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Thoughts from a Shirtless Man in a Sweat Lodge

I have been wearing glasses all day, every day, for 19 years. I don’t do anything without them, and feel vulnerable when I see the world through my weak, bare eyes. But last week, in Winnipeg, I didn’t need my glasses to see where my work was going on the Canada Beyond 150 project.

My team and I were recently in Winnipeg, for the mid-project meeting and stakeholder interviews. Our group works on the theme of reconciliation. As part of our learning experience, we participated in a sweat lodge ceremony that was hosted by the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation (NCTR). Kevin, from the NCTR (located on the University of Manitoba campus), made us feel at ease, and taught us about the centre; its mission, members, and the facility. There, I had my very first smudging, to cleanse the mind and prepare me for the conversations we were about to have with each other and our hosts. The dried sage was lit and extinguished, and my hands guided the smoke over my head, face, heart, and body.

This Bentwood Box, which was carried around everywhere the Truth and Reconciliation Commission went. It held offerings, stories, and even the used tissues of people who shared their personal journeys towards healing and reconciliation. The contents of the box were burned in the sacred fire outside of the NCTR’s head office, which took months to do. The box itself was repatriated recently from the Human Rights Museum, and sits in the meeting room that received us at the NCTR.

We then drove out into a snow-covered field, in Manitoban -25 ℃ weather to find a big fire and a portable double car shelter where we could change into cotton dresses (for the ladies) and shorts (for the gents). And, I had to remove my glasses.

All 21 of us crawled into a 10 ft x 4 ft domed lodge, with a centre pit containing red lava grandfathers (stones). Our ceremony guides Michael, Lionel, Don, and Virginia led our four rounds of prayer. Before we began, we smoked tobacco and learned about the meaning of the lodge structure and the forked branches surrounding the stones. Sweet grass, that gave the lodge its fragrance, was used to bless each grandfather. Before the first prayers began, we closed the flap and the lodge went completely black, except for the glow of the grandfathers and the dancing sparks from the dried sweet grass thrown on the pile. I remember my blurred vision creating beautiful glowing circles from the sparks of burning medicines.

As the prayers began, I did my best to cope with the heat, focus on the intentions I had placed during the tobacco offering I had brought, and participate in the prayer songs. But the sweat lodge, if you’ve never been, is really very hot, especially with new red lava rocks brought for each round (there were four rounds, each consisting of four prayers).

The experience was powerful. I am grateful for Virginia, Michael, Don, and Lionel for sharing their personal stories, and really appreciated talking with our fire keepers Jude and Nick. Our hosts were generous, open, and willing to share their culture and stories. In that lodge, I didn’t need my glasses to see that, for me, the journey of reconciliation was about the importance of connecting with other people on a personal level. To engage with others, we need to be comfortable sharing our personal stories.


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