Every Paddlestroke and Every Step is a Prayer ~ SacredWater is Life Prayer Walk of the Muhheakantuck (Hudson River)

Grandmother Carole on the first day in the uppermost reach of the Hudson River accessible by vehicle of any kind.

Spirit always works things out — Grandmother Carole repeats this idea frequently, especially when things are unclear. Despite feeling under-prepared for the 2019 SacredWater Prayer Walk it began in the best possible way, on the water in a canoe in the highest reach of the Hudson River accessible by car, along Calamity Brook in the High Peaks of the Adirondacks: a plan that came together only 24 hours in advance due to the excellent service of Cloudsplitter Outfitters. This far north there are barely any access points to the water. This year, Spirit guided Uncí (“Grandmother”, pronounced unchi) to the Muhheakantuck — the river that flows in two directions.

Two days later, we were together in a whitewater raft for the next section of otherwise inaccessible river. Just a few minutes into the trip, Uncí asked our guide if he ever saw moose? No. He listed other animals that are commonly seen along the river: deer, eagles, beaver, otters, fish, other birds and insects. Five minutes later, we saw a moose!

Metaphor and Meaning

The physical meaning of “flows in two directions” is because the mouth of the Hudson River is so wide that the tide carries far upstream, deeper inland than most other rivers that join their fresh or sweet water with an oceans’ salty water.

Metaphorically, I wonder about the teaching stories told by indigenous elders about the Muhheakantuck. How does indigenous culture teach about the river’s capacity to switch direction? If we think about the flow of culture as akin to the flow of water… does it yield anything useful? In the Muhheakantuck, the dual flow can be understood as consecutive and simultaneous: the tide takes turns between ebb and flow, and also I bet there’s overlap—at specific times, perhaps in particular places—when the seawater and sweetwater are moving in opposite directions at the same time.

A Prayer Bundle blowing in the wind. It is filled with tobacco and represents communication with (in this case) the SacredWater.

An odd juxtaposition to the SacredWater Walk was listening  to Margaret Glaspy live in Saratoga Springs while Grandmother completed the 6th day of the Prayer. The song that most caught my attention was the one which Glaspy explained as an attempt to exorcise anger that had failed, because every time she sings it she gets pissed off again. It’s called Angry Again. Her comment got me thinking about how organizing to save the waters that birth and sustain life is so freaking hard, being as they are ‘out in the natural world’ and, as such, a reflection of an ancient way of life.

Glaspy sings, “When the world stops trying to do its best, I get angry again!”  Reviewer Laura DaPolito wrote of this particular performance:

The song was clearly a more political statement than those that would come before and after it, following more in the social revolutionary tradition of folk. After performing it, her face flushed, she would remark that she hoped it would help her get the anger off her chest, “but here I am all pissed off again” she mused. The audience laughed, and she did too; but the emotions were raw and too intense for her to hide. Her flushed face and neck betrayed her authenticity.”

That authenticity did lead me to wonder in what ways she sees the world not doing its best, and who is she referring to? For me, I was keenly aware of sitting in a very comfortable, absolutely lovely space enjoying (along with an essentially white audience) a particular kind of unimpeded, undisturbed and (basically) undisturbing cultural flow. Meanwhile, Grandmother Carole is trekking 15 miles/day of the Hudson regardless of the weather, sleeping (for the most part) in her car or a tent, probably going into debt despite a wonderful and deeply appreciated grant from Schaghticoke First Nations, and doing it all basically solo at 69 years of age.

As one of my good friends says, “Come on!” The two ‘flows’ are so strikingly juxtaposed: the white privilege stemming from settler culture and the tenacity of indigenous survival and struggle to save the earth.

Glaspy continues, “I’ve got a red river running through my veins—in a moral doubt.”

Prayer-Walking for the SacredWater

These days, no matter what class-level of society a human being finds themself in during this advanced stage of capitalism, we’re pretty much all addicted to speed and comfort. Many of us find slowing down to be painful, if not practically impossible. This is a lesson of being on the water for as long as we were on Day 3 of this year’s SacredWater is Life Prayer Walk. Over 27 miles of otherwise unreachable river, there was more flatwater than whitewater by a significant percent. The exhilarating experience of the rapids was fun, indeed. Yet, it’s the alternation between flatwater and rapids where the real growth can occur.  Grandmother’s lesson is that the presence of white water due to a topographic drop in elevation is simply an environmental condition, not an inherent predisposition or a desirable permanent mode of being. In other words, white people can probably tolerate more cultural rapids than we believe!

Whitewater and flat water are just different types of temporary conditions for life and living. The imbalance is that settler culture has designed society so that those of us integrated into the dominant flow of white life experience mostly flat water unless we choose to experience rapids; the Global Majority, however, e.g., native indigenous peoples, black and brown American citizens, and immigrants, are constantly tossed about in socially-constructed rapids of discrimination, oppression and inherited intergenerational trauma. How often do they get to experience the ease of cultural flow that we got to revel in so marvelously at Caffè Lena?

Grandmother Carole’s autobiography is unique to her situation, but she’s not alone in Walking the SacredWater. There is a worldwide movement to protect rivers, streams, groundwater, aquifers; clean up those already polluted; repair and build new infrastructure for safe drinking water; stop Nestle and other companies from treating water as a private resource; clean up the oceans; and establish the rights of personhood so that WATER, essential for all life on Earth, can be made available as a right and equal benefit to all the living beings who need it.

When our rafting guide told us “down is the best direction,” we had been floating for hours on flatwater and had already seen the moose, beaver, birds, fish, deer, vast skies, puffy clouds and grand gorgeous expanses of the Northeastern Woodlands. Down is the easiest direction. In these times, the question is if white people will choose to keep floating on our pre-established cultural ‘downstream’ and letting everyone else do the strenuous work of striving for the upstream changes we need.

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