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Drumbeats, water songs, and sacred invocations rang out on the banks of the Allegheny River, or Ohi:yo in the Seneca language, as environmentalists, leaders of various faiths, Pittsburgh’s Mayor, and the Seneca community joined together to celebrate World Peace and Prayer Day last week. Around 50 people attended the gathering meant to raise awareness to environmental threats to the health of the river. 

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Degawëno:das, a member of the Seneca nation who is paddling the entire length of the Ohi:yo/ Allegheny to raise awareness of threats to the river, and his wife, Huitzilin, led the participants in a water ceremony.

Attendees scooped a small portion of water from a bucket of river water, spoke their “intentions”, prayers, or gratitude, and then flung the water back. Huitzilin, then, performed a cleansing sage ritual with each participant. 

“First and foremost, I’d say I believe in showing solidarity with lots of different groups and communities who are working in their own ways to combat the ecological and climate devastation that we’re currently experiencing,” Briann Moye, a regional organizer for Climate Reality Project said. “World Peace and Prayer Day is something that’s traditionally rooted in Indigenous communities.”

Following the ceremony, the group marched across the Andy Warhol Bridge singing an Algonquin water song that translates to “Water is the lifeblood of our Mother Earth. Water is the lifeblood of our bodies.” Participants played drums and other percussion instruments. 

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Wanda Guthrie, a board member with Pennsylvania Interfaith Power and Light, and an organizer of the event, said she is here because her organization is concerned with “the moral question of climate change.” Her organization helps religious organizations engage in environmental legal advocacy, and become more energy efficient. 

“I think we have forgotten community by community that we need to allow for rivers to have rights,” Guthrie said. “[The incorporation of prayer into a rally] is a recognition that where you are and what you’re doing is really standing on holy ground.” 

Several organizers and participants said they wanted to stand in solidarity with indigenous communities, they needed to take better care of the waters, and that the single greatest threat to the river was the Shell petrochemical “cracker” plant being built near Aliquippa. 

Former Christian high priest Jerry Walsh said the cleansing rituals by the banks of the river were very meaningful to him. The rituals brought back memories of when he and his wife were blessed daily and walked in solidarity with Native Americans during the Longest Walk, a cross-country protest march. 

“I have always loved nature from the time I was very young,” Walsh said. “I felt that my cathedral was in the woods. And I’d be by a lake with a full moon shining and that to me was the height of spirituality.”

Wilson Clark holds up a t-shirt for his organization Defend Ohi:yo which seeks to protect the Allegheny River. Clark lives in Salamanca, New York, and is a member of the Ponca nation originally from Oklahoma. Photo by Kara Holsopple.

Part time Sierra Club worker, and former Clean Water Action employee Tom Hoffman was attracted to the spiritual aspect of the event, as well as his work trying to remove sewage from Pittsburgh’s rivers by encouraging green infrastructure projects. 

“I feel like we’ve been blessed with plenty of water [in Western Pennsylvania], but I don’t feel like we’ve been very good stewards of it,” Hoffman said. “I don’t think we take care of it very well. And, I find that sad.” 

Mayor Bill Peduto said that the gathering was a celebration of peace and understanding. 

“I’m convinced that on our long scale development of this city we [need to] look at sustainability as a key component of it,” Peduto said. “The only way that you see that change happens is once we all gather together. Citizens, institutions, nonprofit organizations, government, and corporations to be able to say ‘this is our home and we need to take care of it.'”

Mayor Bill Peduto talks about the importance of the event with Jack Austin, intern with The Allegheny Front. Photo by Kara Holsopple.

Although Degawëno:das (which translates to “I am he who thunders”) is passionate about defending the environment, he also wants to empower other groups to start advocating for the water and air. 

“I refer to it [water], as many as others do, as the lifeblood of all creation, because the. water connects us all with everything,” Degawëno:das said. “But now, we have these attacks that are made upon us by these fossil fuel industries and the natural gas industry. The shared responsibility is the water. And we’re here to encourage you for the protection of the waters. We’re out of balance.”