Back to the beginning: The sweat lodge ceremony, as intended

Updated 2:50 PM ET, Thu December 1, 2016

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Sagkeeng First Nation, Manitoba (CNN)Smoke curls toward the sky as the sitting elder lifts the sacred pipe, lowers it to the ground and moves it around him. He's recognizing the Creator, honoring Mother Earth and calling on spirits to lend support.

Ancient songs and drumbeats fill the simple dome-like structure. Constructed of gray willow branches and covered in black canvas, it sits low to the ground. The flap over the entry we crawled through has been closed, ushering in darkness. Medicinal water infused with juniper is poured over the red-hot rocks in a pit at the center. Fifteen of us sit on the ground, encircling this only source of heat.
The temperature rises, and together we go back to the beginning.
I've come to Canada to experience an authentic sweat lodge ceremony under the guidance of an internationally respected teacher. The sweat lodge, he says, represents a return to our mother's womb, and the rhythm of the drums is her heartbeat. The water and steam are meant to purify those who enter, allowing each of us to emerge reborn.
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Watch "Enlighten Us: The Rise and Fall of James Arthur Ray," Saturday at 8 p.m. ET on CNN.

That is the basic intention of the sweat ceremony, an indigenous custom that's been preserved for thousands of years by Native Americans and Canada's First Nations people. The ancient practice is meant to birth new life.
That may have been the objective when James Arthur Ray, then a self-help guru, led 55 people into a sweat lodge near Sedona, Arizona, in October 2009. Instead, three participants died after spending hours inside. Nineteen others were hospitalized.
Ray, who was sentenced to two years in prison for felony negligent homicide, is now free and attempting to reinvent himself. His story is the subject of CNN Films' "Enlighten Us: The Rise and Fall of James Arthur Ray," which premieres Saturday at 8 p.m. ET on CNN.
According to Native American and First Nations elders, Ray offered a gift that wasn't his to share. He put a price tag on that which shouldn't be sold, charging people nearly $10,000 for a four-day "spiritual warrior" retreat that culminated in the sweat lodge disaster.
"If you appropriate something that doesn't belong to you, there's a consequence," says elder Dave Courchene Jr., 66, who leads our sweat lodge ceremony. "I'm not opposed to having people, having anyone, experience the ceremony in the lodges that we do. I welcome that. But what I will not relinquish is the right of leadership."
That right to lead ceremonies is one he earned only after years of learning and searching.
Elder Dave Courchene Jr. says his first sweat ceremony, in his 20s, was the beginning of his spiritual journey.

Finding who he was

    Courchene grew up north of Winnipeg on the Sagkeeng First Nation reserve (the preferred term for "reservation" in Canada), at a time when the Canadian government prohibited the spiritual practices that defined his people. Missionaries imposed their own beliefs, and efforts at forced assimilation took a national toll.
    Even though he descends from a line of chiefs, he says, he, too, was robbed of the knowledge passed on by his ancestors. As a child, he didn't attend ceremonies, hear the drums or the ancient songs.
    As we drive along a nearby road, he points to where the local residential, or boarding, school once stood. Young First Nations children often were plucked from their families and their traditions. They faced punishment if they dared to speak their language. And accounts of sexual and physical abuse ran rampant.
    Residential schools like this one dotted the Canadian landscape, starting in the 1930s. They were funded by the government and run by churches. The last one closed in the mid-1990s.
    "The intent was to get rid of the Indian," Courchene explains. "To educate the Indian to think and be like the colonizer themselves."
    His father was feared by the churches, Courchene says, and managed to keep him out of the residential school. But Courchene grew up haunted by the stories others shared and wasn't immune to attempts at assimilation at the government-run day school he attended.
    He also experienced discrimination firsthand. He couldn't sit with the white kids in the local movie theater. If he was standing in line in a store and a white person showed up, he had to step aside. In hospitals, his people were relegated to a separate section.
    All this stoked a fury that simmered inside him, one that began to bubble up in the politicized environment of the 1970s, he says, when indigenous people began to find their voices. He had the foresight to turn to a grandmother -- the term used for elders who are women. She saw right through him.
    "I'll never forget what she said to me," he says. "You have a lot of anger in you, and that is not the way to live. With anger, you will darken your heart, and you will poison your blood. We want you to have a free spirit, but that spirit has to be grounded with values that make you a good human being. So we will begin by taking you to the beginning."
    He was in his early 20s when he took his first step into a sweat lodge.
    "This was the beginning of my journey," Courchene says. "It was the beginning of knowing who I was."
    Grandmothers Florence Paynter, left, and Mary Maytwayashing offer prayers and song during a water ceremony.
    In the years that followed he would learn from countless elders, participate in a multitude of ceremonies and spend days at a time on vision quests, during which he'd fast and hope to discover his purpose. On one quest 35 years ago, he received the vision that became his life's work: to share ancient indigenous teachings.
    In 2002, with the help of donations and the sweat of volunteers, he built the Turtle Lodge, a rustic and secluded educational center.
      It sits on the Sagkeeng First Nation reserve, about a 90-mile drive from Winnipeg, in a region that's been home to the Anishinaabe people for longer than can be measured.
      Shaped like a turtle, the symbol of truth for First Nations people, the center smells of pine. Hand drums hang on poles, and sacred eagle feathers dangle from rafters. Symbolic artwork decorates the circular walls.
      Here, people young and old, indigenous and otherwise, from places near and far, have benefited from knowledge keepers. Anywhere from 1,500 to 2,000 people pass through each year to attend ceremonies and learn from elders. They come to soak in teachings at no cost. It's the sort of safe space Courchene wished was available when he was growing up.
      Today, in the Anishinaabe language, he's known as Nii Gaani Aki Inini (Leading Earth Man). He has shared stages with the likes of the Dalai Lama, addressed the United Nations and spoken at international summits. He's traveled the globe leading ceremonies and sharing his people's wisdom.

