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Sense of renewal

Emotional journey: Medical students participate in building a sweat lodge

special feature: Indigenization

Part of a special feature chronicling the transformation of the academy through the inclusion of Indigenous knowledge, voices, critiques, scholars, students and materials at Memorial.


By Michelle Osmond

A sweat lodge is considered a sacred place, likened to the womb of Mother Earth.

A domed structure with a frame constructed from large, flexible tree branches, the sweat lodge posts are dug into the ground with tobacco placed under each one.

The branches are bent and intertwined to form the dome. Once the frame is formed, it’s covered in blankets and a tarp to block out the light and hold in the heat. A small, east facing door is created, facing a fire.

Unlike the simplicity of the structure, what happens inside the sweat lodge can be a very powerful experience, as some Faculty of Medicine students discovered.

Promoting cultural sensitivity

Bethany Power and Erin Baker took part in a sweat lodge recently, both for the first time. The two are members of the Indigenous Health Interest Group, a subgroup of the Faculty of Medicine’s Global Health Interest Group.

Faculty of Medicine, Indigenous, students, sweat lodge
Participants worked together to build the sweat lodge, which is made from flexible branches.
Photo: Submitted

The idea came about when Ms. Power met with Dr. Carolyn Sturge Sparkes, the faculty liaison for the group and co-ordinator of the Aboriginal Health Initiative in the faculty. They discussed possible events and activities that would help promote Indigenous culture and cultural sensitivity, as well as knowledge of Indigenous practices.

Dr. Sturge Sparkes put Ms. Power in touch with Dr. Aaron McKim, a former faculty member, who was planning to build a sweat lodge on his property in Portugal Cove-St. Philip’s.

Dr. McKim provided the land, rounded up volunteers, co-ordinated the schedule, acted as the fire keeper and hosted Saqamaw Mi’sel Joe, who brought the poles to build the lodge and lead the sweat.

‘Amazing experience’

The six MD students, who made up half of the group, learned from about different traditional medicines derived from natural resources and the spiritual implications of the sweat from Saqamaw Mi’sel Joe and Dr. McKim.

Building into the night.
Photo: Submitted

Ms. Power and Ms. Baker described the experience as “amazing.”

“I knew the ceremony was meant to be a cleansing or renewal process, but I didn’t expect to feel that as much as I did. I’m not an Indigenous person myself, so I don’t have any connection to the underlying culture and I expected that to influence my experience,” Ms. Baker said.

“However, as the chief explained the meaning behind each part of the ceremony, it was very easy to relate to the themes of the traditions, regardless of cultural background. Like respect for mothers and grandmothers.”

She describes it as a physical, emotional and spiritual ceremony or “a whole self experience.”

“The sweat ceremony is very private and people can get quite emotional,” said Ms. Baker. “The sweat lodge is very much a safe space. For that reason, most of us felt a very strong bond with those participating with us.

“The sweat ceremony is a time to talk or think through things that may be weighing on your mind and because what’s said during the ceremony is confidential, it’s a great bonding experience. That, combined with the heat and the smell of the medicines in the air, made a lot of us feel an incredible sense of renewal leaving the lodge.”

Reconnecting

Ms. Power is from Lourdes, a small town on the Port-au-Port Peninsula. She describes her experience as “eye-opening” and “exhilarating.”

“It was such an amazing experience to share such a personal and spiritual journey with people in the community whereby we reconnected with ourselves and Mother Earth,” she said.

“I felt very connected with the others in the lodge and had a much stronger reaction than I expected. I feel that participating in sweat lodges and striving to learn from Indigenous Peoples is crucial to providing knowledgeable, respectful, culturally sensitive and equitable care. Something as simple as participating in a sweat is a chance to practise humility, learn from others and engage in the community. In addition, it was such a refreshing and mentally strengthening experience. It serves as a means of purifying one’s soul and re-grounding oneself. This was my first, but will certainly not be my last.”

Ms. Power encourages anyone who is curious about sweat lodges or Indigenous traditions and practices to contact Memorial’s Aboriginal Resource Office.


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