Coast Salish sweat-lodge keeper Hwiemtun welcomes all to heal in his ceremonies on the Cowichan Tribes reservation on southern Vancouver Island.
For 40 years, Hwiemtun has been leading prayer and healing rituals in a sweat lodge beside his home. In his dome-shaped sanctuary, remade with fresh willow boughs every spring, participants sit shoulder to shoulder around a pit of steaming lava stones, sharing traumas, hopes and prayers.
More people than ever are seeking transformative sweat-lodge experiences, Hwiemtun says, as they try to heal from the traumas of residential schools, COVID-19 and dramatic changes in the natural environment. He spoke to Katharine Lake Berz.
Katharine Lake Berz: How did you become a sweat lodge healer?
Hwiemtun: As a young man, I followed the black road of drugs and alcohol. I was born into it on the reservation and was immersed in it. I didn’t feel worthy of becoming a healer. But my Lakota uncle Melvin showed me unconditional love, helped me learn to love myself and passed his ceremonial role on to me. The lodge has become my way of life and I haven’t used drugs or alcohol since. I try and help others follow this teaching.
KLB: Can you explain the spirituality of the sweat lodge?
H: Sweat lodges are a ritual and a way of life for many Indigenous peoples. We connect with the Creator through fire, water, smoke and steam. A sweat helps purify and balance the body, mind, spirit and emotions.
Traditionally, Coast Salish people built sweat lodges on the side of a hill. The Lakota lodge tradition was brought to Vancouver Island by elders in the 1960s. Lodges have helped our people heal since contact and they are now gaining popularity across British Columbia.
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KLB: How does a sweat lodge ceremony work?
H: Women and men kneel on opposite sides of the lodge wearing loose-fitting clothes. A cedar fire outside the lodge heats the ceremonial stones and a firekeeper brings in freshly heated stones every 20 minutes. As we feed cedar, sage and tobacco to the stones, I share legends and wisdom from my elders and encourage participants to share their experiences too.
I play my drum and windpipe, pray and sing as the heat and smoke become more and more intense during the three-hour ceremony. Some people can transcend their thoughts and focus on their sense of being. Others are energized or feel closer to the Creator.
Stories and feelings revealed in a sweat lodge remain strictly confidential, but people say that the emotion and lessons shared during a sweat are like no others.
KLB: Are there guidelines for participating in a sweat?
H: Participants are not permitted to consume drugs or alcohol within four days of a sweat ceremony. This helped me with my sobriety years ago and I hope it encourages others to take care of themselves. Women must not participate in a sweat when they are on their moon cycle and are not permitted to sit cross-legged during the ceremony. Everyone must respect the sacred fire and never pass between it and the lodge.
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KLB: Why is the sweat lodge particularly meaningful now?
H: Today’s society has many trials that we need to adapt to. We lament the traumas brought by colonization and the losses of COVID-19. We worry about Mother Earth. We long for peace and tranquility. By devoting to a sweat ceremony, people take time to care for themselves.
Mother Earth and the Creator are calling out to many now. My ancestors’ tradition of speaking with plants and trees is now better understood by white settlers. In the sweat, we rely on traditional plants and medicines and the natural environment of water, smoke and steam to cleanse ourselves. It is a way of humanity showing respect for nature.
KLB: Why do you feel it is important to welcome people from all cultures and religions to participate in the sweat-lodge ceremony?
H: I believe that what makes us human is to be accepting of everybody else. I have had the opportunity to share my tradition with people from many different nationalities. Sharing ceremony, we share spiritual reciprocity. Everyone is a teacher. We share the gratitude of being alive today. And no matter how many difficulties we have, we are not alone.
Katharine Lake Berz is a writer based on Vancouver Island and in Toronto. www.lakeberz.com
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