      Lessons from ancestors

      A totem pole stands at the entrance of the Turtle Lodge property. It was a gift from the Lummi Nation, a Native American tribe in Washington state. It arrived earlier this year after traveling across North America -- Turtle Island to native peoples -- to receive their stories. It even stopped at Standing Rock, the reservation where protesters (who call themselves "water protectors") have gathered to try to block the Dakota Access Pipeline.
      On a recent Friday morning, several hundred visitors stream past the totem pole and into the Turtle Lodge for a free one-day gathering hosted by the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs. The topic is climate change.
      Parked cars are scattered across the frozen muddy grounds, between the totem pole and portable toilets (there are no bathrooms inside). Tomorrow, when the visitors are gone, Courchene will head to a nearby health center to lead me and others in the sweat ceremony. But for now, he's preparing for this larger gathering.
      Guests gather at the sacred fire during a break at the Turtle Lodge gathering.
      Those who arrive have answered invitations, coming from cities as close as Winnipeg and as far as Ottawa, Canada's capital more than 2,000 miles away. They are judges and politicians in suits, and academics and environmental activists in jeans. They serve on energy boards, represent nonprofits and work for an oil pipeline company. They are students of all ages and persuasions, and they take their seats in peace and prayer.
        Young men from local First Nations communities sit in a circle, singing and beating on drums. They're bringing the session to order and, they trust, lifting its message to the universe. The crowd stands from their folding chairs in reverence as elders light their pipes to invoke the presence of ancestors. A sacred fire burns outside the lodge, providing a doorway to the spirits. Songs during a water ceremony honor that which is sacred and is life.
        Courchene and the others impart lessons from their ancestors, wisdom to help lead balanced lives and honor the land. Around them -- in sculptures, on drums or in artwork -- are reminders of the seven sacred laws or teachings, animals that represent what they hold most important. Among them are the turtle signifying truth, the buffalo for respect, an eagle for love, a bear for courage.
        The goal, according to the elders, isn't to impose beliefs on anyone but to be heard for what they have to offer. For too long their teachings were silenced, and here -- standing in their place of strength and not in the halls of a government building -- they can say their piece and speak up on behalf of Mother Earth.
        "As the mother of life, Mother Earth gives birth, and gives us everything we need to live -- the food, the water, the medicines, the clothing, the shelter, and most of all, the love, kindness and teachings that a mother gives to her child," Courchene tells the gathering.
        He's reading from "The Great Binding Law," a statement of responsibility penned by Manitoba elders last year. It resulted from concerns about climate change, talks about an oil pipeline coming through the territory and other environmental issues. It also came in response to political leaders who sought their counsel. Today it is printed on scrolls and distributed, a gift to everyone in the room.
        "We are all in this together," Courchene continues. "Today we call on all nations of the world to join us in the spirit of our original instructions to care for Mother Earth together, and find true peace."
        Helping to manage today's gathering is Dr. Sabina Ijaz, 43, a family physician who offers volunteer administrative help at the Turtle Lodge. She grew up in Toronto and moved to the area in 2002 so she could be closer to the sort of teachings that saved her life more than 20 years ago.
        Dr. Sabina Ijaz shares a quote from the elders: "When you put good things in your circle, good returns to you multiplied."
        She'd just finished her first year of undergraduate studies in Hamilton, Ontario, when a car wreck nearly robbed her of her dreams. She was a back-seat passenger, on her way to a wedding, when the vehicle rolled nine times down an embankment east of Toronto. Rescue workers had to use the Jaws of Life to extract her. Ijaz was left with a brain injury. She suffered from seizures, had difficulty concentrating and trouble with her memory. She returned to school and tried her best to keep up, but she couldn't -- and dropped out.
        A friend who was in medical school was heading to a nearby reserve to take part in a workshop led by a traditional healer. Ijaz was intrigued and asked to come along. She grew enamored with what she saw and kept returning to learn more.
        She'd been raised by a Catholic mother and a Muslim father, and though she'd found meaning in both traditions as a child, she'd since put faith aside. The indigenous healer brought her back.
        "She said to me, 'It doesn't matter how you pray. There's only one Creator. He has many names and there are many ways to reach the Creator. The most important way to reach him is through your own heart.'"
        Ijaz began to pray again, and the depression that had weighed her down since the accident finally lifted. Then came the sweat lodge ceremony that changed everything.
        Two female healers in the sweat lodge worked on her, pouring sacred water on their hands and touching her head in the areas where she was having trouble. They prayed for her. They said the hot rocks represented grandfathers, and that their spirits had arrived to make her well.
        Afterward, she stood at the sacred fire outside and sprinkled tobacco into the flames, offering a prayer of gratitude to the Creator. Suddenly she could feel the wind blowing from the west. It rushed by and through her and, she says, took with it all that had ailed her.
        "Standing outside the sweat lodge, my thoughts were like the wind," she recalls. "They were completely free."
        When she saw her doctors later, she says, scans showed that the areas of her brain that had been injured were healed.
        She returned to school and got straight As. For a year afterward, she'd wake up each morning at 4 a.m. and weep because she was so happy to have her life back. She went on to study medicine but never let go of what she'd experienced.
        Ijaz saw in the indigenous people a "highly evolved relationship with the natural world and the spiritual world," a connection with the sacredness of life that they've maintained, in spite of all their suffering.
        Elder Wally Swain brings ancient wisdom to the gathering about climate change.

