Walking Under the Whirling Rainbow: All-Faith Cross-Country Pilgrimage Celebrates 25 Years

Reader Contribution by Steven Mcfadden
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A quarter of a century ago — June 23, 1995 — a band of pilgrims gathered at First Encounter Beach on Cape Cod, Massachusetts. They came on behalf of all the people, plants, and animals of the Earth. From this place of sand and sea at America’s Eastern Door, this intercultural band of pilgrims took the first steps on the epic Sunbow 5 Walk for the Earth. In many respects and in a global context, everyone is still walking.

The small, ecumenical band of sunbow pilgrims journeyed from the Atlantic to the Pacific over a span of eight intensive months. They walked under the Algonquin teachings of the Seven Fires, the inspiration of a White Buffalo, and the global skysign of the Whirling Rainbow (Sunbow).

The walkers paid close attention to the image of the Sunbow. When this natural phenomenon occurs, a full 360-degree rainbow circle appears in a wide ring around the Sun. The colorful, whirling vortex is said to signify critical understandings that lead to a healthy, inclusive, sustainable future for all.

For the purposes of the walk, the number 5 was added to Sunbow to signify five colors of human beings: Red, White, Black, Yellow, and Brown. The sunbow pilgrims were walking from the Eastern Door on the Atlantic toward the Western Gate at the Pacific to help unite all peoples and all nations in honesty, caring, sharing, and respect.

Their epic spiritual adventure involved untold U.S. and world history, pressing environmental and social issues, a convoluted web of personal relationships, and a wealth of spiritual insight with direct relevance for our era.

Now as world culture continues on a larger, more challenging journey from an old time to a new time, our long walk together under the whirling rainbow may serve to illumine some of the steps.

All of this is outlined in the freely available, nonfiction online saga, Odyssey of the 8th Fire. Beyond the basic story of a band of pilgrims off on a mission to understand and to care for Mother Earth, Odyssey of the 8th Fire is also a compendium of teachings. The long walkers met with dozens of learned elders along the trail from east to west. They generously shared many of the key wisdom knowings of Turtle Island (North America). Those teachings—long ago left by the side of the trail—remain urgently relevant.


Whirling rainbow sand painting.

Seven Fires

I first met Grandfather William Commanda, in the late 1980s at his home at Bitobi Lake on the Maniwaki Reserve, Quebec, Canada. We sat in his living room and talked for a long time. Deep in our conversation, Grandfather shared with me the Annishinaabeg (Algonquin) teachings of the Seven Fires and the Seven Prophets.

To cut to the heart of the matter, Grandfather spoke of the seventh prophet, who came to the Algonquin peoples many generations ago and warned of dying trees and poisoned waters, a time when strange sicknesses would arise, when deranged people would see no purpose in living other than to horde the world’s treasures while other human beings went hungry, and when soul and social sicknesses would breed immense sorrows.

Drawing on his own knowledge as keeper of the Seven Fires Wampum Belt, and on the work of Eddie Benton Banai, Grandfather explained that the seventh prophet also said that ‘”in the time of the Seventh Fire there will arise Oshkibimadizeeg (a new people) who will emerge from the clouds of illusion. They will retrace their steps to find what was left by the side of the trail long ago. Stories that had been lost will be returned to them. They will remember the Original Instructions given to the human beings by Creator. They will find strength in the way of the circle…If the new people remain strong in their quest, the sacred fire will again be lit.”

That’s what caught my attention back when I first heard the tale, the part about the new people retracing the footsteps of the ancestors to seek out what had been left by the side of the trail. As it turned out, that element of the story caught the attention of many other people as well.

Thus 25 years ago under the guidance of Grandfather Commanda, a man named Tom Dostou and his wife at the time, Naoko Haga, assembled a band of walkers, a multiracial, multispiritual group that fluctuated in numbers from 7 to 100 or more over the nearly eight months of the coast-to-coast odyssey.

By the time June 1995 rolled around, people were primed to go. The walkers had been moved by the directness and integrity of the Seven Fires story, by the authority of the long-awaited Hopi elders’ message at the House of Mica (UN Headquarters on Manhattan), by the promise expressed in the birth of a White Buffalo, and by the mounting distress evident all around them in human beings and the environment. They were of one mind to begin. 


The Teachings of Our Heart

The long walkers gathered on June 23, 1995 under the summer sun at noon around a blazing ceremonial fire at First Encounter Beach, Cape Cod, Massachusetts. During that send-off ceremony, elders representing different traditions offered messages, and brought us together in focused prayer for the safety of all walkers, and for the realization of the vision.

Taking an eagle feather in his hand, Algonquin elder Frank Decontie paced intently around the wind-whipped fire, and offered an eloquent oration. “I ask you to listen,” he said, “not just with your minds. I ask you to listen with your hearts, because that is the only way you can receive what it is, what we are giving. These are the teachings of our hearts.”

When Rev. Eugene Callender of the Harlem Presbyterian Church in New York City spoke by the fire, he created a frame of historical reference: “I began walking a long time ago, you know. Forty years ago, I began walking in a little town in Alabama, in Selma. People decided that they could walk no longer the way they had been walking. They knew that they needed to walk with dignity. They needed to be recognized as children of God. That walk helped to spark a tremendous transformation.

“Today we know that there are chords of disharmony in the symphony of our lives. This is why we must walk again, and recognize with grateful heart that we are all God’s children. How can we wipe away the tears of the people, of all the people, if our hands are like knives? We cannot. Our hands must be open and filled with love and understanding.

“This walk, I sincerely believe, will honor the Creator, and uplift the consciousness of people everywhere that the walk goes…This is a pilgrimage of righteousness. This is a pilgrimage of healing. This is a pilgrimage of truth. I am honored to be here at the start. I pray a blessing on my brothers and sisters of all colors, of all faiths, as the walk begins.”

After lining up behind a crack in pavement of the beach road, the walkers looked up and beheld a Red Eagle circling directly above, a great bird soon joined by shrieking crows intent on mayhem. Then off the sunbow pilgrims went, down the road heading south to Cherokee, then west across the continent, day by day, step by step.

Now, a quarter century after the beginning of this great global adventure, it’s clear it’s not over. The mission is incomplete. We all have miles to go before we sleep. Walk on.

Independent journalist Steven McFadden is rooted in cyberspace atDeepAgroecology.net. Information about his wider work and all of his nonfiction books is available atChiron-Communications.com. You can read all of Steven’s Mother Earth News blog posts here.

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