Photos from National Aboriginal Day, APTN's live event in Edmonton. Photos by Windspeaker.com photographer Bert Crowfoot.
Mary Thomas, in her own words
I can remember our grandmother. She'd build this great big fire and put the rocks under the heat for our sweat. And there wasn't one word spoken while they were doing it. They'd all sit around the fire and it was explained to me later, when you're going to go to the sweat you're overloaded with pain—physically, mentally, socially—and you're going in there to purify yourself. And you do a lot of meditations. When we sat around, we didn't understand as children, but as I got older I began to realize what it was all about.
Each one of us had to have four little bundles of fir boughs the soft ends of the fir boughs. There's certain amount of oil in it, of healing oil. And we each had those four little bundles and we were told to sit around and be with the Elders…
Grandma used to say, “watch that fire, how it's eating up the wood. It's purifying it. That's the beginning of your purification. You'll look at it and say, ‘I'm hurting. I'm carrying a lot of weight and I want you fire to take it and burn it’.” And we were to meditate on it.
When we were ready to go into the sweatlodge, we took with us those four little bundles of fir boughs, the tips of the fir boughs. It was tied up in little bundles. We carried it in there with us and there was perfect silence. It was all like a prayer, meditation, it's you. And our grandmother would say, “We're going in there. You are going to pray for yourself. Going to unload all that …”
If you're sick, you can't help anybody. You've got to heal first. They would explain this to us, you know, as we were growing up. So we would follow everything they would do. We would watch them do it and we'd get in behind.
And, you know how children are sometimes. My granny had this tarp, big heavy tarp over her sweatlodge. My God, it would get hot in there. And, as children, we used to get into mischief. My sister and I we would slowly lift the tarp up and we'd stick our heads out and wrap it around, to get some fresh air, and they'd see us … and tell us to get back in. And we'd get back in. We had to bear it. But they taught us if you can't breath put a towel or something over your face and then you can breath…
And they told us, when the heat hits your body, it opens the pours and you breathe it in and it will help cleanse. There were times we vomited… the heat would make us vomit, and she would say “It's all right. Good, let it go.”
And they would always have a pot of that Indian tea. If we didn't have the Indian tea, they'd have rose hip or rose bush. And we'd take a big drink out of that before we would go in the sweatlodge… up it would come to cleanse your stomach, and that was part of the way to do our sweatlodge.
Before we'd go out we’d take one of those little bundles and rub ourselves all over. We rubbed ourselves and the little needles would stick to our body. And our grandmother would say “when you go out of the sweatlodge, you talk to the water. Water is powerful. Get in that water, and you talk to the water as you wash the needles off…
[You say] “Wash everything inside of me, cleanse my body and let the bad things drift.” And that's part of our cleansing. And then we'd sit around the fire again and they put some more rocks and she would say, “Next time we go in, we pray… for your families, that we bring our circle back and heal our circle. And always remember your bloodline. Pray that we form our circle.”
And we would do that, again. And when we were ready to go out and rub ourselves with those fir boughs.
The third time we come in, she would tell us that we're praying for our communities, our brothers and sisters out there. We pray for them that we become healed again and become strong. And we did the same thing, we rubbed ourselves.
And the fourth time is when my granny used to sing. That was to heal Mother Earth… and always our sweatlodge, the door opened to the sunrise. And our granny would sing to the four directions to heal Mother Earth, to the birds, to the animals, to the fish, the little creatures, the plants. She'd pray for them. And she would sing her song.
I still remember that song. It's really hard for me. I get really emotional when I sing it…
That used to be so wonderful. When you come out of there, you feel you've left a whole load of garbage behind you…