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Powwow celebrates Poundmaker’s 40th

COLOURFUL TRADITION – Poundmaker's Lodge will host its annual powwow this weekend.

St. Albert’s biggest addictions treatment centre is celebrating its 40th this weekend with a kickoff to the city’s first-ever Indigenous Games.

Poundmaker’s Lodge threw open its doors 40 years ago in Edmonton, and it’s holding a traditional powwow this Aug. 3 and 4 to celebrate.

As part of the powwow, the lodge will also host the opening ceremonies for the Alberta Indigenous Games, which, for the first time ever, are being held in St. Albert.

The powwow has been an annual event at Poundmaker’s ever since it was revived in 2008, and typically draws hundreds of dancers and thousands of guests.

This year’s powwow coincides with the treatment centre’s 40th anniversary, said board chair Don Langford.

“We’re asking the community to come out and help celebrate with us.”

This will be a traditional, non-competition powwow, with plenty of dancers, singers, traditional crafts, kids’ games, face-painting and food, said organizer Libby Szarka. Visitors can also take part in a community engagement survey for a chance to win an iPad.

The grand entry of all the dancers on Aug. 4 will double as the opening ceremonies for the Alberta Indigenous Games, said games organizer Allan Ross. A team of young athletes will run a sacred eagle staff from Edmonton’s Westmount Mall to the powwow grounds in an event similar to the Olympic torch run.

The event is free, Szarka said, and you can even camp out at Poundmaker’s for both days. Everyone is welcome.

Four decades of Poundmaker’s

Poundmaker’s got its start in 1973 when co-founder Eric Shirt came back to Canada from the University of California (Santa Cruz).

“There was rampant alcoholism in native communities,” recalled Shirt, 66, and no treatment programs available targeted at aboriginals.

Using his background as an addictions counsellor, Shirt teamed up with Richard Anthony, then-chair of the Alberta Alcohol and Drug Abuse Commission, to start Poundmaker’s in a four-bedroom house across from Edmonton’s Baker Centre on 106 Street. It was the first aboriginal addictions centre in Canada.

Mere moments after he agreed to set up in the house, Shirt said he spotted an obviously hung-over man walking up the street outside.

“This is a treatment centre,” he asked the man. “You want to check in?”

The man said “OK” and became Poundmaker’s first client.

They started with eight beds, Shirt said, all of which were full by the end of the first day.

“By the next day, everything was operational.”

The lodge moved into the former residential school outside of St. Albert in 1974, said Langford – a move of great symbolic importance, given the building’s roots.

“We have children buried on that site,” he said.

Francis Bad Eagle, the first graduate of Poundmaker’s, organized the centre’s first powwow that year.

The lodge moved into its current building around 1984, where it used a combination of group therapy, smudges, sweats, and the principles of the medicine wheel to treat hundreds of addicts.

Cultural events like the powwow help addicts find strength in themselves as aboriginals, Langford said. “It allows you to have pride in yourself and identify with other people in the same way.”

Poundmaker’s now hosts about 400 clients a year, Langford said, and has facilities on Meadowview Drive and at Lac Ste. Anne. The centre hopes to start a youth treatment program this fall, and to start a non-clinical detox program in the near future.

“Addiction is an illness,” Langford said, one that affects far more than just the addict. Many clients at Poundmaker’s have had their kids taken by social services because of their addictions.

It’s also tough to overcome, he continued.

“Just talk to a smoker.”

While about 72 per cent of Poundmaker’s clients successfully complete their treatment programs, some end up coming back for another round due to a relapse.

Grand entry for the powwow is at 1 p.m. Drugs and alcohol are not allowed on the grounds. Call 780-458-1884 for details.

Kevin Ma: Kevin Ma joined the St. Albert Gazette in 2006. He writes about Sturgeon County, education, the environment, agriculture, science and aboriginal affairs. He also contributes features, photographs and video.