On a sunny, snowless November afternoon, students, faculty and administrators gathered at Red River College’s Medicine Wheel grounds to make history at the first on-campus Sweat Lodge ceremony.
In keeping with RRC’s strategic priority to advance Indigenous achievement — by weaving knowledge, philosophy and cultural perspectives into programming content and campus culture — the new Sweat Lodge facility, including fire pits and change rooms, marks the first step in the College’s ceremonial grounds expansion plan.
“I had a vision in 2004 of having a Sweat Lodge at Red River College available for students and staff, and that vision has now become a reality,” says Elder Jules Lavallee. “It’s a legacy for everyone to enjoy, and will help to heal for years to come. It was an incredible opportunity for staff and students to work together with the same purpose.”
Led by Lavallee and Mae Louise Campbell, RRC’s Elders in Residence, last week’s ceremony saw 17 people making their way into the Lodge for the inaugural sweat.
The structure, which represents the womb of Mother Earth, was made with willow branches collected and prepared in the days prior. Once the branches were in position, they were tied together and the frame was covered with canvas. The structure took approximately three hours to build, and was assembled in conjunction with Sweat Lodge teachings.
“Helping to put together the structure was a learning experience,” says a participating student from RRC’s Introduction to Trades Program. “Being Indigenous myself, it taught me some of the things that I did not know about these lodges and how they are built, and also how much work actually goes into it. It made me feel more connected to my ancestry.”
While the construction and teachings of the Lodge were underway, the Grandfathers and Grandmothers (rocks) were being heated inside the Sacred Fire and watched over by the Fire Keeper. Once the Grandfathers and Grandmothers were ready, everyone entered the Lodge for the first time.
Each Sweat Lodge has a different purpose and is overseen by an Elder or spiritual leader who provides teachings and songs throughout the ceremony. Through this unique and profoundly personal experience, the body is cleansed — removing stress and improving one’s mental, emotional physical, and spiritual well-being. Such ceremonies are used to give thanks, to heal, to seek wisdom and to purify the mind, body and soul.
“The Sweat Lodge, a vision of Indigenizing Red River College, has been realized to help the success of our students and staff,” says Campbell. “I’m positive we will continue to grow in spirit as a human family seeking unity, equality and understanding, and that this education will provide a more holistic approach for success.”
RRC’s School of Indigenous Education will host a formal launch of the Sweat Lodge to commemorate its official opening during 2017’s Spring Equinox.