Finding their inner light: mothers recover from addiction with support of Indigenous healing camp

The healing on the land treatment camp uses Indigenous ceremonies and traditional teachings to help women struggling with meth and opioid addictions.

Last year, 7 mothers completed the 30-day Indigenous treatment program

At the healing on the land treatment camp on Poundmaker Cree Nation, women learn how to pitch teepees and are taught about what they symbolize and their spiritual purpose. (Submitted by Lynn Tootoosis)

When women come to the healing on the land treatment camp, Lynn Tootoosis can see that, for many, their inner light has been dimmed.

The 30-day treatment camp in Saskatchewan is for Indigenous mothers struggling with meth and opioid addictions and whose children are in care.

"So how I explain it to them is we all come with a source of light in us, and trauma dims that light," says Tootoosis, a cultural liaison and family support worker for Ahtahkakoop Child and Family Services Inc.

"Some of them come with embers, you know, charcoal just barely lit. So it's challenging, but by the end of that 30 days, I always believe that that light can be brighter and that they will be inspired and encouraged to continue on with their journey." 

When the pandemic caused limited access to addictions services, Tootoosis knew she had to create a safe alternative for her clients, Ahtahkakoop members who had their children apprehended by child welfare services.

"I think it's something I had always wanted to do and then when we were hit with the pandemic, that was my kick-start, to do something.... There was an urgent need to do something and be creative about it," she said.

The camp is held on Poundmaker Cree Nation, where Tootoosis is familiar with the land and a member of the community.

Traditional teachings

Tootoosis said clients in the program, who must complete a four-day detox before attending, have never attended an Indigenous ceremony and learn about them for the first time at the camp.

One of the first ceremonies the women experience is a spirit name ceremony, often an emotional moment, where tears of joy, pride, and connection are shed, after receiving a traditional name.

They also learn to bead, pitch teepees, create ribbon skirts and moccasins, take traditional parenting classes and set goals on what they need to do to get their children back.

Now in its second year, four new women are on their way to completing the program, which would help 17 children in care reunite with their mothers.

Elder and knowledge keeper Nina Wilson works with the women at the camp, sharing her knowledge of the protocols for the ceremonies done at the camp and how to find the medicines used.

"Our people are traumatized," Wilson said. "We have intergenerational trauma to get through from the historical injuries that we've accumulated. They follow us through our bloodline if they're not corrected or stopped."

"We have to come to a place where we go back to the basics of who we are and to keep our identity strong."

Wilson said that ceremonies create a way to cope with the trauma.

"I've seen it bring back the spirit to people's eyes, the spirit to their hearts and mind, their body."

Support continues after camp

The camp is the first step in helping the women involved recover from substance use.

"I have 30 days to show the women different ways they can heal, and then we work with them for up to a year sometimes," said Tootoosis.

Ahtahkakoop Child and Family Services Inc. works with the women if a relapse occurs, to identify their triggers and use what they learned at the camp to help them continue recovery.

She said success stories are emerging from the seven women that attended the first year: one going back to school to get her high school diploma; another getting a job and all getting their children back in their care.

"My hope for the future is that they don't give up, that they keep on striving, that they keep working through their trauma and finding liberation of their spirit through the ceremonies, through the educational pieces ... of this camp," said Wilson.

With files from CBC's The Morning Edition and Kerry Benjoe