If you visit the First Nations Gallery at the Royal Saskatchewan Museum you will see a large diorama depicting a Cree and Assiniboine camp in 1751. The tipi in this diorama is a real bison hide, prepared by Miriam Thomas of Spiritwood, SK, for this exhibit. It was hard to find someone who would prepare bison hides in the traditional way. Miriam had always worked with moose hides but undertook the preparation of 15 bison hides for the museum. She has told me that it is the hardest work she has ever done to prepare hides. The exhibit has been in the gallery for 21 years now and at the request of Miriam, there has been a Sweat and Feast ceremony held each year for it, in early June.
The Aboriginal Studies Program has been going to Kawacatoose First Nation for quite a number of years, following protocol to hold the sweat and feast. This blog is about our sweat and feast ceremony and what I have experienced with being part of it over a number of years now. First, tobacco is given to the person asked to conduct the sweat and to the person asked to conduct the feast. A date is set. Rain or shine, the ceremony will take place. The sweat starts at five in the afternoon, so all who want to be part of the event arrive at around 4:30 and change, women in long skirts and men to shorts. A large fire is always burning and the stones are in it, so they will be red hot when they are placed in the pit in the center of the sweat lodge.
The sweat lodge is constructed of large willow boughs, stuck in ground and pulled over to forma dome structure. The boughs are tied together. Thick, canvas tarps are used today to cover the lodge structure. They certainly keep the heat and steam in.
Our ceremonialist enters the sweat lodge first and sits opposite the door which faces east. Women enter to the left and men to the right. As the Curator who has asked for the sweat and feast, I bring broad cloth (4 colors, 1 meter each) and tobacco into the lodge and give it to our ceremonialist. Others attending may give the ceremonialist tobacco as well, for special prayers and blessings. A younger man helps the ceremonialist as his “Scapiose”, bringing the stones to the pit, one by one, with a pitch fork. First the ceremonialist smudges the cloth and tobacco and asks the Scapiose to close the door of the lodge. The sweat begins. Each sweat completes four rounds of prayers and songs.
The ceremonialist has a bucket of water and a bundle of fresh willow branches with leaves. The bundle is dipped into the water and then pulled out to splash water on the red hot rocks in the pit. The steam swooshes up to the roof of the lodge and curls downward to the outer edges. You can feel the steam curling across your back, sometimes it feels like someone is touching you, running their hands across your back. This is a special ceremony, very spiritual and not to be taken lightly. Our ceremonialist prays and sings in Cree and Saulteaux and also gives others the chance to speak. It can be hard sometimes and people can find themselves crying, overcome with emotion in saying prayers and asking for blessings if they are going through difficulties or hardship. After prayers and song the ceremonialist tells his Scapiose to open up the door, flipping the canvas aside. The steam and heat dissipate. Everyone cools down and after a few minutes, the ceremonialist asks for the door to be closed up again. After the fourth round the door is opened up and all can leave, women first.
Right away, it is time for the feast to begin. A pouch of tobacco is given to the person who has prepared the feast. We form a circle, some sitting on chairs (Elders and older people), some on blankets. Young men help distribute all the food which has been placed on blankets/tarps in the center. We are not to eat until the ceremonialist has completed prayers. There is always a meat soup or stew, fruit, cookies, water, pop, crackers and a number of prepared dishes that are passed around the circle. There is always a lot to eat and extra containers and bags must be brought to pack what can’t be eaten and take it home.
Our sweats are not as long or as hot as the truly traditional sweats because we are not used to the heat. Our ceremonialist takes great care with us to make our ceremony a good experience while at the same time following the protocol requirements. It has been a wonderful experience each year and it is a real privilege to be part of this annual sweat and feast ceremony as part of the overall care of the First Nations Gallery.