Category: Decolonization

Opening a doorway to culture through equine assisted learning

Mishkwiingwese (She Blushes), Kelsey Moore, Zhiishigwan (Shaker/Rattle), and Angela McGinnis stand at the entrance sign, which commemorates the four grandmother mares from which the Lac La Croix Indigenous Ponies at The Red Pony Stands® Ojibwe Horse Sanctuary descend. The seven ponies who reside at the Sanctuary, which is located near the Qu’Appelle valley, contain the two original bloodlines, the Keokuk and Nimkii lines. Their lineages date back to the four Original Mares from Lac La Croix First Nation and Bois Forte Band of Chippewa that were the last remaining in the world (Lilian, Biizhiki, Diamond, and Dark Face) who were strategically bred to a Spanish Mustang Stallion (Smokey) in 1977 in order to save the breed from extinction. (Source: Photo credit: Shuana Niessen

What is the connection between horses, educational psychology, and Indigenous youth and culture?

Reconnecting with cultural and traditional ways of knowing and being is increasingly seen as a significant part of the healing and learning process for First Nations peoples, whose culture has been historically and systemically oppressed by the colonization process. Language revitalization has been a key focus of cultural preservation and reclamation, but Equine Assisted Learning (EAL) is a relatively new and less understood approach to learning and healing, at least among the scientific community. For Indigenous peoples, however, horses have long been viewed as carriers of knowledge and healers. The preservation of the critically endangered Lac La Croix Indigenous Ponies, then, is part of the process of cultural reclamation and preservation, and thereby healing and learning, as relations between Indigenous horses and peoples are (re)established.

Dr. Angela McGinnis, an Assistant Professor of educational psychology in the Faculty of Education and an Indigenous Health Researcher, and her graduate student, Kelsey Moore, are conducting SIDRU-funded research to better understand how and why Indigenous youth benefit from working with Indigenous horses, specifically the seven Lac La Croix Indigenous Ponies being cared for by Angela and her partner Cullan McGinnis at The Red Pony Stands® Ojibwe Horse Sanctuary. Founded by Angela and Cullan, the Sanctuary “is an Indigenous owned and operated not-for-profit.” The Sanctuary receives some financial support by private and corporate sponsors and donors; however, these supports do not cover all of the costs: Angela says, “The majority of the work and expenses fall on my partner (Cullan) and I to keep the ponies happy and healthy, both physically and spiritually. Our mission is to protect, promote, and preserve the critically endangered Lac La Croix Indigenous Pony breed.”

Angela, Cullan, and the Lac La Croix Indigenous Ponies all originate from Treaty 3 territory in Northwestern Ontario. Horses have been part of Angela’s life from her earliest memories at her home in Fort Frances. “I have a picture of me on a horse before I could even walk,” says Angela. Her parents were caretakers of Lac La Croix Indigenous Ponies and Nez Perce horses. Angela credits her father as a mentor who has taught her a great deal from his knowledge of working with horses.

Reconnecting with her Métis/Ojibwe cultural identities has been a focus of Angela’s education and healing. Cultural connectedness was a central concept in her research at Western University, where she received a PhD in clinical psychology in 2015. As part of her doctoral research, Angela developed a measure to assist in determining the extent to which cultural connectedness is associated with health and well-being, specifically among First Nations youth. Angela’s findings indicate that cultural connectedness is a positive predictor of mental health. This is critical knowledge because, as Angela says, “the mental health and well-being of youth is one of the most urgent concerns affecting many First Nations communities across Canada.” Angela views her work in educational psychology as “a perfect fit” for the research in which she is engaged. She says healing and learning are inseparable: “You can’t have healing without learning, or learning without healing.”

Doodem (Clan), who is standing, is a 5-year-old sorrel stallion from Kichi Noodin off Ishkote. His genetically matched breeding partner, seen in the foreground, is Aazadi (Cottonwood Tree). Because the ponies are critically endangered, careful DNA testing must be done before the ponies can be bred to ensure their preservation. Photo credit: Shuana Niessen

Since completing her doctoral research, Angela has been seeking to understand how cultural connectedness can be developed through, what she calls, “real-world experiences,” which include strengthened relationships with the land and all its “more-than-human” creatures, particularly the Lac La Croix Indigenous Pony. Broadening health research to include the more-than-human world is important to Angela because, she says, “We need to situate well-being within a larger network of social relations, with both the human and more-than-human worlds. We need to focus beyond the individual and extend our understandings about health and well-being to living in relation to all else, not just for the present but for future generations as well.”

