EDMONTON (CCN) — The sweat lodge ceremonies of Aboriginal spirituality until now practised only on surrounding reserves will soon have a place within Edmonton’s city limits.
The ground-breaking sweats of Kihciy Askiy, set to open this summer, will be a culturally safe environment for Aboriginal people to heal, learn to pray and learn about creation story teachings from Aboriginal elders.
It will also be a place to learn about and develop their Aboriginal identity.
Kihciy Askiy, which means sacred earth, has been in the works for more than seven years through discussions with the city, elders and the greater Aboriginal community of Edmonton.
Located at the Fox Farms in southwest Edmonton, it is the first time land has been designated for Aboriginal cultural space within the city, said Allen Benson, CEO of Native Counselling Services of Alberta.
Until the advent of Kihciy Askiy, the idea of sweat sites in the city was embraced by neither Aboriginal people nor non-Aboriginal people, he said. Participants preferred to travel or be bused to sweat lodge ceremonies on nearby reserves such as Enoch.
“As Canadians, we’re only beginning to understand the value of ceremonial space and cultural space for Aboriginal people and why dealing with healing and identity is so important to us in dealing with reconciliation and reconciling our past,” he said.
“For Aboriginal people we’re learning to find more accessible ways of reaching out to help our people through our culture, and accepting that modernization and urban ceremonies might be required to help our families that are in need.”
Kihciy Askiy will also provide a window to the world of indigenous culture and spirituality.
“It’s land dedicated to provide a safe place for Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people from Edmonton and the capital region to access cultural teachings, cultural knowledge and ceremonies,” said Benson.
Native Counselling Services, one of the city’s largest social justice agencies which has been serving the Aboriginal community for more than 45 years, was chosen to administer Kihciy Askiy two years ago.
One year after the national event of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission took place in Edmonton, the ceremonial site will be a place for reconciliation between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people, said Benson.
For Aboriginal people, reconciliation involves recognizing their past hurts and their differences with Canadians; for non-Aboriginal people, it means reconciling their worldview with that of Aboriginal people.
“I would hope that non-Aboriginal people would see the beauty of our culture — that our ceremonies and our spiritualities and our rituals are not something to be afraid of, but rather something we can embrace and share.
“It’s about building a strong relationship (Wohkotiwin),” said Benson, who is Cree of the First Nations of Treaty 6, from Beaver Lake.
Wohkotiwin is a Cree word whose meaning embodies the rules by which we as human beings should be guided in our relationships.
Acknowledging the diversity of the vast Aboriginal community in the region is one major question the committee organizing Kihciy Askiy will have to confront.
The teachings and types of sweat lodges vary across the First Nations, from Dene, to Stoney, Cree, Blackfoot and other tribes.
“We would have to acknowledge and find cultural compromise,” said Benson.
Issues such as who will use the site, how they will use it, choosing helpers for the site, and accessing band elders will be determined by the grand council of elders.
The grand council will be chosen based on the teachers, ceremonialists and spiritual leaders who have the cultural gifts, who are available and want to participate, and who have been attending grand council meetings.
As Kihciy Askiy will also be open to non-Aboriginal people, the grand council of elders will also determine what ceremonies will take place, who can access them and what protocols are necessary to access sacred ceremonies, said Benson.
The main purpose of Kihciy Askiy will be to help Aboriginal people heal and to help young people embrace the beauty of Aboriginal culture — “to teach young people to be proud Indians, to be proud Aboriginal people,” he said.
A secondary purpose will be to share “our sacred teachings” with non-Aboriginal people in ways that are respectful and do not become “cultural tourism,” he said.
Part of the vision of Kihciy Askiy is to create an opportunity for healthy dialogue with organized religions so their members can learn more about Aboriginal spirituality and rituals, said Benson.
“It’s an opportunity to properly learn and respect our spirituality because it’s long overdue that organized religion recognize Aboriginal spirituality as a valid spirituality,” he said.
While more and more Christian churches are integrating Aboriginal spirituality, and many Christians in the Aboriginal community are blending their Christian faith with Aboriginal spiritual practices, such integration will likely not happen at Kihciy Askiy, said Benson.
However, the ultimate decision on such integration will be up to the elders, he said.
The city has allotted $2 million to the project which includes tearing down all the buildings on the Fox Farms site, retrofitting the land and preparing it for use. Holes will be dug in the ground for firepits. Other materials to build sweat lodges including coals, wood and storage units will also be supplied.
The site is still in the design stage, with ongoing meetings with elders to move forward into the next stages of development. The committee hopes to schedule an official opening of Kihciy Askiy before the end of the summer.