It’s been more than 70 years since the government abolished a law forbidding traditional Indigenous ceremonies but many are still wary of bringing traditions out of the bush, Lloyd Yellowbird says.
Yellowbird, senior manager of Bent Arrow Healing Lodge, said he felt that way, too, when an Edmonton school built a sweat lodge for students in 2016.
“I was one of those people that were apprehensive because [I thought], ‘people are going to see what we’re doing,'” he said.
Growing up, Yellowbird, a member of Alexander First Nation northwest of Edmonton, said he was taught to keep ceremony private, in part because of old laws forbidding them.
“We took everything underground into the bush and kept it hidden … So when it became legal again we still had that mindset of doing it in secrecy.”
Now he is part of the team working to build the city’s first permanent public sweat lodge. Bent Arrow held a groundbreaking ceremony Wednesday to celebrate the start of construction.
Yellowbird grew up in the city but said he was always able to connect to ceremony thanks to his family and hopes the Bent Arrow facility will offer that same opportunity for other Indigenous people.
“If I wasn’t connected to my culture, I could have easily gone off [doing] drugs and alcohol,” he said.
To support people who are still connecting to their culture, the sweat lodges will always include teachings alongside ceremony, Yellowbird said.
A space behind the lodge will be a teaching and gathering place, where people can spend time eating together and learning.
While it is intended for Indigenous people to use, anyone is welcome to come by, he said, whether they are experiencing it for the first time or the 20th.
Cheryl Whiskeyjack, executive director of Bent Arrow, estimated the sweat lodge could be completed in about eight weeks’ time.
Bent Arrow first began to fundraise for the sweat lodge back in 2020. Delays caused by the pandemic mean that they have only just begun construction.
The sweat lodge, she said, is “about being home” for people, so the team wanted to ensure the site was accommodating for different peoples and different practices so that everyone has the chance to nurture and care for their spirits.
“That sweat lodge resembles mother Earth’s womb and when we go in there we get cleansed and we carry that with us and it grounds us,” Yellowbird said.
“When you live that life of spirituality, it’s a good life.”
While the spiritual benefits are a key aspect of the project, the sweat lodge represents a milestone for the city physically.
The sweat lodge will join the cityscape of mosques, temples and churches which “completes the circle,” according to Whiskeyjack.
At the ceremonial groundbreaking for the structure, Edmonton-Highlands-Norwood MLA Janis Irwin said she believes the community needs the sweat lodge.
“Seeing the young people, the families, people of all ages come together to learn and to be is truly transformational,” Irwin said.
The structure is also a chance to show off some ingenuity in design.
A steel cylinder — which staff call the “rock cooker” — will offer a safe and convenient way to heat up rocks for ceremony.
There are also plans for a healing garden that will beautify the space, although Whiskeyjack said it’s not clear yet what medicines they will plant.
Yellowbird said they get calls regularly from people asking when the sweat lodge will be ready.
“Instead of them driving out of the city, now they can come here and they’re excited about that,” he said.