Efforts underway to see Indigenous ceremonies deemed essential service in Sask.

·6 min read

Indigenous ceremony is not classified as an essential service. This is creating problems for those who wish to attend ceremonies during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Andre Bear is trying to change that, for people today and for future generations.

The idea to get ceremony recognized as an essential service started brewing in the spring, when the RCMP were called to attend a sun dance ceremony that was allegedly violating public health orders around gathering.

Bear said the sun dance is one of the most spiritually integral gatherings for many of the Indigenous cultures in Saskatchewan and the communities that host them are bound to do so through their own legal systems.

With the winter months approaching, Bear said ceremonies that happen on a more frequent basis, sweat lodges and night lodges, are coming under fire.

Lodge keepers are coming under fire for hosting ceremonies, he said, and in some cases they are being punished and ostracized by their communities for hosting gatherings.

Bear himself said he's had to hide in trunks of cars to get to ceremonies on other reserves.

He acknowledged that every reserve has a right to protect themselves from COVID-19, but said he wished ceremonial practices weren't attacked in the process.

Bear didn't want to argue about whether ceremony should be accessible to Indigenous people the same way other places of worship were. He said ceremony is part of Indigenous people's traditional health-care system.

"It's no different from telling somebody they can't go to a hospital or they can't go to their psychologist for mental health resources, or they can't go to their pharmacist," Bear said.

"To me, that's the epitome of this conversation. There's those who see our ceremonies as equivalent to the western medical system in terms of hospitals, psychologists, pharmacists and those that don't."

He said in order to respect those who view ceremony as traditional health care, it needs to be deemed an essential service.

Bear said he wasn't trying to strong-arm those who didn't want to participate in ceremonies out of medical or safety concerns into participating, but said allowing them to exist would address the divide he sees growing in communities around ceremonies.

Ceremonies continue

Ceremony is still happening, he said, but it's being done in a safe fashion.

"We are a valid health-care system in that we are treating people for their medical needs, however we are still very vigilant and aware of the virus," Bear said.

"We receive direction from our elders, our leaders, our spiritual advisors that safety comes first."

Bear said his own lodge now features a hand sanitizing station, masks are distributed, gathering sizes are limited — including people from out of province not being allowed to attend for the time being — and contact tracing measures are in place.

He said when a sweat lodge is hosted, it's done so at a family's request and efforts are made to keep the ceremony small.

Bear said the safety measures mean that some people are turned away and are denied access to their traditional medicines.

The result can be damaging, he said, but not being allowed to host ceremonies at all would be more damaging to people and practices alike.

But when people do attend, Bear said they feel like they need to sneak around and constantly wonder if the gathering will be broken up, or fines will be issued.

Gaylene Anaquod, the File Hills Tribal Council pandemic lead, said the tribal council is still supporting and distributing medicines to those who request them for ceremony.

Anaquod said medicine people and knowledge keepers within the tribal council continued to encourage people to keep their faith and ceremonial practices through the pandemic in ways that reduced the risk of exposure.

She said the tribal council met with spiritual leaders for guidance around how to move forward as provincial measures began to take shape.

As COVID-19 cases began rising again in the fall, particularly in the Regina and Fort Qu'appelle regions, Anaquod said those conversations continued in an effort to find balance.

She said many communities have restricted access to anyone who isn't a community member. As a result, she said many ceremonies that are taking place only involve locals.

Shades of the past

Bear said outright bans on ceremony, due to gathering size restrictions, harken back to a time not so long ago, when Indigenous ceremony was completely illegal.

He said being told he shouldn't be attending or hosting ceremonies by someone in his community or personal network is an upsetting and angering experience.

It tells him there's a belief that traditional medicines and practices are inferior to western practices, even within the Indigenous community.

"To me it's a major lack of understanding due to violent settler colonialism, due to the Indian residential schools, and that is why we aren't able to comprehend traditional medical practices as something that is essential anymore," Bear said.

Anaquod said that early in the pandemic, when the tribal council saw communities trying to enforce public health orders, the council engaged the RCMP in a discussion around ceremonies and customs that exist in the communities it serves.

Ceremony, she said, is a huge component of offering people a well-rounded sense of self and spiritual, emotional or mental healing. The pandemic has taken a toll on a lot of individuals, she said.

"A lot of people rely on the cultural, the spiritual side of it to help balance and calm them and to help bring that spiritual healing back to them, especially during times like this," Anaquod said.

Education still required

Bear said he plans to take this matter to the federal government, which he felt would support his efforts, and to the provincial government, which is responsible for the public health orders.

But first, he said, he wants to form a committee representing elders, spiritual leaders and community members in Saskatchewan so they can voice their opinions on the matter.

He said he then wants to take the idea to chief and council members in the province before moving ahead and addressing the matter federally and provincially.

He acknowledged that while it seems like a simple task to add a line to the existing health orders to exclude ceremonies, part of the battle lies in educating all parties and the public on how Indigenous people's traditional practises constitute a healthcare system.

With the COVID-19 health orders in place, now is as good a time as any in Bear's eyes to open that discussion.

Bear noted elders have told him COVID-19 could be just the first wave of pandemics that spreads globally and ensuring ceremonies are protected now means they will be for future generations, too.

"[Traditional medicine] is just as valid as western health care and I don't think we're far off now as a society to deem it as such," Bear said.

"I think that we're getting closer to upholding traditional health-care practices the same way that we uphold western medicine and hospitals and all of those important things."