibetan yak wool blanket over my winter coat. It’s 15 degrees and the north wind howls. It’s a crazy day to visit the lake shore but we can’t wait for warm weather.
The gas industry has plans to store LPG gas in empty salt caverns under and around Seneca Lake. Will the caverns leak? Of course. Will there be explosions? Probably. Will this turn our beautiful tourist and agricultural region into an industrial hub? Without a doubt. Permits haven’t been granted, but the industry has money and political connections. So I show up for protests locally and in the state capital. This monthly water ritual brings a spiritual perspective to the frustrating political struggle.
Near the shore, a copper bucket of ice-crusted lake water sits on a red cloth on the ground. A slender woman dressed in winter layers lights a sage bundle with the reverence of a priestess. She blows the smoldering flames and waves the dark smoke over us with her free hand. I cup the smoke in my palms and pull it to my face, breathing in the acrid herb. I turn my back and pick up first one foot, then the other, purified from my soles to my crown.
We each take a small handful of loose tobaccoo and walk toward the lake. Ice boulders line the shore on a thin peninsula of land. Wintering Canadian geese honk and grumble, waddle across the thin ice crust, and slide toward open water.
I crouch and throw the tobacco toward the lake. It swirls in the wind and catches on ice and on my blanket. Ga nun da sa ga Te car ne o di, I whisper. This prayer in the Seneca language sends my gratitude to the lake in the hills. Local legend says the lake loves to hear her name in the language of the people who once lived here.
We gather in a small circle. There are usually more people, but today just over a dozen because of the weather. We sing an Ojibwe water blessing song with hopeful hearts, butchered pronunciation, and shaky melody.
Ne-be Gee zah-gay-e-goo
Gee Me-gwetch-wayn ne-me-goo
Gee Zah Wayn ne-mego.
Water, we love you.
We thank you.
We respect you.
As we sing, we pass the sacred vessel around the circle, inwardly asking the water to forgive our neglect. I grab the cold handle of the bucket from my neighbor and pass it along. It moves as we sing the song three times. The woman holding the bucket when the song ends carries it to the lake. She holds the vessel to the sky and pauses with upstretched arms. Then she flings the water back to Mother Lake, blessing Her with song and sanctified water.
The water blessing ritual comes through Sharon Day, the Mississippi River Walker who organized a water blessing walk from the Itasca Minnesota headwaters to the Gulf of Mexico. Sharon, an Ojibwe elder, organizes prayer walks and water rituals throughout the continent. In November 2013, this small fierce woman drove from Minnesota to teach the ritual here and lead an 80 mile relay walk around Seneca Lake. Local women who organized the walk with Sharon lead this monthly gathering to carry the prayers and intention forward. Everyone is welcome.
With only a small red cloth, a water bucket, tobacco, and a song, we renew our commitment to the clean water that makes life possible. We strengthen our connection to each other, the lake, and this work. The ritual reminds me that protecting Seneca Lake is my sacred duty.
I hope you enjoy The Copper Vessel: Prayer Walk for a Gas Free Seneca about the October 2013 four-day ritual. This brief water blessing ritual is held the second Sunday each month at the south end of Seneca Lake from 2 – 2:30 p.m., Clute Park, Watkins Glen, NY. I’m grateful to the dedicated women who keep the ritual alive, to Sharon Day for teaching the ritual, and to Faith Muirhead for helping me with accurate details. I’m also grateful to Gas Free Seneca for years of dedicated leadership and to Earthjustice for providing legal support for our cause. May we all remember to protect our water.