With her expertise in psychology and her passion for the preservation of the Lac La Croix Indigenous Pony breed, Angela is perfectly situated to bridge, in her words, “often seemingly conflicting world views… I understand Western mental health perspectives, but this work requires an understanding of Indigenous perspectives of holistic wellness to fully understand the role of the ponies in the resilience process.” Angela likens the loss of contact with Indigenous horses experienced by Indigenous communities to the loss of family members: “Part of their family has been ripped away,” she says. Reconnecting Indigenous youth and adults with Indigenous horses brings about “indescribable moments,” says Angela. These moments spark the ‘I remember when…’ stories told by Elders about the ponies and traditional ways of life and are, Angela believes, charged with healing potential. “These are moments that could potentially change someone’s life. To see that happening in front of you, it’s a privilege.” Angela felt especially privileged to hear of the repatriation of the Lac La Croix Indigenous Pony to Nigigoonsiminikaaning First Nation, from which her partner, Cullan, originates. She says, “I was completely moved by the return of three black geldings to this community.” During a recent visit to see the community’s ponies, Cullan had opportunity to meet the geldings for the first time. Angela says, “The reunion of these family members was so powerful—an emotional reuniting. The bond between the geldings and Cullan was instant. It’s a culturally specific relationship that dates back to pre-Colonial contact. This type of relationship can’t be replicated with any other breed of horse.”

Family Reunion. The three Lac La Croix Indigenous Ponies from Nigigoonsiminikaaning First Nation gather around Cullan (Waabinaanikwad) McGinnis at first meeting. Photo credit: Angela McGinnis

Reunions such as these lead to the beginning of relationships with the more-than-human world, and are what Angela calls a “doorway to the culture,” which can help youth make other cultural connections, such as ceremony. For instance, Angela and Cullan’s relationship with the Lac La Croix Indigenous Ponies at the Sanctuary has meant that they have sought guidance from local traditional Elders and engaged in horse-specific traditional ceremonies held in communities, such as the Horse Dance. Angela would like to share the doorway experience with her Educational Psychology students: “I want to help students step through that doorway. That’s how we understand how to help others, by experiencing it ourselves. And in return we help the ponies. That’s the whole mutual helping process, helping the horses in their fight against extinction. We need the Lac La Croix Indigenous Ponies as much as they need us,” says Angela. She plans to start bringing her students out to the Sanctuary for classes in Spring. A 20-foot tipi will be raised as Angela prepares to bring her students in contact with the ponies and the land.

Master’s student Kelsey Moore, who received a B.Ed. in Indigenous Education from First Nations University of Canada, is now undertaking her M.Ed. in Curriculum and Instruction at the University of Regina under the supervision of Dr. McGinnis and the mentorship of Life Speaker Noel Starblanket. Kelsey is Métis and grew up in Yorkton. Her lifelong passion for horses began with several summers spent working with youth at horse camps and riding stables and continued with her experience of getting to know the Curly Horse breed at her inlaws’ farm. Her thesis research question perfectly intersects with Angela’s interest in understanding and offering evidence-based research to explain how and why Indigenous youth benefit in both educational outcomes and mental health, through establishing relationships with horses and how Equine Assisted Learning programs can be successfully culturally adapted.

Angela, Mishkwiingwese (She Blushes), and Kelsey demonstrate a teamwork exercise, learned at the EAL certification course. Photo credit: Shuana Niessen

Kelsey and Angela are amazed to have found each other. Angela says, “What are the chances of me finding a student who wants to work with Indigenous horses?” The two researchers are working toward the same ends as those involved in language revitalization: “We are all tackling a shared goal: Cultural preservation,” Angela says. The actual preservation of the critically endangered Lac La Croix Indigenous Pony extends as a metaphor for cultural and identity preservation: “Their mere presence is a counternarrative to the colonial narrative of the extinction of Indigenous horses to the Americas,” says Angela. Indeed, the Lac La Croix Indigenous Pony’s survival itself inspires hope. But beyond that, Angela feels that interaction with Indigenous horses gives “Indigenous youth opportunities to connect with horses who have resilience and strength, like their own, that they can identify with, a culturally specific story,” she says.

