A sweat lodge is going up at Parkdale School, the home of Bent Arrow Traditional Healing Society. Construction for the enclosed, permanent structure starts in April.

For the staff, it’s been a six-year journey from concept to realization, beset by COVID-19 delays and fundraising challenges. With funding now securely in place, and pandemic health restrictions eased, the dream will soon be a reality.

As a non-Indigenous person who shared in several sweat lodge ceremonies with my partner, Cree author Larry Loyie (who died in 2016), I have learned that the importance of the sweat lodge can’t be understated. It is a place for all people to share, to learn, to heal, and to enjoy our common humanity. 

The new sweat lodge, 15 metres long and six metres wide, will be housed in a dedicated building with protection from the weather. In addition to the sweat lodge area, a seating area, as well as men’s and women’s changing rooms, will be included.

The hope is that all will be completed by June 17 for Bent Arrow’s five day Kiskinohamakewin culture camp, a Cree word that means teach and learn by doing.

For many in the community, the new sweat lodge, one of only a handful in the city, will be an opportunity to share this important Indigenous tradition.

“The lodge will support our Indigenous community or anyone wanting to experience a sweat lodge ceremony,” says Murray Knutson, the society’s acting deputy executive director.

Respected Elders, Tom Snow and Rose Wabasca, will aid with the protocol involved in sweat lodge activities.

“People want to connect to their spirituality and to each other,” says Lloyd Yellowbird, a senior manager with Bent Arrow. “We were away from our gatherings for two years. Now it’s time to recharge and get going again.”

The Elders will ensure that special care is taken to keep everyone safe.

Inside the blanket-covered, dome-shaped lodge, a small number of people sit around a pit containing searing hot river rocks, or in some cases, heated lava rocks. All participants are dressed lightly for the intense heat, and some may bring in a towel to sit on. A wet cloth for relief from the heat is not unusual.

Once everyone is seated, the door flap is closed, leaving the sweat lodge in complete darkness. It is a time for reflection and guidance shared by an Elder. If a participant feels any adverse reaction, he or she can ask to leave the lodge. The flap is immediately opened for their exit without any negative feedback.

Due to COVID-19 supply issues, the cost to build the sweat lodge jumped by more than $50,000.  

Cheryl Whiskeyjack, Bent Arrow’s executive director, recalls the struggle to find funding, with gratitude that everything is now in place. “COVID-19 interrupted us, but the funds are now completely raised.”

Funding came from many sources, both individual and corporate, such as the CN Stronger Communities Fund, TD Bank, Sherritt Mines, Dexterra Group, and Boys & Girls Club Big Brothers Big Sisters.

Leading Edge Physiotherapy matched the first $5,000 donated, a warmly welcomed and encouraging pledge.

Says Whiskeyjack, “The Indigenous community will no longer have to travel outside the city to access this ceremony. They can feel proud that their traditions are being celebrated here. For the non-Indigenous community, we will be providing convenient access to experience and learn about an Indigenous ceremony.” 

In the process of reconciliation, the sweat lodge is a win in every way.