A youth healing retreat in Eastmain opened a powerful gateway to traditional teachings and ceremonies August 30 to September 2. Nearly 200 Cree youth aged primarily between 13 and 35 came from across Eeyou Istchee to this inaugural event organized by the Cree Health Board’s Nishiiyuu Miyupimaatisiiun department.
“The idea first came partly from a dream,” shared CHB chairperson Bertie Wapachee. “I saw a gathering. My wife kept pushing me during the pandemic to do something for mental health. What if we introduced an alternative to healing for our young people using traditional methods?”
Symbolizing the four directions, the four-day event began with a sacred fire and featured sweat lodges, sunrise and naming ceremonies, one-on-one sessions and traditional medicine teachings. Attendees slept in 10 teepees and at breakfast gatherings each morning, one of the traditional healers would share teachings.
“I think it was the first time we saw all those traditional healers in one place,” Wapachee told the Nation. “One of our Elders who knows a lot about traditional medicine was able to counsel youth about different conditions, what they could do to change their diet. Some experienced things they never thought they would.”
While the CHB offers mental health services found in other parts of the country, Wapachee has personal experience that the unique spiritual guidance found in the Cree culture can provide an important pathway to healthier living that can help overcome trauma and addictions.
“When I was 22, I had my first experience with ceremony,” recalled Wapachee. “Growing up, I was taught that they were just used to put a curse on families. When I first saw the sunrise ceremony, it heightened my curiosity and drew me in. In a sweat-lodge ceremony, something woke up for me and I decided to never turn back.”
Although Wapachee believes the lingering influence of Christian missionaries creates a stigma around ceremonies for some Crees, he’s determined to expand traditional healing methods at the CHB while emphasizing they’re not trying to “recruit or assimilate” anyone. He asserted that ceremonies are a place you can’t lie to yourself or others, making them a potent force for breaking destructive cycles.
Among the 15 traditional healers at the retreat were six couples and special guests David and Sheryl Blacksmith from Pimicikamak Cree Nation, near Winnipeg. Before the participants arrived, the coordinating committee arranged a schedule with the healers to ensure there was always somebody available for one-on-one sessions.
“One of the highlights was creating space for the youth to share their stories, because we’re all feeling the effects of intergenerational trauma,” said Lisa Petagumskum, interim assistant executive director for Nishiyuu Miyupimaatisiiun. “To create spaces for them to identify which areas of their life they want to work on. It’s a blessing to do that for them, to hear their stories.”
Nishiiyuu’s mandate is to uphold traditional pathways to healing, including through ceremonies. Local Nishiiyuu staff collaborated with Youth Chiefs to help identify participants, resulting in attendance from eight communities. Intense planning and implementation happened throughout the summer, arranging the teepees, firewood and delicious meals.
“There was more in-depth discussion on the teachings of the different ceremonies,” Petagumskum explained. “They also had fun games like Cree softball – you only have two bases, almost like mousey-mousey but with a ball, you have to catch the other one. We feel for the first event it was a success. We’ve asked the youth to identify how we could make it even better for next year.”
While participants generally hid behind hoodies and masks at the beginning, organizers were delighted to see how they opened up throughout the week, asking tough questions of the traditional healers and learning how to make traditional medicines that can remedy addiction withdrawal symptoms.
“At the beginning of the retreat, one youth wanted to go home,” shared Diane George, Nishiiyuu coordinator of complementary services. “By Friday evening she was crying because she didn’t want to go home. She said, ‘This is the first time I can feel part of something, the first time I can feel my own feelings.’ She had numbed her pain for so long.”
Ceremonies are a big part of life for George, who coordinated the event with colleague Jeremiah Mianscum. She understands the power of these rituals and the importance of making them accessible to Cree youth.
“Many times I look back on my own teenage years, wishing I had this type of help to help me understand who I am as a Cree,” George said. “With these ceremonies, when I started walking in my journey, that’s what saved me, and I know it can help others. Not just youth, but adults too.”
Although most participants were around 30 years old, George remembers a boy who went to the sweat ceremony every day. One afternoon, she saw him enthusiastically running there with his hand drum, which touched her heart imagining him paving the way for future generations.
“One of the biggest highlights of the week was when we had eight shake tents at once,” George said. “That was awesome to see and so amazing. There were 180 people who attended – people came from other communities to be there that night. We made history that night. That was the first time it was done in the Cree Nation.”
At the end of the week, participants were presented with gifts along with a last lesson about the traditional purpose of giveaways. All the staff were introduced so that delegates could know where to turn if they ever needed help in the future, providing reassurance that this transformative healing can continue if they want.
If you need healing through the guidance of ancestral teachings, contact your local Nishiiyuu HRO or PPRO.
by Patrick Quinn, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter