THE autumn leaves are turning from emerald green to gold and a rust red, before they reluctantly concede to the season and litter the Vancouver streets like confetti. Pause and take a deep breath and the scent of pine needles hangs in the air, redolent of crisp, fresh laundry on the line. Canadians grow melancholy at this time of year for it means winter is on its way, but visitors adore this colourful contrast.
Sitting in an Indigenous sweat lodge on the rooftop of a Vancouver hotel was never part of my plan. But that’s one of the great beauties of travel. The serendipity. And so, I find myself on a crisp Vancouver afternoon undertaking a traditional healing with Aboriginal elder Old Hands at Skwachays Lodge in which I am staying.
Old Hands is stoking the coals which will be used in my healing when I bump into him on the rooftop. I ask him what I’m about to encounter in this teepee-like structure on the roof.
“We start off with spirit calling and ask our ancestors to come and join us. We tell them we need some help. And then we ask the creator to give us a good life,” he says.
“There are four songs. We are acknowledging that we are a part of everything and everything is a part of us.
“The second round is a prayer round. Make sure you ask for what you need, not what you want because what we want gets us into trouble. The third round is a healing round to detox all the junk that is in our body. We are going to ask the creator to repair any damage to ourselves that we don’t know about. And the fourth round is a thank you round.”
Still unsure of what to expect, Old Hands tells me that some people cry during the ceremony.
“It’s just a way of letting out what’s bothering you. I get guys I work with in prisons who are all tough and stuff and then the next thing they are crying,” he says.
“I work with people in hospices who are getting ready to cross over and the one thing they are afraid of is that no one will remember them. I work with people who are fighting their addictions.”
The one thing of which Old Hands is certain, is the healing power of the sweat lodge, a gift that has been passed down to him from five generations of medicine men.
“I’ve been sweating every weekend since I was 13 and I haven’t been sick since. This is where we heal,” he says.
“I had a friend with cancer who was told he had six months to live. He came for a sweat and the spirits said he needed to do four sweats back-to-back. That was 17 years ago and he’s still alive.
“Tomorrow you will feel like you can run to Winnipeg and the next day you will feel even better. It goes on for about four days.”
We start with a smudge ceremony where we are told to toss the smoke of a burning sage bush over our body. Then we enter the sweat lodge, where it’s smoking hot and completely dark.
“We see the clearest when we are in the dark,” Old Hands says.
As the only woman inside the teepee, I am tasked with sprinkling a pinch of sage on the hot rocks, which sparkle with light. Another man in the tent softly beats a drum while Old Hans calls our ancestors.
“We are taught to be weak minded but our bodies can take a lot of punishment. It’s our minds that give up first,” Old Hands says.
“It just takes something to wake us up. Grandpa used to say ‘the turtle goes no where until he sticks his neck out’. We are all eagles being taught to be chickens. Our lives aren’t happy because we aren’t soaring. When we realise we can soar, our lives change.”
It’s so hot and dark in the tent that I almost surrender to panic, but I sit with myself and practice deep yoga breaths, willing my ancestors to give me the life answers I seek.
After the first healing round, Old Hands announces that the ancestors have told him to give me his drum to keep and that I will know what I need it for when the occasion arises. We complete the final three rounds. I sit in the dark, willing my ancestors to listen to me.
The healing ends and Old Hands asks me whether I am available to meet the women of his band tomorrow, saying the “female energy” would be good for me, but I am flying to Toronto for another story. He nods, tells me to look out of the plane window as I’m flying, saying he’ll send me a message.
The next day I spend the four-hour journey glancing from the plane, expecting to see a bird, and just as I’m about to give up, the thick clouds part and form the precise shape of a polar bear walking.
I haven’t told Old Hands that after Toronto I’m heading to Churchill on a polar bear walking safari and I shake my head, smiling wryly. When I get to my hotel room, I research the spiritual meaning of polar bears. It means rebirth and courage.
I think back to something Old Hands told me: “You’re here to do a story but your ancestors didn’t bring you to Canada just for a story. We were meant to meet.”
The ancient drum beat of my ancestors lives on.
The Global Goddess travelled to Canada as a guest of Destination Canada (www.keepexploring.com.au) For those who have wondered, the drum given to me by Old Hands travelled safely with me across Canada, and despite concerns the elk skin wouldn’t make it through Australia’s strict biosecurity laws, passed effortlessly into the country. The ancestors would approve.