What exactly is Equine Assisted Learning (EAL)?

Snowshoe and Starblanket (2016) state that EAL “is a relatively new approach to knowledge acquisition that draws primarily on the tenets of experiential learning, that is, learning through hands-on experience with the horse (Dell, Chalmers, Dell, Sauve, & MacKinnon, 2008).”

To deepen her understanding of EAL, Kelsey received EAL certification in August at Cartier Farms, near Prince Albert. Cartier Farms teaches that establishing an experiential hands-on working relationship with horses, with their sensitivity, non-verbal communications, resilience, and forgiving ways, can be an effective approach to learning, to self-knowledge, and to self-evaluation.

Angela, who has been guided by the traditional Elders, Knowledge Keepers, and communities with whom she has worked, sees the potential for healing and learning in culturally adapted EAL. Angela views horses as “more-than-human co-constructors of knowledge.” Horses have much to teach us about the land and living on the land, she says. Elders and Knowledge Keepers have taught Angela that, with their four feet always on the ground, horses have a greater connection with Mother Earth, and through this connection, the Creator. Thus, traditionally, horses have been considered a source of maintaining and recovering holistic wellness.

Upon the arrival of Angela’s first Pony at the Sanctuary, a beautiful stallion, affectionately named Sagineshkawa (Pleasure with my Arrival), she says, “I realized that I should not rush things. I needed to slow down and have humility, especially around a powerful being like a horse…This was the horse that I had to pay attention to and listen to spiritually.” Angela is grateful to all her ponies for their patience in teaching her. Kelsey’s experiences with horses have similarly given her the understanding that she must “slow down and be present in the moment,” she says. “Helping humans slow down is a way that the horses care for us,” says Angela. She views the horse-human relationship as one of mutual caring: “We are caretakers of them and the land, but the ponies also take care of us.”

Yet, there is an urgency that requires speed in this research due to the need for Indigenous youth to be able to access culturally adapted healing and learning programs. As a mother of a toddler, Kelsey had intended to move a bit slower with her research, but she says everything is moving much quicker than she planned or expected. Kelsey’s research, using what Angela describes as “a pure Indigenous research method,” seeks to understand the spiritual and cultural connections between Indigenous youth and Indigenous horses. Incorporating ceremony as research, Kelsey is documenting her interactions and deep listening experiences with the ponies, along with the conversations she has with Elders and Knowledge Keepers to make sense of what she observes.

The two researchers are already envisioning and talking about future plans. Angela says, “We hope to apply for an operating grant to help Kelsey set up her own Indigenous-centered Equine-Assisted Learning and healing program in the community, following the completion of her academic work.”

The Sanctuary has recently gained international attention. It will be featured in a short documentary film currently being produced by National Geographic as part of the Natural Connections Project. The film will document how EAL contributes to the well-being of First Nations youth. Through the film, Angela hopes to showcase “how Indigenous communities are using horses to connect with culture, strengthen positive relationships, and learn through activities with horses and nature.”

By Shuana Niessen

Credits for photos below: Shuana Niessen 2018


A healing journey expressed through the arts

In October 2018, the Faculty of Education’s emerging Elder in Residence, Joseph Naytowhow, a Plains/Woodland Cree (nêhiyaw) singer, songwriter, storyteller, actor, and educator from the Sturgeon Lake First Nation in Saskatchewan, was recognized by the Saskatchewan Arts Board with an award for his contributions to arts and learning. Naytowhow says this award is significant to him, attributing the recognition to “the children and the people I work with, the teachers, and educators, and I share this award with them.”

This isn’t the first award for Naytowhow, whose work has been recognized by several awards: the 2006 Canadian Aboriginal Music Award’s Keeper of the Tradition Award, a 2005 Commemorative Medal for the Saskatchewan Centennial, the 2009 Gemini Award for Best Individual or Ensemble Performance in an Animated Program or Series for his role in Wapos Bay, the 2009 Best Emerging Male Actor at the Winnipeg Aboriginal Film Festival for his role in Run: Broken Yet Brave and the Best Traditional Male Dancer at the John Arcand Fiddle Fest.

