The Healing Act of Culture

April 02, 2024

My name is River Ward, I am from the Mi’kmaq First Nation of Natoaganeg (Eel Ground). I work at our community Health Centre as their Prevention and Outreach Coordinator, providing a variety of services to our community. My role requires me to work primarily in mental health and addictions and there could not be a better place for myself to be. I have been in this role for two years now and it still brings me joy and happiness. Providing a service that helps people cannot be any better. I have always had a passion to help and by showing kindness and care to our clients/patients we are able to make huge impacts in their lives. I have strong roots with my indigenous community and my culture. I was able to be exposed at a young age to a very accepting, loving, and kind community. My community taught me these core values that go back for centuries to our ancestors. 

This story took place in Natoaganeg First Nation, NB, Canada

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(River with Shalyn Ward/ Courtesy of Shelly Perley)

As a young adult, I have always wanted to put my mental health at the forefront of everything I do. However, I struggled  to understand my own mental well-being growing up. I did not know which way to turn, who to ask, or what to do. I felt lost and disoriented in my own mind..masking my emotions and feelings, keeping up this unrealistic image that I was fine, and pretending that everything was okay was my ‘normal.’ In reality, intergenerational trauma began taking its toll on me. Watching my parents deal with their mental health and struggle with addiction broke parts of me that I never even knew could be broken. 

As I grew up, I began to understand myself more, and started listening to my mind and body when they told me to slow down. I allowed myself to fully feel and express my emotions. A huge factor that helped me grow into the person I am today was embracing my culture. I turned to my culture and my people to teach me ways to heal the child inside that was so hurt. 

In 2019, I was at a very low point in my life, fighting to understand my pain. I felt as if I was fighting for my life every single day. It was then that Ernie Ward, a sun dancer and cultural practitioner in my community, offered to let me participate in my first ‘sweat.’ 

I must admit – I was terrified. I didn’t know what to expect because I had heard many tell their stories of their experiences in the sweat lodge. However, a common theme connecting all of their stories was the healing it brought them, and I knew I needed to heal. Participating in my ancestral ceremony is exactly what I needed. The sweat lodge is a place to connect with the creator, nature, ancestors, and our spirits. It is intended to help restore order and balance in our life, which at the time I had none of. 

I completed four rounds in the sweat lodge (each round representing the four directions). During each round we would enter the lodge, seal the door, and begin the sweat. As Ernie poured the water onto the scolding rocks in the center, and the steam and heat filled the lodge. We prayed to our creator, our families, our ancestors, and to ourselves. The palpable power that I was surrounded with in the sweat lodge was unimaginable…I could feel my ancestors wrapping their arms around me, lifting the pain that my spirit was burdened with and allowing me to envision a life without the pain I kept buried inside. 

After we ended the sweat, I felt as if all the toxins in my body had left and been ‘sweated out,’ if you will. I felt as if my spirit was on top of the world. At that moment, I knew my healing journey had begun. Going back home after this experience would be retraumatizing, but I felt as if I finally had the tools to combat my problems. When I felt I needed my ancestors and my strength, I would light a smudge and pray for my intentions of healing. Those intentions were always answered. I still practice my culture, participate in the ceremony as much as I can, and smudge when I need it.

Recently, I picked sweet grass with a group of people guided by the wonderful Shelly Perley, a first nation woman from our neighbouring community of Esgenoopetitj. She owns a business called Jumi’s Wellness and was our knowledge holder during our sweetgrass picking trip. This was my first time meeting her and I instantly felt a connection. Her kind, and supportive spirit shined through, and it made the experience all the better. Her knowledge and guidance helped me connect with the land and learn the skills to identify sweetgrass so I can now share these teachings.

We travelled to her community to pick the sweetgrass, and I must say spending the day there and getting to know her and her family felt almost familiar. As if my ancestors were there guiding me and teaching me with her, as if we have done this before. My experience has taught me that life is short, yes, but somehow, we are all interconnected.

Learning from others, sharing our stories and teachings, and laughing, learning, and loving with others can play huge positive roles in maintaining your mental well-being. I know that I am safe with my culture and my people, and I can share some of the most deep, personal stories. I will always be heard and supported.  

The most important takeaway from my story is that bravery, kindness, and love are what helped guide me towards my culture and the start of my healing journey. Without bravery, I may not have participated in the sweat, and without the kindness of others, I may not have found my incredible support system. Love is rooted in almost all our practices…my love for my culture and my people heals me every day, and I would never change a thing. 

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