This was my first visit to British Columbia and I was in the middle of experiencing my first sweat lodge. For those who don't know, the sweat lodge is a First Nations practice that takes place in a kind of hut where giant heated stones called "grandfathers" are used to heat the room to an extreme extent. Every part of the ceremony has a profound meaning, with four rounds symbolizing the four directions. In between each round, I would jump into the lake to cool down.
While I was raised Catholic, I've always been taught to appreciate other cultures and religions. Attending a Jesuit high school put me in contact with many different cultures, as even non-Catholics seem to appreciate the Jesuit dedication to educating young minds. One of the only cultures I was not familiar with was that of Aboriginal Canadians. I was in university, studying world religions, when I first learned about the spiritual practices of North America's indigenous communities.
The sacred pipe, the sweat lodge, and smudging are just a few major parts of these spiritual practices.
For too long, these cultural practices have been demonized by the Christian majority in Canada. Through the Residential Schools Program, Canadian governments actively worked to assimilate Aboriginals and degrade their culture to a relic of history. Yet, the culture seems to be experiencing a resurgence with many non-Aboriginals embracing the therapeutic benefits of these practices and many Aboriginal elders working to engrain cultural pride in the younger generation.
Last week there was an interesting story about a benefit concert in Winnipeg that had to be postponed because the venue, Immanuel Pentecostal Church, learned that smudging would be part of a performance. The Mennonite Central Committee had rented out the venue for their 50th Anniversary benefit concert where former PM Joe Clark was scheduled to speak. The North End Women's Centre drum group, Buffalo Gals, was scheduled to perform and their performance included the smudging practice. This involves the burning of sage and tobacco to create a smoke that is believed to have healing properties.
More info here: http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/manitoba/mennonite-central-committee-concert-postponed-because-of-ideological-clash-1.2836410
I was struck by this Church's decisions, perhaps due to my own naiveté. I didn't realize that many churches still consider Aboriginal culture to be "pagan" and unfit to be performed in a church building.
From my perspective, I don't see how allowing some smoke to be used in a performance should lead to a costly cancellation of a benefit concert. This was a concert that was focusing on the strained relationship between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people. Joe Clark has joined another former PM, Paul Martin, in voicing concerns about this division and actively working to address it.
Instead of the original intent of the concert, the situation ended up being a case-in-point about these divisions.
This takes me back to my profound sweat lodge experience. I left B.C. (far too soon) thinking about how much Canadian society could benefit from taking a time out from our hectic lifestyle to participate in some of these spiritual practices. Instead of thinking about it in terms of religious differences, we could benefit from seeing the personal benefits that such practices can have.
Aside from personal benefits, I think that Canadian society would grow closer together. We are already a melting pot that celebrates diversity, but engaging with this spiritual aspect of a culture that precedes all of us can lead to profound cross-cultural understanding.
In my opinion, that would only be a good thing.