Naytowhow says he appreciates the awards he receives from Saskatchewan, valuing them as “gifts that validate that I have needed both worlds. They’re inseparable.” He considers the awards, as “marking posts in my life that indicated to me that I was someone who had something to share, —I think it validated what I was doing in the spiritual and cultural worlds: nêhiyaw (Cree person) and nêhiyawêwin (speaking Cree), practicing nêhiyaw-isîhcikêwin (Cree culture and ceremony). All I was doing was Indigenous ceremony and culture because that was my life force, my life source.”

At the same time it is difficult to receive the awards because, for Naytowhow, art was never about recognition. He says, “Sometimes you don’t believe it when you’ve been given an award because it’s come from the place that you’ve suffered through and healed through…Everything that I did was about healing. Returning to balance. Everything was about that.”

Naytowhow has invested a lifetime in healing from the trauma of being taken from his family and community at the age of 6, and placed in Indian residential schools for the next 13 years.

“What I went through is one thing, right, 13 years of residential school, is one thing, but you never really understood what you were experiencing academically in education. It didn’t make sense. I didn’t come from that world. I didn’t come from Shakespeare; I didn’t come from math, or from overseas, and yet I was totally immersed in that, and just totally struggled to get through it every step of the way.”

When Naytowhow graduated from highschool, it wasn’t due to academic achievement: “It was like a bull dozer going through a big mud pile, just edging along. I finally got pushed out of that system with a fifty average. I think they just wanted to get me finished. I was really a below average student according to my marks. I was really a very silent learner and you can’t be a silent learner in this system; you have to speak, you have to present, you have to do it their way. And it never really resonated with me,” he says.

After residential school, Naytowhow spent his youth in search of himself. His search for harmony and balance began with attempting to live in the colonial culture. Knowing that education was important to earn a living, Naytowhow, who enjoyed athletics, found a physical education program at a university in Calgary that would accept him with his grades. The program was more about physical performance than academics, and, Naytowhow says, “I did really well; it was all based on skill. I excelled and the first semester my marks were good so I immediately applied to the U of R.” Naytowhow was accepted into the Faculty of Education, but struggled through the next three and a half years before withdrawing from the program. “I was still trying to make sense of this culture that was imposed on me and I sort of got it, but I sort of didn’t. I just barely squeezed by. … I would try to read and I would read for a while and I would fall asleep. I was reading some scientific theory and my mind wanted to write a poem,” he says.

However, after withdrawing from the education program, and while he was working as an Education Liaison for the Friendship Centre, Naytowhow realized that without a degree he wasn’t being taken seriously by the educational administrators, so he decided to finish his Education degree, but this time through ITEP {Indian Teacher Education Program) at the University of Saskatchewan. His practicum took him north to Stanley Mission, to a federally funded school. Naytowhow graduated with a B.Ed., but he didn’t stay in the teaching position he acquired due to a lack of support from the administration.
As Naytowhow continued his search for fulfillment and self, he drifted from job to job, moving from the North to the South, to the further north (NWT) and then back again, trying to fit into the protestant work ethic of 9 to 5 work: “There was something about my experience at residential school that affected my ability to, not so much retain jobs, but stay in a job for any longer than two years. For some reason it was the limit of my mind and body. So I would move; I would want to move: miskâsowin (finding oneself), and opapâpâmacihôs, (moving about in life), that searching for oneself. I wasn’t really fulfilled in the position I was doing. So I would just resign and take off.”

Having children made life a more serious affair and Naytowhow did what he could as a parent to try to maintain stability. He says, “I started being a father and looking after my kids as much as I could within the kind of terrible child rearing that I got through residential school. Some was good, you know; it wasn’t all bad, but it was basically being parented by surrogate parents who didn’t—who couldn’t really take the time to train you to be a young man, a responsible young male, or human being. They just didn’t have time. There was no way they could raise me like a son. So I was trying to raise my own kids from a place of no parenting skills, not learning how to be intimate, not even knowing if I could maintain a job. …. But all along, I really was not feeling fulfilled as a human being, as a male, as a man. I wasn’t being all that society requires for one’s life to be in harmony and in balance, like having the 9 to 5 job, or having a steady income. It happened but it didn’t really make any sense to me.”

