Water makes New Orleans much of what it is. The land was made fertile by the sediment deposited by the Mississippi River. The river splits the city in two; it's bordered by Lake Pontchartrain to the north and sits less than 50 miles away from the Gulf of Mexico. The settlers’ harnessing of water was also essential to the land’s colonization, propelling the kidnapping of enslaved Africans and the movement of cotton and other crops across the country. Hurricanes like Betsy and Camille fundamentally shaped residents’ relationship to the land.
But even though water impacted nearly every aspect of people’s lives, no one talked about water infrastructure growing up in New Orleans in the 90s, New Orleans Water Collaborative Executive Director Jessica Dandridge says. But on her 16th birthday, everything changed.
Dandridge watched from Lafayette as the levees broke during Hurricane Katrina. When she returned to the city, she became a youth organizer. In 2019, almost 15 years after Hurricane Katrina, she joined the Water Collaborative of Greater New Orleans as executive director to help communities live and thrive with water amidst the existing traumas caused by the water along with the growing threats of climate change and coastal erosion.
In June 2020, Dandridge participated in the Sacred Waters Pilgrimage, a journey designed to heal participants’ relationship with water. Convened by the Gulf Coast Center for Law and Policy (GCCLP) and spirit-movement collective The Wind & The Warrior, the Sacred Waters Pilgrimage brought together Black and Indigenous women, non-binary, and two-spirit organizers across the country (and through virtual participation, all around the world) in the second half of 2020.
In co-anchoring the pilgrimage, The Wind & The Warrior intended to heal relationships among Black and Indigenous communities, beginning with organizers engaged in racial and environmental justice work. Those organizers frequently face burnout as climate change and racial injustice compound the issues facing their communities. They also sought to fundamentally heal their relationships with the waters themselves. Now, nearly a year after Hurricane Ida swept through Louisiana, two years after Hurricane Laura, and 17 years after Hurricane Katrina, the necessity for this healing is all too visible.
The pilgrimage began over a thousand miles upriver from New Orleans at the headwaters of the Mississippi—in the midst of protests after the police murder of George Floyd—with two ceremonies: one on Juneteenth in St. Paul, Minnesota, at Raspberry Island and another on the summer solstice in Itasca State Park. On the six full moons that followed, the pilgrims stopped along the river in Davenport and Keokuk, Iowa; Cairo, Illinois; St. Louis, Missouri; Paducah, Kentucky; Memphis, Tennessee; Vicksburg and Issaquena County, Mississippi; and where the river meets the ocean in Plaquemines Parish, Louisiana. At each stop, participants shared prayer, art, holistic medicine circles, offerings to the river, and conversations about the shared stories of Black and Native peoples on Turtle Island and the stories and lessons held by the water.
The pilgrimage came to be during a retreat led by The Wind & The Warrior in 2019 at the Highlander Center, a social justice leadership and training school in New Market, Tennessee. The group of eight activists included Colette Pichon Battle, the GCCLP’s executive director. One morning over breakfast, as they shared the dreams they’d had the night before, many people found common visions of waters, rivers in particular, and giving offerings to the waters.
Four years prior, collective member Ife Afriye Fagbulu Kilimanjaro had received a vision of collective traveling throughout the South to places where Black people had survived traumatic events to honor the spirits that lived in those places. That day at the Highlander Center, they made a commitment to make the journey that Kilimanjaro had foreseen into a pilgrimage, drawing on the commonality of pilgrimages across a variety of spiritual traditions. They selected the 2020 summer solstice to begin the trip, and Pichon Battle offered to raise funds to help make the vision a reality.
Though few could have foreseen the ways that of COVID-19 and the uprisings around the country would shake the country in the time between that retreat and the summer solstice, collective member Nana Fofie Amina Bashir is quick to note that “our traditions absolutely did foresee and tell us.”
Each pilgrimage stop involved first asking permission of the Indigenous caretakers and waterkeepers of the land on which they wanted to gather, offering something of themselves, giving thanks to the caretakers, and stating the intention of their pilgrimage. “When we started at the headwaters,” Bashir says, “We did not know anyone there. We knew a person who knew a person.” She names Anishinaabe elder and culture bearer Renee Gurneau as an integral part of the healing work they were able to do at the headwaters.