        The part that was missing

        That connection, however, is one that needs to be restored, especially for young indigenous people, Courchene and other elders say.
        Too many of their young people are city bound, walking on concrete instead of land. They are surrounded by violence, drugs and alcohol, not nature and animals. They spend more time looking at technology than they do the stars and the moon. They listen to loud music but not the wind.
        The struggles they face, including suicide rates that are five to seven times higher than nonindigenous Canadian youth, are seen as lasting repercussions from the residential schools, or what Courchene calls "one of the darkest periods in our history." Many First Nations people were robbed of their identities, which left them lost and caused intergenerational suffering. They didn't know how to love children, he says, because they hadn't been shown love themselves.
        The Turtle Lodge offers a place for young people to glean the wisdom of their ancestors and reclaim what rightfully belongs to them.
        It's a mission that speaks to Erica Daniels, a Cree whose family originated from the Peguis First Nation. She was born, raised and still lives in Winnipeg but makes frequent trips to the Turtle Lodge. The 25-year-old filmmaker is the force behind a youth cultural program called Mikinack Gi Na Ma Kawin, or Turtle Teachings, which provides an entrée for young people to connect with elders and stake a claim to their identities.
        "I grew up very disconnected from the culture, and I always felt like a big part of me was missing," she says. "It really affected me in my everyday life not knowing where I came from."
        She saw the poverty of indigenous people around her, the struggles with addiction, the rates of incarceration and suicide. She let the stereotypes of her people and their problems influence how she felt about herself. She was ashamed.
        But when she began to learn about her rich culture, she felt love and an enormous sense of pride. It was a revelation she needed to share. Through her cultural outreach program, started in 2012, she's arranged meetings with elders, picked medicinal plants with participants and taken them to a variety of ceremonies, including sweats -- "anything we can be a part of so we feel a connection to elders and these sacred lodges." So far more than 50 indigenous youth have come through Daniels' program. They only show up when they're ready, she says, and for that reason the door is always open.
        Erica Daniels knows from experience the power of reclaiming one's identity.
        Two young men who walked through that door join us in the sweat lodge ceremony. They each have stories of running with gangs, trying to find a sense of belonging. Now, instead, they share excitement about going on their first vision quest, maybe next summer.
        The sweat ceremony consists of four rounds, marked by four songs. In the first we offer prayers for all of humanity, the second for our respective races of people, the third for our families and the fourth for ourselves. Between rounds, Courchene shares pieces of wisdom. After the second round, he announces that the spirits came to offer one of the young men -- Donavan Sutherland, 16 -- a spiritual name.
        It's his first and one he's been waiting for. He is Pagamashi Kinew, or The Eagle Comes Flying Towards You.
        After the ceremony, Donavan gets in Daniels' car and heads back to the Turtle Lodge. As the car pulls onto the property, he spots a bird in a nearby tree. It's a bald eagle.
        Just as Donavan steps out of the car, the eagle flies toward him and swoops past -- leaving him, and those he's with, both awestruck and moved.
        "When do you ever see eagles?" the city boy says, still excited about an hour later. "There's a part of me I didn't know before."
        Finding that part of himself, with the help of an ancient sacred ceremony, is exactly what his ancestors would have wanted.