What did make sense, what always made sense to Naytowhow, was culture and ceremony: “Singing with the elders or praying with the elders, that was what made sense to me, of anything I was experiencing. The Canadian culture, the protestant work ethic, just didn’t make any sense to me.”

All through his healing journey, Naytowhow was developing an awareness of his Indigenous roots, what he had left behind at the age of 6, the lost memories of loving relationships and experiences with family members and his community. It started first with a realization in his 20s that he was Indigenous (not Canadian as he had been taught), and then the gradual addition of Indigenous culture and ceremony to his life.

While attending the University of Regina, Naytowhow picked up a drum for the first time: “I had a strong urge to go to the drum. I never looked back, ever since I hit that drum.” A visiting visual arts professor from the state of Washington, Leroy of the Yakama tribe, and a colleague, Tim of the Umatilla tribe, introduced him to the drum: “From there,” Naytowhow says, “I went into powwow, into the Sundance, into all the other ceremonies connected through a drum. The drum moved me into the sacred music and songs, and that totally made sense for me to do.”

Naytowhow explains: “My soul was calling out, was being called out, to the elders and ceremonies; that was where I was supposed to be; that was supposed to happen, and I absolutely totally trusted that intuitively.”

“The gifts of music and song and stories that I got from the elders, those were the most critical and most important [awards] that I needed to keep this being alive on this planet. Cause when you’ve gone through residential school, you’ve got extreme trauma that you have to deal with and its always going to be there. Even to this day I still experience pockets of anger and depression and just dark holes that I can’t make sense of, but those stories, or ceremonies, or laughter, anything to do with that, I just had to be there, I had to go there.”

The wisdom of age and experience has given Naytowhow the understanding that “what went wrong, when I went into the colonization culture, was that I tried to be a part of it 100%. I just had to be in and out of it. Had to find short term work and depend on that. That’s probably why I became more a musician and storyteller, became an artist. It was far more flexible and fulfilling as a singer, as someone fascinated by story and fascinated by culture, and I slowly got into acting. For me, I could live there.”

The first time Naytowhow began to consider himself a practicing artist was when he started a residency in Meadow Lake as a storyteller, between 1995 and 2000. He then thought, “Ok, now I can make a living being an artist, being a musician, putting out an album now and then, travelling to storytelling festivals, to music festivals.” His healing journey became the source, he says, “whereby my art practice would flourish and my cultural and spiritual practice. Healing was more a spiritual and cultural journey, more that part, and the art kind of came out of it as a result.”

The Saskatchewan Arts Board Award came with $6000, which is something Naytowhow really appreciates because it allows him to focus on his art: “As an artist, I just need to do the art. But I can’t do it when I’m doing presentations in different areas and being pulled all over. What I need is just some financial support to pay bills and pay my rent. And then I can do songwriting…the things that I do anyway, but I’ve never really been focused as an artist.”

Naytowhow’s healing journey, reconnecting with Indigenous culture and ceremony, and expressed through the arts and education, keeps him connected to both worlds. His presentations begin with Cree concepts, and he relies on the wisdom of the old people to guide him as he educates students. The balance and harmony he has found reflects his Indigenous name, which means “guided by the spirit of the day.”

By Shuana Niessen

President’s Distinguished Graduate Student Award Recipient

President Vianne Timmons and Sylvia Smith at fall 2017 convocation. Photo credit: U of R Photography

Sylvia Smith, Founder of Project of Heart, received the President’s Distinguished Graduate Student Award at the fall 2017 convocation. This award recognizes outstanding academic performance and is granted to a student whose graduating thesis, exhibition, or performance and the corresponding defense was deemed meritorious by the examining committee.

In an earlier issue of Education News, Sylvia discussed the obstacles she had faced that had delayed the completion of her Master’s degree. She had started her degree in 2011 and was interested in finding out about teachers’ perceptions of Project of Heart, an inquiry-based learning project that examines the history and legacy of Indian residential schools in Canada and commemorates the lives of former students who died while attending Indian residential schools. The project had grown out of students’ demands for more information on this neglected aspect of Canadian history. Sylvia had finished interviewing her participants when, she says, “we had an illness in the family and I became very over-stressed. My work suffered.” Sylvia had to put her thesis work on hold, and by the time she came back to it, Sylvia said, “the landscape had changed so much. When I’d started, materials on Indian residential schools were almost nil…And Project of Heart had grown exponentially!” Her initial vision which was to be a “snapshot in time” had become much more, and she had to face the challenge of figuring out how it would all come together.

