‘Walk as if you are kissing the Earth with your feet’
Thich Nhat Hanh, Vietnamese monk and peace activist
Eyes were often moist and voices choked with emotion as Walking Water pilgrims and Los Angeles Department of Water and Power representatives met on 14 October at the Cascades against the dramatic backdrop of a century-old marvel of engineering that also symbolises the capture and relocation of the waters of the Owens River.
It was here in 1913 that the city’s water chief William Mulholland officially opened the LA Aqueduct with one of the briefest and most controversial dedication speeches in history: “There it is. Take it!”
He was a hero to thousands of Angelenos who rushed forward with their tin mugs to drink of the sweet imported waters, while in the Owens Valley his words were seen as devoid of respect for Mother Earth and salt in the wounds of many who’d lost so much.
Synchronistically the 2017 sendoff and blessing ceremony for Walking Water was acted out on the newly-proclaimed Indigenous Peoples Day in LA – the city choosing to replace Columbus Day and the more usual commemoration of the arrival of the Italian explorer and coloniser in 1492.
The City Council had voted to eliminate Columbus Day from the city calendar after siding with activists who viewed the Italian navigator as a symbol of the genocide of native peoples in North America and elsewhere
Is this the beginning of a new story?
Walking Water has been both a prayer and an action as local and international walkers followed the waterways – natural and man-made – from the source high in the Sierra Nevada Mountains above Mono Lake towards the place of end use.
Already they have traversed more than 750km (470 miles) through mountains and desert and their footsteps will take them another 80km (50 miles) through an urban environment to the point where the LA River feeds into the ocean at Long Beach.
“It is a journey of healing,” coordinator Kate Bunney insists. “We are not walking against anything but walking for water and all life.
“We walk with many questions and harvest stories as we head into the city engaging with communities and leaders along the way.”
It is about the healing of our relations with the land, the waters, ourselves and each other.
At a pivotal moment in the blessing ceremony Alan Bacock, water coordinator for the Big Pine Paiute Tribe, invited James Yannotta, manager of the LA Aqueduct, to join him in pouring water with the two embracing briefly afterwards.
Behind that gesture lies a legacy for many in the Owens Valley of injustice and broken promises. Charlotte Lange, chairperson of the Kutzadika People asked pointedly: “When will an indigenous person be invited to join the leadership team of the LA Department of Water and Power?”
Respecting indigenous rights and sensibilities has been core to the Walking Water pilgrimage and before it was given the go-ahead three years ago, tribal elders and members were consulted and their permission sought to walk ancestral lands. Now their voices are helping to shape the journey.
During the Indigenous Peoples Day celebrations in San Fernando the 30 walkers were warmly welcomed when they arrived in time to witness dance rituals by men, women and children that originated millennia ago.
When one of our team leaders insisted that they did not wish to interrupt the sacred tribal dance and celebrations, she was assured: “You are part of them.”
In recent days the walkers have been received and catered for by representatives of local communities, including a group known as the Young Warriors connected to the Tia Chucha Bookstore and Cultural Centre. They dished up a delicious vegetarian dinner and when asked questions by the walkers they openly shared their dreams for becoming writers and healers as well as together opening a café featuring a healthy cuisine.
The city, meanwhile, has taken the unprecedented step of allowing the group to pitch their tents in public parks, invariably in the proximity of a handful of the 50,000 homeless people who are part of the LA reality.
According to fellow walker Orland Bishop, a social architect who mentors youth, individuals and organisations, the houseless people are often forced by necessity to seek community on the streets and in parks. They include many young people with nowhere to go after leaving the foster care system at the age of 17 or 18. There are also war veterans from the conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan and even Vietnam, along with some facing mental health challenges who are not able to be adequately cared for.
Moving in silence at the beginning of each day, the walkers found the city to be both a place of astonishing beauty and obvious hardship and struggle. The country’s second largest city is home to countless Hollywood success stories that personify the Great American Dream, while being juxtaposed with a disturbing and often hidden underbelly that includes a huge prison population, many of them young people of African American and Latino origins.
For all the pilgrims it is a journey of listening and learning. We walk at the time-honoured pace of our ancestors and in their footsteps, each asking questions individually and collectively.
What is our part in the healing and co-creating of a new story in our communities? We ask again each day, will our walk, our prayer, help to wake us up and inspire care and responsibility within ourselves and our homelands? Can we, with others of many ages, backgrounds and cultures, dream a more beautiful and sustainable future where resources are truly shared? What can we learn from listening to those who were here long before, listening to those we meet along our way, listening to the water itself? What habitats do we choose to create with the water we are blessed with? Are we willing to change the dream, the structures, the currency we have created if they truly do not serve the needs of our time? What is ours to do?