"You're a small part of something wonderful"

How a five day prayer for water connects us to the land and each other

A group of people walk with a pail of water and an eagle staff alongside a river

How often do we stop and say a prayer of gratitude for water? Countless times over the course of any given day, I turn a tap and am rewarded with a ceaseless flow of clean drinking water. For my coffee, for washing my hands, for flushing a toilet, for showering, for washing or cooking food, the list goes on. And yet I take water for granted without a second thought. Even further from my thoughts are the waters that flow and nourish the Grand River watershed in southwestern Ontario where I live, or the thousands of streams, brooks, rivers, ponds and lakes that flow across all of this land we call Canada. So, when I met Mary Anne Caibaiosai at MCC’s Peace & Justice Office Student Seminars earlier this year, I was thrilled when she invited me to take part in a week-long ceremony that focused on praying for the water for up to 10 hours a day.

two women walk on the shoulder of the road as a truck passes by
Two Water Walkers on the 2023 All Nations Grand River Water Walk. MCC photo/Ken Ogasawara

Mary Anne Caibaiosai is Ojibwe Anishnaabe–and she is a Water Walker. “A Water Walker is an individual, normally Anishinaabe. In our teachings, the woman is responsible for taking care of the water because she’s the one who creates life,” says Mary Anne. She learned how to be a Water Walker from Anishinaabe elder Josephine Mandamin, the first Anishinababe Water Walker who started water walking around the Great Lakes as ceremony and advocacy during the 2000s until 2017. 

Water is life

The symbolic starting place for this week-long ceremony–and in the Anishnaabe relationship to water in general–is that water is a living being. Water is addressed with the pronoun “she” to give the dignity and respect we would give to any other living being. “If you see something as just an object, it’s easy for you to just destroy it because it has no meaning,” reflects Mary Anne. “But when it’s your relative who’s alive and breathing as you are, it’s not so easy … People say, ‘Oh, it’s just water.’ Well, water is life.”

The All Nations Grand River Water Walk is a trek of over 200 kilometres that takes place over five or six days, depending on how fast the Water Walkers are walking. It starts with dipping a ceremonial copper pail into the source of the Grand River at Dundalk, Ontario and walking with it along the river until it empties into Lake Erie at Port Maitland. The event is well supported by both Indigenous and settler community members, including members of MCC’s Indigenous Neighbours team.

“It’s a real privilege to literally walk alongside Mary Anne and others on this walk,” reflects Scott Morton Ninomiya, Indigenous Neighbours Program Coordinator in Ontario. “Taking part in this ceremony hits the Truth and Reconciliation Call to Action #60 which calls on churches to respect Indigenous spirituality. It’s also just a really good, challenging experience to remind myself of the sacredness and importance of water and land.”

Water Walk

“Normally we start every day at three o’clock in the morning, and primarily because that’s when everything is just coming alive,” says Mary Anne. “That’s when creation starts. That’s when you start hearing creation waking up.” As they walk, two Indigenous “core walkers” at the front (one carrying the pail of water and another carrying an eagle staff) sing songs and prayers. “Community walkers” walk behind. Some simply walk; some leave pinches of tobacco as they pass streams, ditches and ponds as a gift to the water. Animals killed by cars lying on the side of the road get tobacco too. While the stillness of the early morning is restful, rush hour brings with it chaos and disruption. “We’ve often felt the brunt of people rushing to work, and they feel like we’re impeding their progress. They’re so excited to get to work,” chuckles Mary Anne. 

Group of people in reflective vests cross a busy intersection
Water Walkers stop traffic to cross a busy intersection. Just as the river doesn't stop flowing, the pail of water cannot stop moving until the end of the day's walk. (MCC photo/Ken Ogasawara)


The Water Walk is a way to be intentional for an intense period of time on the sacred value of water. But Mary Anne says caring for water is also about lifestyle choices and the way our economies are created. “I think there’s finding that balance of what we need … compared to what we actually want and crave,” reflects Mary Anne. “The industry of materialism feeds the craving. And of course, all of those material goods come from the land. And so, it’s up to us, not just Anishinaabeg people, but whoever works to protect the water, that they understand that all of what they’re doing–all of the gas spills and the oil spills and the dredging and dumping waste into the water–it’s destroying our mother. But it’s changing. I think when you come and walk for the water, you do start to understand.”

Group of people at beach watching woman pour water into the lake
At the end of the Water Walk, Mary Anne Caibaiosai pours out the water she scooped at the source of the Grand River, into Lake Erie where the Grand River empties. (MCC photo/Ken Ogasawara)

In the end, I could only join the water walk for the final day, bringing my eight-year-old daughter with me. It was tiring, hot and dusty, and I marvelled that this group of 18 water walkers had kept this up for eight to ten hours for five days. But it was also special to join in solidarity, united in prayer, advocacy and witness for the water.

“You just come and be part of it, and witness it, and contribute. Just being there is huge,” says Mary Anne. “You’re a small part of something wonderful.”

You can listen to the full story on MCC’s podcast Undercurrents.