First, on Juneteenth at Raspberry Island in the middle of the river, a multigenerational group of pilgrims came together. Then, on the June 21 solstice, a multigenerational group of pilgrims, Anishinaabe elders, and culture workers led by Gurneau practiced a water ceremony at Lake Itasca. The Wind & The Warrior Collective member Karma Mayet recalls learning the Ojibwe name for the river, Misi-ziibi, a word that describes the way the river twists and turns. As she watched the current nudge flowers she had offered down the river, she envisioned their offerings and prayers preceding them on their journey downstream.
“The aliveness of the being who is the Mississippi River is so present and so palpable,” Mayet says.
Even at that first stop on Juneteenth, Dandridge thought she’d signed up for a completely different kind of journey.
“We would ask them to go see the site [of the George Floyd protests],” she says. “I want to go to the protest, and they said 'nope. That’s not why you’re here. You’re here for a spiritual journey with the water.' And I had never been asked to do something like that before.”
Though The Wind & The Warrior’s original plan had been to head to Wisconsin next, activist and water protector Sikowis Nobiss suggested they go to Iowa. Because of corporate agriculture, the pollution from the state’s farms are responsible for 55 percent of the nitrate load in the Mississippi Basin that is responsible for the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico. The day after the July full moon, a federal judge ordered the Dakota Access Pipeline be shut down pending an environmental review. Keokuk, Iowa, one of the group’s pilgrimage stops, had been a major seat of early resistance against the pipeline.
But even as the trip continued, the lessons activists were there to learn weren’t always immediately evident.
“It felt like a test of my spirit rather than a test of my skill set,” Dandridge says. She remembers learning from The Wind & The Warrior and Pichon Battle in particular that they were there to try to relearn how to work from a communal perspective, rather than a deadline perspective. They were also meant to seek understanding from their ancestors and African and Indigenous value systems that have typically been denied or pushed aside in the mainstream.
At the next stop in Cairo, Illinois, this came in the form of tough love. Dandridge had been really invested in the group’s stop in Illinois, helping to coordinate the group’s visits and finances.
“I was getting us from point A to point B, but I was still coming from a really neo-liberal standpoint,” Dandridge says.
Pichon Battle asked Dandridge to take a temporary break from the journey in order to reset her relationship with her work by moving away from a framework of urgency and top-down leadership and towards the communal decision-making that the pilgrimage was all about.
Though Dandridge first internalized the lesson as failure, the time away gave her a new perspective: “What I didn't realize was that Colette was telling me that I had all the tools, but I didn't tap into my spiritual success the way I needed to.”
For The Wind & The Warrior, the pilgrimage was all about relationship building both with their fellow travelers and with the water.
“When we talk about colonization, it was a fracturing of relationships,” Bashir says. “When we talk about issues in movement, we talk about a fracturing of relationship, we don’t know how to be in relationship with the land and the water in ways that allow us to see each other.”
The participants were organized into cohorts in order to foster this relationship building. Ida Aronson, the traditional plants and farm initiative manager for the Houma Nation was part of Dandridge’s cohort. Their work on the farm involves growing food, restoring the land, and restoring community members’ connection to the land.
Down in Plaquemines Parish, on the winter solstice, the group made their final stop. The group took a boat tour, learning about how the Mississippi delta was formed and how the sediment up at the headwaters and all along the way down formed the lands of the delta. They had a cookout, honored Houma and Black elders, and lit a sacred fire.
“It felt very good to know that I wasn’t alone. I think about the Meskwaki people we met in Iowa. They’re so proud to have this new farm that they know does not contribute to the agribusiness runoff that comes into the Mississippi,” Aronson says. “That's how they have designed and engineered it to be in relationship with the river and in relationship with all of us down the river.”
After taking part in the pilgrimage, Dandridge better understands Hurricane Katrina’s role in her origin story and the water’s role in her life. Though her work at the Water Collaborative seeks to help communities live and thrive with water through education, policy, and equity, after the pilgrimage, Dandrige sees her work as being first and foremost about social and community healing at its deepest level.
“I think part of my role on this earth is to bring healing using the medium of water,” she says. “I hate that my community hates water so much. It bothers me that people want to keep water away, when the reason we had a Katrina or Camille or Betsy or the many other storms that are unnamed or unmarked has nothing to do with the river or the lake or rain, but everything to do with because we moved away from Indigenous practices around managing water.”