Not only did she work through these challenges, Sylvia was the recipient of this prestigious award.

Sylvia says it feels great to be finished. “I can’t believe it’s actually finished. I’ve never really thought of myself as an academic and certainly, with ‘life’ intruding the way it tends to, I never thought I would finish the darned thing. I’m just so lucky to have had a wonderfully supportive spouse and thesis committee (Dr. Carol Schick actually came out of retirement to help out) because they certainly didn’t have to do what they did.”

What excites her about her thesis, Sylvia says, “is that my findings have already been referenced to support work being done around reconciliation and the necessity of teaching *for* justice and more practically, *doing* it.”

Sylvia’s master’s thesis is called: Teachers’ Perceptions of Project of Heart, An Indian Residential School Education Project


The purpose of this study was to gain insight into how settler teachers took up an arts and activist-based Indian Residential School Commemoration Project called Project of Heart. More specifically, it sought to assess whether or not the research participants were led to transformation, demonstrated through disrupting “common sense” (racist) behaviours of teachers and students as well as through their engagement in social justice work that Project of Heart espouses.

Since 2007, Ontario school boards have been required by Ministry policy to teach the “Aboriginal Perspective” in their high school courses, yet at the time of the study (2010), there were still very few resources available for educators to do so. There were even fewer resources available to teach about the Indian Residential School era. Project of Heart was created by an Ontario teacher and her students in 2007 in order to address this egregious situation.

The study was guided by grounded theory methods and the findings suggest that while Project of Heart did not achieve “transformation” in its participants as assessed through teachers’ lack of completion of the social justice requirement, teachers indicated that both students and teachers benefited greatly because of the relevance of the learning.

Defended: April 2017

Thesis Committee

Supervisor: Dr. Marc Spooner
External Examiner:
Dr. Cindy Blackstock, Executive Director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada and professor for the School of Social Work at McGill University
Thesis committee members:
Dr. Ken Montgomery, University of Windsor, Dean, Faculty of Education and Dr. Carol Schick, former Canada Research Chair in Social Justice and Aboriginal Education

Read more about Sylvia and the Project of Heart here:


Dave Nevill’s Sweat Lodge Experience

Dave Nevill

The following story was written by Dave Nevill (a career counsellor at Ituna School in the Horizon School Division and an Education graduate student) as a requirement for Dr. JoLee Sasakamoose’s Educational Psychology 824 course.  He entitled it, “First Nations Group Therapy: A Sweat Lodge Experience.” This story was submitted to Education News by Dr. JoLee Sasakamoose.

As the last vestiges of light shrunk from sight at the far side of the lodge, I could feel the warm embrace of shared humanity with the confines of the small, cramped space. As a relative newcomer to this ceremony and healing center, I was welcomed into the congregation; I did not feel alien, awkward, or foreign. The pitch darkness and intense heat surrounded me in its urgent grip and I began to feel a connection to something larger than myself, a sense of community, a healing presence, and an association with the wisdom of the Creator. I was drawn into the spiritual ritual as one of them as if in answer to the bundle of prayers and expressed gratitude echoing throughout the dark lodge. As the day drew closer that I would attend the sweat lodge at the First Nations Healing Center in Fort Qu’Appelle, my apprehension grew. This was not going to be my first sweat either. Having experienced four previous sweats fifteen years earlier at Muskeg First Nation Reserve, I had a very good idea what to expect. However, I was attending this sweat in a different community, with people I had never met, in a ceremony that I didn’t fully understand, in a situation definitely outside my comfort zone. As I later realized, this sweat proved to introduce me to a larger experience than I had previously been exposed to.

