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Campbell River students connect to culture through traditional sweat lodge

Warriors Program is an eight-week survival and outdoor skill course through Indigenous cultural lens

When he saw the eagle flying overhead, Daryle Mills signaled to Tim Gagnon that it was about time to start digging the hot lava stones out of the bonfire and move forward with the sweat ceremony.

Mills, alongside fire tender Tim Gagnon and Mills’ daughter Raven, runs Night Sun Bear Cultural Counselling and Land-based Healing Practices. They were hosting a sweat lodge session at Carihi Secondary School in Campbell River as part of their Warrior Program, an eight week intensive course where students learn survival and outdoor skills through an Indigenous cultural lens.

Mills has Cree, Dene, Stoney and Irish heritage and comes from Fort Chipewyan, Alta. His grandfather is Joe Cardinal from Wabasca, Alta. and he still has family in the area.

“We’re doing a Warriors Program here for the school,” Mills said. “It was a request from counsellors and teachers to give supports to students who were struggling a little bit … we always recognize that culture and the stuff we do supports healing.

The Warrior program is an eight week program where students go out onto the land with Mills and his team to learn the skills, but also to reconnect to the land.

“The students have been learning everything starting from scratch,” said Indigenous Connections teacher Bobbi Smith.

“We built up to it by doing things like learning how to start a fire without using matches or lighters. We went out in the pouring rain one Tuesday into the Beaver Lodge Lands and we … got our fire lit using things from the bush.

“It helps transform things around depression and suicide,” Mills said “Those are our biggest worries and fears … everything we’re doing is to counteract those types of things and empower the young people and give them a connection back to their culture, their land and their ancestors.”

March 12 was the second time a group of Carihi students took part in a sweat ceremony. Though this particular ceremony goes back to Mills’ heritage as a Cree man, he said that people of all Nations can benefit from the experience and the chance to connect to their spirituality. Mills often hosts sweat lodges and other educational programs across the Island.

Jacob Cassidy, a teacher at Carihi who helped organize this Warrior program session, said that the students have really seen a benefit from the program.

“It’s allowed them to do something different at the school and help them feel comfortable and fit in in a new or different way,” he said. “We need to highlight these programs more and more, especially for our young people. We’re still seeing the ramifications of a hard couple of COVID years, and this is really connecting kids to the school, to the land, and to the culture.”

Smith agrees, saying that she hopes students get a “stronger sense of mattering.

“From what I’ve observed and experienced as somebody who’s been privileged to be invited into these spaces who doesn’t have Indigenous background, culture is like a road map of my soul. Like it’s the way that I access parts of myself and so (it’s valuable) for the kids to find those parts of themselves that Are accessible to culture, and to be able to offer that here … I’m hoping that that’s what they were able to take away from it all.”

After the students helped set up the inipi, or purification lodge, Mills made sure they all had enough water. He then sat down and started to set up his altar. There are things that are not for media documentation, things properly left to those actually taking part in the ceremony. With that, the altar was set, and the students gathered around for the ceremony to begin.

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