Facebook sweat lodge, the online resurgence of native spirituality

Once banned by federal Indian agents, and forced to be held under the cover of darkness, drum dances and sweat lodges are making a comeback, Waub Rice writes. Particularly online where an activist generation is making new plans with the old ways.
A First Nations woman drums and sings in the annual Women's Memorial Day March in Vancouver last year. Both a political and spiritual event, the march is held to remember women who have died because of physical, mental, emotional and spiritual abuse. (Andy Clark / Reuters)

Smudging, sweat lodges, drum songs. If you were to ask most Canadians what comprises indigenous spirituality in this country, those are the images that would likely come to mind.

These are common practices, integral elements of many indigenous cultures that can transcend language and local affiliations.

What's more, they are the ones often relayed to non-native Canadians through mainstream media, largely because they are often the only regular ceremonies that media and spectators in general are allowed to take pictures of — though only with an elder's blessing.

Not surprisingly, then, that this is what most people think of when they contemplate "native spirituality."

But that is a much too general term to describe the very different and vibrant beliefs and ceremonies that span this great landscape, and which are now starting to surface again, spurred on by a young, more assertive generation and the investigative tools of social media.

Religion, faith and belief

This story is part of a CBC News series looking at religion, faith and belief in our world.

It's common now to see Facebook groups dedicated to the organization of the once-banned sun dances in Western Canada, and even traditional seasonal Anishinaabe ceremonies in the east.

In fact, you might say there is even a sort of spiritual resurgence online, with young indigenous people no longer ashamed of their past, and using social media both to plan ceremonies and events, and mine internet resources to breathe new life into the old ways.

Held down

Most Canadians likely aren't aware of many of these older ceremonies, and even indigenous people themselves don't practice them with much continuity or prevalence.

That's because for a long time in Canada, it was forbidden to do so.

In 1876, the federal government passed the Indian Act to give itself exclusive authority over Indians and their lands.

In the decades that followed, a long list of amendments were passed that were direct affronts to indigenous culture, language and general lifestyle.

One of the more obscene amendments came in 1885, prohibiting "religious ceremonies and dances."

In other words, Canada made it illegal for Indians to pray and practice their spiritual beliefs the way they had for millennia prior to contact with Europeans.

These Indian Act changes also led directly to the establishment of the residential school system, mostly Catholic- and Anglican-run institutions that were essentially designed to wipe away indigenous identity.

Traditional beliefs and ceremonies took a serious beating for decades.

The 'grandfathers'

But despite those federally imposed hardships, indigenous ceremonies survived, thanks in large part to the dedication of certain people and their covert methods of keeping them alive.

The sweat lodge, a healing and purification ceremony performed by many indigenous cultures across Canada, is one such example.

The ceremony involves an elaborate process of building a small, covered structure and heating stones in an outdoor fire until they're glowing.

The stones (or "grandfathers", as they're called in the Anishinaabe way) are brought into the lodge to heat it up and create a steamy effect similar to European saunas.

It's hardly a discreet process and, once it was forbidden by the federal government, Indian agents would break up the ceremonies if they came across them on reserves.

So many communities started holding sweat lodges under the darkness of night in an almost clandestine way, far from the abusive watch of the Indian agent.

Full circle

There are many other stories like this, such as children in residential schools practicing traditional songs in their language whenever a nun or priest wasn't in earshot.

Still, there's no doubt that, culturally, much was lost. But now, as newer generations start to reclaim the ways of their ancestors, many of these ways are slowly flourishing again.

Indigenous people were once shamed out of practicing their spirituality, or forced to hide it.

But that shame has slowly evaporated over time, and people are turning to fasts and sun dances, perhaps in part to reconcile themselves and come to terms with some of those old abuses.

These are clearly more than just token gestures. A sweat lodge ceremony can take seven hours or more to carry out, while fasts and sun dances can go on for days, so there is a substantial time commitment here that is being undertaken.

Today, though, we are free to practice our beliefs out in the open, and these different types of ceremonies can be found all over the internet.

It is inappropriate to share teachings or ceremonial protocol this way. But organizing spiritual events online is proof that the sweat lodge under darkness has swung completely the other way around.

Perhaps the most beautiful aspect of most of these ceremonies is that they are very inclusive.

Indigenous nations have long accepted and embraced newcomers, as long as they approach in a respectful and positive way.