To alleviate my anxiety somewhat, I chose to call the Healing Hospital a couple of days before and find out the protocols for the event. I found out the location, time, and materials needed. I picked up a bag of oranges for my offering to the feast after the event and a carton of cigarettes for a deeper prayer offering during the ceremony. I didn’t know how to offer any of these items to the ritual, so some things would have to be left to learning on the spot. Upon my arrival prior to the event, I was met by Darla and Char who were also participating; they had found out where the sweat would take place and I followed them to the building, talking a little apprehensively. Several First Nations men were lounging casually outside the building and they eyed us curiously as we walked up. They responded to our approach with a friendly and welcoming demeanor, soon to be followed by introductions, handshakes, and some good-natured ribbing. I settled in to wait with them as my two companions entered the building to join the other women. The fire heating up the rocks crackled nearby.

I sat beside a man who turned out to be their spiritual elder, or knowledge keeper as he preferred to be called. After conversing for a while, he sensed that I was sensitive and somewhat knowledgeable about First Nation’s issues and he expressed his feelings about living conditions and treatment within Canada as our election approached. He was shocked that I had been relatively ignorant of residential school issues and abuse up to about two years ago; I suggested the white man wrote the history books to suit themselves.

The ceremony started with a sweet grass cleansing of ourselves and our prayer offerings. As I was unfamiliar with the proceedings, the knowledge keeper told me to do everything his buddy did and I would be okay; I watched him closely anyway for guidance to make sure I didn’t mess something up with the ceremony. I was surprised when the pipe was passed around the circle of men and it was given to me to participate. Maybe I was given the honor of smoking the pipe as I was making a tobacco offering for a prayer and this was the way for the smoke to carry my prayers to the Creator, according to their traditions. Never having smoked a piper before, I did the best I could and passed it on. Several of the men handled the pipe in a particular way after smoking it as if in prayer to the Creator.

A clipboard was passed around which we were all asked to sign and indicate our reasons for attending the sweat. Most people chose spiritual and ceremonial from the list including emotional, mental, physical and social realms. I went with the crowd and chose those as well, even though I would have liked to pick emotional and mental. At this stage of unfamiliarity, I didn’t want to stray too far from the norm and I didn’t necessarily come to the sweat to gain clarity on any personal issues. After the knowledge keeper did extensive prayers for several of the other men and women, he called me over and asked me what type of prayer I was looking for. Not sure I myself, I hesitated. He helped me out by suggesting a prayer of thanks and I quickly assented. I knelt by him and he spoke a prayer in Cree for me.

The first round of the sweat soon followed the prayers. After removing my shirt, I crawled into the far side of the sweat lodge in just my shorts and a towel over my neck, beside the knowledge keeper as he indicated. The lodge was about four feet high and encompassed half the room, in a circular shape, and was covered with an extensive layer of blankets. I waited in silent anticipation as the rest of the group of men came inside and some of the hot, glowing rocks from the fire were gently placed in the center container of the lodge. I could feel the heat they generated in the small space. Each rock was sprinkled with sweet grass to cleanse it as it was dropped into the pot. The women and children were the last to crawl into the cramped lodge and the blankets then were draped over the door. Pitch darkness descended over the small space and congregation, except for a faint glow from the rocks. The sweat ceremony was about to begin.

The knowledge keeper started the round by offering prayers for various members of the group, including the family, which sponsored the event and were attending. After each offered prayer, he would splash some water on the hot rocks in the center. There was a slight pause before the heat enveloped the others and me. A murmur of assent rose from the room in answer to the prayers, splashes and heat. He gave thanks to the Creator for answering their prayers and started singing in Cree. We were all asked to pray in our own way as part of the ceremony. Several songs and prayers followed the first, accompanied by more splashes and waves of heat. I remained quiet throughout the first round and just became a part of the group process. After about ten minutes, a call was made to open the doors and many people exited the lodge for a break from the heat. I remained in the lodge and just relaxed.

Subsequent rounds were led by different people, including one of the elder women, whom the men suggested would make it a very hot round. They all followed the same process, prayers, and offers of gratitude to the Creator, splashes and waves of heat. The heat became more intense in the later rounds and I was forced several times towards the end of the round to cover my head, shoulders and mouth to deal with the intense heat. I even tried to participate in the singing on the fourth round as I felt a part of the communal ritual. I’m sure I butchered the song but felt good about it anyway. I exited the lodge with many of the others at the end of the second, third and fourth rounds too as I needed a break from the heat as well. I would crawl back into the lodge with the other men as more glowing rocks were brought in and deposited in the middle container. Comments were made when a particular big rock was deposited; that was going to send off some real steam.

