The Sacred Water of Life: Prayer Walk for Seneca Lake

Women walkers carried the water vessel in a ritual circumambulation of Seneca Lake to bless the water and create a circle of protection for the lake.










The vessel moved without stopping, handed from one walker to the next from sunrise to sunset for two and a half days.


photo by Faith Muirhead


nibi means water

During a morning ritual on Friday, August 28, 2015, water was scooped into a ceremonial copper vessel from the southern tip of Seneca Lake. When I joined the walk on Sunday, the water had moved by relay nearly forty miles to the northern point of the lake and then half-way down the east side.

My friend Peggy and I walked together, just as we had for the first prayer walk two years ago. While I carried the copper vessel, Peggy carried the eagle totem of protection. I prayed for the water in walking meditation before carefully passing the bucket to the woman waiting to receive it. Then my pace slowed while the water moved forward with the next carrier.

Entering the park

Entering the park

Singing the water song

Singing the water song

Each relay was about one mile. Following Ojibwe tradition only women carried the water, wearing long skirts out of respect for the earth.

DSC01542Sharon Day, the Ojibwe River Walker and elder, had come to the Finger Lakes from DSC01545Minnesota to share her tradition for the second time. Sharon leads prayer walks for water throughout the country.

The walkers sang and drummed as they carried the water into the park at the end of the journey. At the spot where the walk began, the water was returned to the lake with blessings and offerings. The ritual quieted my mind and opened my heart. The intention was clear even without understanding the Ojibwe words.

Photo by Faith Muirhead

Photo by Faith Muirhead










Wearing her ceremonial clothing, Sharon led a sacred closing ritual with drumming and chanted prayers. After an offering was given to Seneca Lake, Sharon invited everyone to take something from the altar. I chose a small tin of herbal smoking mix to give to a friend who loves the lake.


Final blessing

Final blessing










Alongside dedicated nonviolent political activism to protect Seneca Lake from gas industry development, the Prayer Walk adds another spiritual and universal dimension. The ritual deepens my commitment to protect our sacred water and all of life.


I found a wonderful article by a Canadian water walker named Lynne Brown. Sacred Spirit of Water: The Water Walk, 2015 describes the power and meaning of taking part in this ritual. I share a few excerpts.

… In traditional Anishinaabe (Ojibwe) communities, women were given the responsibility of taking care of the water. Water is a medicine that helps to keep us all alive. We all need water to survive. Without water, all of creation could not exist. The Anishinaabe believe that water is the blood of Mother Earth. People depend on water for drinking, for medicines that grow in the water, for travel, and for …the food that we eat. Water is a sacred gift from the Creator. (adapted from Turtle Island Creation story)


“Once the walk begins, water must keep moving until ‘touchdown’,” Joanne Robertson shared. “Touchdown happens each night. It is wherever the water pail touches the earth. A circle of pebbles marks the spot and symbolizes where the sunrise ceremony will begin as the sacred water walkers greet the early morning to venture out again. Only women carry the water. Eagle Staff Carriers walk behind the water pail …to protect the journey.”

I hope you’ll enjoy The Copper Vessel, an article I wrote about the first Prayer Walk for Seneca Lake and another piece called Angry Faces, Placid Water about political action to stop gas storage under Seneca Lake. Learn more details about the ritual and watch a moving documentary about the walk made by  Tony Ingraham of A Walk in the Park. I’m grateful to the hard working organizers and many participants. Thanks also to Gas Free Seneca and We Are Seneca Lake for their vigilant protection of Seneca Lake.

  1. What a beautiful ceremony to honour the most important thing that sustains our life. You are such an inspiration Elaine! xo

  2. I am struck by the degree of participation in this ritual and for two and one-half days. Wonderful!

    And you have all the elements you need too: earth, air, water – and I suppose your passion supplying the fire. If it weren’t for you, I’d never know about such events. Thank you, Elaine.

    • I guess about ten people took part for all three days. Some of them did much more than the walk because of all the organization needed, including food and places to sleep along the way. It’s terrific because anyone can participate for a few hours or for the whole thing. I took part on Sunday from early morning until the closing ritual in early afternoon.
      Sharon Day is a mover and shaker on behalf of the water. She organized one walk that began at the headwater of the Mississippi and went to the Gulf of Mexico. They walk in snow or blazing heat. There have been walks along many rivers and many lakes. It’s inspiring to be part of this local one.

  3. This is so lovely Elaine thank you for sharing it. And of course a great percentage of the composition of our bodies is water … and the planet contains so much water. It deservedly requires our honour towards it and non violent activism against anything that threatens it.

    • We are water and water is life. Trite perhaps, but true. It feels just right to focus on the water, especially in this Ojibewe women’s ritual. I love the way Sharon Day combines her spiritual path and political duty.
      I look forward to your new writing, Susan.

  4. I was stirred reading this, Elaine, the way water itself is stirred when you skip a pebble over it.

    I’m thinking that your love for the earth and your willingness to be an activist for water is one of the most splendid tributes you can pay to Vic and the Dalai Lama and future generations. Generative grieving.

    • Beautiful image, Shirley. I don’t have to understand every detail of the ritual to take part and feel the power of moving the water around the lake for protection and life. Carrying the vessel was a serious, sacred act. I remembered many images of women carrying water, including my grandma pumping it from the well in her farm yard in Missouri. Water has been a woman’s domain for eons of time.

  5. Thank you for sharing the photographs and describing this powerful ritual.

  6. Beautiful Elaine … I am humbled and honoured that you included portions of my story .. Water..Is..Everything. Nibi. wonderful photographs. chi miigwech for sharing. Your words give life to the issue .. that is..Nibi.

  7. Lovely, Elaine. I had no awareness of Sharon’s work, those as you know, I’m now in Minnesota; I tend to be more closed up in my books sometimes than is good for me, and just found out about Winona LaDuke and the “water over oil” movement. I will have to investigate further. It sounds like an awesome ritual. I am glad you were there for me. I worry so about those lakes, and this is a much better activity for them, and for us, than my worry.

    • It’s better than my worry, too. It inspired me. This week, I’ll be on set-up and clean-up crew for a fundraiser for legal support for Gas Free Seneca. I didn’t know about Sharon Day either until friends invited her here. She’s a quiet presence with lots of undercover power to make things happen. I also stay holed up with my books and computer and on my own land, but Seneca Lake is only three miles away, so I’ve been involved with this struggle since we learned about the gas company’s dirty plan.

  8. Now THAT is an amazing ritual. All those women. The water always moving. Two and a half days! I thought of you, Elaine, when I was out in Colorado, in the Rocky Mountains, creating my ritual of healing and connection to my daughter. I’ve learned a lot about doing rituals. From you. Thank you for being who you are. And for sharing.

    • Thank you, Robin. I was one of the walkers on the last day. I guess that 10-15 people spent all three days in the ritual, but about 60 people were involved during the three days. It’s designed so people can move in and out for an hour or for a day.
      I’m glad you’re creating more ritual for yourself. It helps. I’m just getting to your first Rocky Mountain post. Photos are inviting. You’re a brave one, Robin, to confront fear the way you do.

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