April 24th, 2024

Miywasin Moment: Into the sweat lodge – Part One

By JoLynn Parenteau on March 6, 2024.

Aerial view of kihcihkaw aski, Sacred Land, in Edmonton.--Photo courtesy of Lewis Cardinal, Indigenous Knowledge & Wisdom Centre

“Igniting the fire of our ancestors’ ways of knowing”

– Guiding intention and vision of the kihcihkaw aski (Sacred Land) Indigenous ceremonial grounds

On a bright, clear February day, a sacred fire is burning on the edge of Edmonton’s Whitemud Creek ravine.

Glowing red-hot within the flames are volcanic stones, called the grandfathers, whose energy will be released this day in a sacred sweat lodge ceremony.

Located in Treaty 6 Territory at amiskwaciy waskahikan, Edmonton’s Cree name meaning Beaver Hills Lodge (or House), is a new Indigenous ceremonial site. Nestled in a nature reserve in the heart of the city, neighbouring old-growth forest and sharing the land with a variety of wildlife and domesticated horses, is kihcihkaw aski, meaning Sacred Land.

The first land-based urban Indigenous ceremonial grounds in Canada, kihcihkaw aski is intended as a safe place for traditional cultural practices and intergenerational knowledge transfer of Indigenous heritage, history, language and values. This serene setting also fosters friendship, healing, peace and understanding between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people.

First soft-opened in March 2023, operations of Sacred Land are overseen by the Indigenous Knowledge & Wisdom Centre (IKWC), a not-for-profit entity offering education, policy, language and cultural guidance. The site build was made possible in partnership with the City of Edmonton.

“Throughout the years we’ve heard many calls for a place where we can pray,” recalls project manager Lewis Cardinal, who received guidance and counsel from more than 200 Indigenous Elders during its development. “They said, ‘yes it’s time that we have ceremonies in the city.’ In the near future, most of our people will be living in urban centres. It’s our responsibility to create space and access to culture and ceremony, which is critical to our well-being, especially for the youth and the families that are here.”

One hundred metres past the treeline, a large tufa mineral deposit dating back 11,000 years is also a source of ochre, an important element of spiritual ceremonies for many Indigenous peoples. Blackfoot people of Treaty 7’s Siksika and Piikani Nations have shared historical memories of travelling this far north to Fort Edmonton during the fur trade, and would stop here to collect ochre before returning south again.

The property spans roughly 5.5 hectares of land. What’s currently developed includes protected bonfire sites to service sweat lodge circles, a tipi circle, a sloped amphitheatre and an indoor gathering space. Plans to expand will develop based on need.

“It took 16 years to build this place,” reflects Cardinal. “But it’s worth the investment if it serves generations.”

Originally from Sucker Creek Cree First Nation in Treaty 8 territory, Cardinal has called Edmonton home since 1970.

“I have seen the city change over the last 25 years in a way that’s really created that space for us to be who we are as Indigenous people.”

On this day, Elder Wil Campbell is leading a sweat lodge ceremony, in which this writer has been invited to participate, along with others who have gathered here from across northern Turtle Island (Indigenous Canada) to take part.

Sweat lodge traditions require that a tribal member go through rigorous training for a great many years to be permitted to lead a lodge.

Elder Wil has learned from many nations. Hailing from Lac La Ronge, Saskatchewan, he began his spiritual journey with his own Cree people. Later, living among the Apache, Yaqui, and Lakota tribes in the U.S. and receiving Anishinaabe teachings and others upon returning to Canada, has given Elder Wil a robust Indigenous education.

Participating in a sweat is not a show of endurance, rather it is a sacred experience, one that should be entered into with humility, with the intention to purify oneself physically, emotionally, mentally and spiritually. Respectful behaviour during all stages of the ceremony is essential. Cleansing in this manner is viewed as healing and can restore balance in one’s life.

For many, this sense of balance can feel elusive. A return to practising our ancestors’ traditions might help to strike that balance in our modern world.

This story continues next week.

JoLynn Parenteau is a Metis writer based in Medicine Hat. Column feedback can be sent to jolynn.parenteau@gmail.com.

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