The Water Walker (2017), written and illustrated by Joanne Robertson, a member of Atikameksheng Anishnawbek, brings attention to the work of Mother Earth Water Walkers. The group began walking around large bodies of water, beginning with Lake Superior in 2003, to bring attention to the water crisis. Robertson’s book, written with urgency, optimism, and humor, makes this important environmental issue accessible to young children. Even more, the story explores Indigenous traditions and values while depicting the important environmental activism of Indigenous women.
Drawn cartoonishly, Nokomis (Ojibwe for grandmother) is at first depicted enjoying and appreciating water. In one image, she is barefoot on a beach, dressed in a red skirt and blue t-shirt as she splashes in water. In another image she is standing in a puddle joyfully letting rain drip over her body as sad shadows of people struggle with umbrellas. In yet another image, Nokomis rows on a lake. She appreciates Nibi (Ojibwe for water).
For the first several pages water is not politicized; it is simply enjoyed by Nokomis.
Then, over a two-page spread, Nokomis begins to be portrayed as a member of a community, and bearer of traditions. Text and image reflect each other: “Every morning, like the women in her family before her, Nokomis hopped out of bed, and before doing anything else, she sang. ‘Gichi miigwech, Nibi, for the life you give to every living thing on Earth. I love you. I respect you.” Nokomis is participating in a familial and communal tradition. Still joyful, we are given a cultural context that connects her love of Nibi to a shared past.
However, on the same page an ogimaa (Ojibwe for leader or chief) warns Nokomis that water will soon become more expensive than gold and asks what she will do about it. The increasing scarcity of clean and accessible water shatters the unburdened appreciation previously depicted. Even more, Nokomis is roused to action. There is still joy and optimism even as a sense of foreboding and urgency enters the equation.
The next two-page spread depicts abuses to the land and water endemic to our historical moment: fracking, wastefulness, and polluting. Once Nokomis sees these abuses they overwhelm her with their ubiquity. Days pass and she continues to think about the ogimaa’s words. One night she has a bawaajgan (Ojibwe for dream).
The next morning her friends join her in a contemporary kitchen. Although the reader is not privy to their conversation, turning the page pushes us forward in time and we witness the action the conversation prompted.
The women are in a neat line, Nokomis at the front, as the text explains: “Four days later, Nokomis and the Mother Earth Water Walkers, as they came to be known, found themselves standing on the side of the road… wearing sneakers. Nokomis carried a copper pail full of Nibi in one hand and a Migizi Staff in the other.” For seven years the women spent the spring season walking around large bodies of water to raise awareness and encourage people to protect natural resources. Nokomis’s story became quite well-known, but still, the urgency of the project was dismissed.
The women’s seven-year pattern was broken when a friend of Nokomis had a dream and shared it with her. Much like the kitchen table conversation that led to the creation of the Mother Earth Water Walkers, the content of the dream is not revealed, but the action it prompted is. Women from all over gather at Turtle Island. They wear sneakers and bring copper pails and Migizi staves to make a large scale demand for acknowledgment. This is a quiet but firm spectacle steeped in tradition even as it demands a future with clean and accessible water through passionate and well-orchestrated activism in the present.
Effectively introduced in The Water Walker, The Mother Earth Water Walks continue, and as of 2017 Josephine Mandamin, who Nokomis’s character is based on, continues to play a critical role. These is a beautiful little book about a big, complex story, and Robertson tells it wonderfully. An important addition to any library because it engages so many issues, including environmentalism, activism, and First Nation cultural traditions, without feeling overwhelming or didactic. Beautiful book.