I was struck and awed by the perceived power of prayer that was deeply felt by the participants in the sweat. They truly believed that the Creator would intervene in their everyday lives if the right prayers were offered to him through this ritual sweat. The power of this belief had helped many members of the congregation overcome personal hardships, stress, and illness. I was also deeply impressed by the sense of community that pervaded the scene; these people were not alone. They were surrounded by their communal family who, by participating in the ritual with them, would support them to overcome their trials and become whole again.

This shared experience was evident in their conversations after each round, a certain kinship with each other: They were a part of something that made them whole as individuals. It was an experience of shared hardship, of a mutual connection through an activity that required some courage, mental fortitude, and physical endurance. Char mentioned afterward that she had birthed two children and that knowledge alone helped her endure the most difficult parts of the experience.

In a sense, the sweat lodge can become a powerful healing agent for any nation and any individual who is willing to participate in the collective experience and gain support and encouragement from family, friends, community and the Creator, through a sacred ritual that pulls participants outside their comfort zone. This type of communal belonging is obviously very special to these First Nation’s people. It speaks to who they are as a people; it is part of their identity. Many kids were at the sweat and it was obviously extremely important that the essence of the ritual be passed on to the children of the community. Three generations were represented in this lodge experience. One might think that maybe they would want to keep that ‘specialness’ to themselves to avoid contamination. But they don’t, and that is a truly amazing feature of these people.

I have been part of the Catholic community for many years as a non-believer and never once have I felt the same sense of belonging and openness to the heart of their ceremonies as I felt in my first sweat lodge in the Fort Qu’Appelle community. They opened up their ceremony to three outsiders with open arms and wrapped us up in their communal embrace like we were one of them. Granted, there were some suspicious glances from some, which you can hardly blame them for, considering what the white man has done to them and how they continue to be treated. There are some sexist aspects to the ceremony that some women would object to. Women had to cover their legs, were only allowed in the sweat after the men and couldn’t participate in the pipe ceremony.♠ But the First Nations people are truly forgiving and generous in that they invite us outsiders to participate with them in one of their most sacred rituals as if three hundred years of history is suspended for the moment. If I can feel the power of this group embrace, one who is not a believer and not a member of their community, what could this do for someone who is one of them and is a believer?

For counseling, the therapeutic benefits are palpable, especially for First Nations children and adults who can identify with the shared belief structure. The collective embrace of the community surrounding an individual in need, and drawing them into their collective, would have a very powerful healing and supportive component. I witnessed the power of the community in my initial sweat experience with them and that communal embrace is the key. I have a sauna at home, and a sweat without the community is just a good sweat. I could see the benefit for voluntary participation of any aged individuals who are experiencing grief, depression, anxiety, addiction or a crisis in their lives, particularly those individuals where community support and kinship is more important than personal disclosure and in-depth counseling.

I made an attempt to participate in the fifth cowboy round and as soon as I heard the huge splashes of water dumped on the rocks, I knew that this was a mistake. I crawled from the lodge under the blankets, gasping for air, desperately trying to cover my burning skin. Several of the others did the same. We had a good laugh over it. Another shared experience to talk about if I ever go back. Maybe it will give them something to talk about in successive sweats as well, the white guy who thought he could hack a cowboy round. Maybe they will have a good laugh over it, which surely can’t hurt. Following the sweat, there were several prayers over the food for the feast and then we all sat in a circle and dug in. The kids brought me food: vegetable and berry soup, bannock, cake, candy, drinks and fruit—a virtual never-ending banquet. They kept bringing it as fast as I ate it. I had to stop them and even take some of it home. One of the members joked that I wouldn’t need a midnight snack tonight, which was so true.

As I rose to leave, I gratefully acknowledged their generosity with handshakes all round to the men and thanks to the women. The knowledge keeper told me I should attend their “all men” sweat on Monday. I could continue with this communal experience if I wanted to. I traveled home in my soaking wet shorts and burned shoulders, content in my shared community experience and alignment with the Creator. Maybe I will go back on Monday…


♠Professor Note: The sexist aspects are really defined through a Western perspective and have that appearance when done so.  However, when one is taught the teachings of the power of women and their role, it isn’t sexism – more that our role is different.  However these teachings take a long time to learn and to understand.