Local Indigenous knowledge keeper shares sweat lodge teachings

Disclaimer: There are many different types of sweat lodge ceremonies. This story describes a community sweat where a wide variety of people are invited to participate.

Sweat lodge ceremonies are safe when conducted by an experienced elder or knowledge holder.

Conductors of authentic sweat lodge ceremonies will not charge a fee, but people are asked to donate towards the cost of wood and contribute to the feast when possible.

GOWANSTOWN – A long time ago, the Anishinaabe (Ojibway) People received the gift of the sweat lodge from Misho’mis-i-non’-nig nee-zhwa’-swi (our Seven Grandfathers).

A book written by a spiritual teacher from the Wisconsin Ojibway, Eddie Benton-Banai (baa), titled The Mishomis Book, The Voice of the Ojibway People, describes the Seven Grandfathers as powerful spirits who were given the responsibility by the Creator to watch over the Earth’s people.

For 67 years, from 1884 – 1951, the Indian Act banned ceremonies such as the potlatch, ghost dance, and sun dance. People were arrested, and the government took their ceremonial materials away.

The residential schools, designed to “kill the Indian in the child,” attempted to achieve that goal by teaching the children that their ceremonies were evil, creating generations of people who did not trust their own cultural heritage, and some continue to believe this today.

There were some, however, who continued to learn the teachings and the ceremonies, keeping them hidden and safe until such a time that they could reintroduce them to the people.

As the Original People of Turtle Island begin to learn, some describe this “learning” of their ways as “picking up their bundle,” and travelling once more on the “red road or path,” they are rediscovering the sacredness of the ceremonies and the lessons that can be learned from the teachings.

Knowing the teachings of the Medicine Wheel before learning about the many other teachings that provide guidance and healing to the people is essential.

A medicine wheel is a powerful tool that many people use. There are different interpretations of the medicine wheel, depending on where they received those teachings, and they are all right. No one is wrong.

Zhiiuquot, which translates to Fast Moving Cloud, whose English name is Christin Dennis, lives in Listowel, Ont., and is from Aamjiwnaang First Nation, near Sarnia.

During his healing journey, Dennis has learned much about the teachings of the Anishinaabe. He now shares what he has learned with others.

Dennis works for the Avon Maitland District School Board (AMDSB) as a full-time knowledge keeper who travels around the region to different schools to share his knowledge with the students.

“When I go into the classes, I talk about truth and reconciliation. I talk about the sweat lodge and I also talk about the Medicine Wheel, mostly to try and have people understand that the medicine wheel isn’t just about Indigenous people, it’s actually about the four races,” Dennis said.

The Medicine Wheel is a circle divided into four quadrants or directions. The number four is significant to Indigenous People.

Within the four directions, there are all the sacred teachings of the four. The universe has four directions: north, south, east, and west. There are four seasons: spring, summer, fall, and winter. There are four races: yellow, red, black, and white. There are four types of breathing creatures: those that fly (birds), the four-legged (buffalo), two-legged (man), and those that crawl (insects). There are four elements on earth, wind, fire, water, and air.

The Mishomis Book describes how the gift of the sweat lodge came to the People when a young boy, who was on his first Vision Quest, received the teachings from Misho’mis-i-non’-nig nee-zhwa’-swi (our Seven Grandfathers).

One of the Grandfathers spoke to the boy, saying, “Be-in-di-gayn, (Come in). We have been expecting you. You have been sent to us by Creator to carry a special gift back to your people. It is a ceremony that will purify both the body and the mind.”

Indigenous People have used the sweat lodge ceremony for thousands of years. “Today, it is still used by groups of traditional people who choose to live a natural way of life,” the Mishomis Book said. “The ceremony has kept its original form through the years. Many of the songs used today go back hundreds of years.

“It is good that in spite of all the changes that modern life has brought to Indian people, that there are those who keep strong the gifts of yesterday. For it is with yesterday that we learn for tomorrow.”

Dennis is reaching out to community members in the Huron-Perth region to experience a community sweat lodge he has built just outside of Gowanstown, to share the healing powers of the purification ceremony that not only purifies physically but spiritually, mentally, and emotionally.

He is a qualified and experienced facilitator of the sweat lodge and has been performing the ceremony for over 18 years.

The sweat lodge is heated with stones, called grandfathers and grandmothers, which Dennis described as the stone people.

“We believe in our culture, that when we pass on…the only thing that we take is our spirit and the experience of our experiences here on this place, on this earth, and then whatever wisdom and knowledge that we have left goes into the ground, into the stone people.

“When we go into that sweat lodge, or the purification ceremony or another name is Inípi,” Dennis added, “we’re going back into the womb of the earth mother to be reborn again and to let go of things that are holding us back, maybe to communicate with our ancestors and maybe to communicate with animal spirits or to be open to receiving what the stone people want to share with us.”

A prophecy of olden times says that the four colours of man were placed in the four directions. They were meant to learn their individual gifts from Creator and then come together in modern times to combine their knowledge together.

When asked why he offered the sweat lodge ceremony to everyone, Dennis said, “We’re supposed to. All four nations are our medicine wheel – red, yellow, black, and white. And if we go to our children’s songs and are in church, we always say Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world, red and yellow, black and white; they are precious in his sight. Jesus loves the little children of the world.

“We had the medicine wheel for thousands of years. And we knew about the four races. We knew about the four gifts each race got. And we were told in our prophecies that we would all come together.

Dennis added, “If we ever used those gifts against each other, there would be thousands of years of war, which I believe we’re experiencing now. But there would also be a time when we came to a place of understanding that we need to share these gifts, that there would be thousands of years of peace. And I think we’re at a precipice in this day and age that you know this may happen soon or it might happen within this precipice. The precipice can be 100 years or more. So, I think we’re at the precipice of the balance of scales where it’s going to tip the other way from war to peace.”

Dennis held a sweat lodge ceremony on March 5, where several interested people came to experience their first “sweat.”

Before entering the lodge, Dennis provided instruction, shared teachings, and welcomed them to the sacred space. Outside the lodge, the firekeeper kept the stone people hot in the sacred fire, which were then placed inside the lodge during the ceremony, generally held in four rounds.

Once the stone people are placed in the small hole dug into the centre of the lodge, the door is closed, and the facilitator splashes cedar water on the hot rocks to create steam.

Cedar is one of the four sacred medicines used by Indigenous People.

The four sacred medicines are cedar, sage, sweetgrass, and tobacco.

During the four rounds of sweating, prayers are spoken, songs are sung, thanks are given to the four directions, and Creator and the people can use the time to reflect and heal from any trauma they may have experienced or just to give thanks.

The next sweat lodge ceremony will be held in Gowanstown in mid-April. If you want to learn more about it or wish to attend, you can contact Dennis at sitting1213@gmail.com.

Cory Bilyea, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Wingham Advance Times