Meet Murray Simpson. He's a young man from Camrose with a jolly face, twinkling eyes and a smile that beams like a small sun.
He's also a recovering cocaine addict.
"I was in with the wrong crowd," he says, and started doing drugs to fit in. "I thought they'd like me because of the drugs I had." Eventually, he started selling them too.
After a few stints in jail, the judge directed him to come here to Poundmaker's Lodge in St. Albert. "I wanted to get out of that lifestyle," he says, so he gave it a shot.
What he got was a chance to find his spirit. In between classes on health and life skills at the lodge over the last few months, Simpson has helped run and participate in the sweat — an ancient aboriginal ceremony traditionally used for healing.
And from the looks of it, Simpson has come through it a new man. "I don't remember smiling like this since I've been a kid," he says, beaming. "It's helped me so much. It's changed me."
Guiding him on this journey is Arsene Arcand, resident elder at Poundmaker's and the hereditary chief of Alexander First Nation. A gentle, soft-spoken man, he says he can remember doing sweats with his father since 1947.
The sweat is a sacred rite passed down from the grandfathers and the spirits, he explains, one only a chosen few elders may perform. "Anything you do in spirituality, you have to earn." Like many elders, he is reserved when it comes to speaking about the sweat, and does not allow photos of it.
Sweat lodges have been used around the world for thousands of years, writes historian Joseph Bruchac. Heat and sweat are thought to flush out toxins and kill disease, and have long been used by aboriginals to treat illness.
Sweats were used for many purposes in the old days, says James Dempsey, professor of native studies at the University of Alberta: healing, divination, victory in battle and more. Nowadays, it's usually used for spiritual and cleansing purposes.
Poundmaker's uses sweats as part of its addictions treatment program, says counsellor Randy Keeshig-Macleod. "When you meet with people who have addictions, they are out of balance." Poor health and emotional development have given them skewed priorities that emphasize drug use over everything else.
Spirituality is instrumental to a person's recovery, he says. "Without being spiritual, they're no longer connected to people, places or things…[they] don't feel the basic needs of a human being, like to love or be loved."
Ceremonies like the sweat give people real physical experiences — heat, sound and smoke — they can use to ground themselves in reality, Keeshig-Macleod says. "It's an extremely powerful and effective spiritual tool."
Return to Mother Earth
The sweat starts with the construction of the lodge. Arcand and his assistants go into the woods and harvest 16 to 24 flexible diamond willows. "Mother Earth gave us a lot of things," he says, so before harvesting each tree, they show thanks with a prayer and an offering of tobacco.
They gather about 36 fist-sized stones in a similar fashion. These are called "grandfather rocks," Arcand explains, as our ancestors left them here for us to use.
Arcand and his team tie the willows into a dome and cover it with tarps and skins. Its shape resembles a mother's womb. "We stay in there for nine months, and it's nice and warm," he says. People crawl back into this womb to ask for help, and are symbolically reborn when they leave.
Outside the lodge, fire-keepers like Simpson build a pyramid of logs around the rocks and set it alight. The heat is "insane," he says — hot enough to singe his hair from three feet away.
After about two hours, the stones, fiery orange with heat, are brought into the lodge with a shovel. The first six stones, which represent the Creator, Mother Earth, and the four directions, are smudged, or blessed, with smoke before being placed into the pit in the centre of the lodge. The rest are added as the sweat progresses.
Arcand gives his charges some advice before they enter the sweat. "The Creator will always give us a second chance," he says. "Today, it is up to us how we're going to focus to ask for what we need." He then offers a short prayer in Cree before inviting the men and women into the lodge.
Change at the heart of the universe
Arcand orders the entry flap closed, plunging the lodge into total darkness — it's as if you've stepped into the heart of the universe. He wets a bundle of spruce branches and splashes the rocks.
The sound is that of a roar of flame and a crash of waves. Steam erupts from the pit, along with a smothering, choking heat. Steam's gentle fingers tickle past your ears and wrap you in a suffocating shroud of warmth. Rivers of sweat pour down your skin moments later.
Arcand sings songs of prayer throughout the next two hours while shaking a rattle to ward off evil, splashing the rocks four times between each song. The heat grows stronger with every splash. Some clients duck out early, steam pouring off their exhausted bodies. Others sit it out. A few report visions — a white wolf, the brush of an eagle's wing, and other sights too personal to share.
Clients are encouraged to pray and reflect on themselves as this happens. "If you have something that you're seeking an answer to," Keeshig-Macleod says, "you can ask yourself and you'll get an answer."
The healing addicts need ultimately comes from within, he says. "They save their own lives."
John, a 41-year-old client at Poundmaker's, says he decided to save himself when he came to the centre this year.
A father of two from Edmonton, John (not his real name) says he's been through five treatment centres in his struggle with cocaine addiction and bipolar disorder. He kept clean once for 26 months, but got hooked again when a woman asked him for some drugs. Soon he was dealing and using again, and on the verge of losing his home.
"Somewhere along the line, we addicts have to make a decision if we're going to live or die," he says. "I chose to live."
He put himself through detox and came to the centre. He'd had a taste of life without drugs, and was determined to kick the habit for good.
A former Sunday school teacher, John says he'd become disillusioned with organized religion. "I had the attitude that if there was a God out there, he wouldn't put one man through so much hell."
He says his spiritual lessons and the sweat changed his mind. "It's given me a whole different side of things I didn't see." It's what was missing from his previous treatments: the idea that something was watching over him that he could talk with. "It's believing in something that's bigger than me."
The sweat is a starting point, Keeshig-Macleod emphasizes, not a panacea. It helps you feel connected with others, and from there you can re-learn concepts like cleanliness, nutrition and self-esteem. Full recovery can take years. "If a person drank for 15 years, it's going to take them 15 years to grow emotionally."
John says he's now been clean for over a month, and is aiming for a year. If he keeps it up, he hopes to see his kids again. "It all hinges on me staying clean. If I don't stay clean, there's no life for me, and no life for my children."
Simpson says he hasn't felt the urge to use in weeks, and is already getting job offers. "I think my life is going to change for the better." He says he plans to come back to Poundmaker's for sweats in the future.