The aromatic scent of sage smoke hangs in the air every morning at the Awo Taan Healing Lodge.
It’s a reminder that no day begins here without the traditional meditation smudging ceremony, a symbolic cleanse and way of clearing out negative energy. The burning of leaves of sage or sweetgrass for this purpose has been used by Indigenous people for thousands of years.
Each participant — staff and the mothers and children who have come here as a haven from domestic violence — take part in the ceremony. It’s personal for each individual.
Josie Nepinak, the lodge’s executive director, smudges her eyes, her ears, her heart. “I want to see, hear and feel the right things coming out of my mouth,” she says. “We call on our ancestors to give us strength, to be resilient and walk with me.”
Opened in 1993, Awo Taan — which means “shield” in the Blackfoot language — is the only shelter program in Western Canada that conducts the smudging ceremony in this way, says Nepinak. She has been with the lodge from Day 1, even overseeing its construction.
“What we do here is a little different. We have no hierarchy; we share the same experiences,” she says, and that includes history, languages, residential school abuse, family violence, racism and other social issues.
Statistics from the Public Health Agency of Canada suggest the need is particularly acute for Indigenous women:
• 343 Indigenous women out of every 1,000 are victims of violent crimes, compared to 96 out of 1,000 non-Indigenous women.
• 54 per cent of Indigenous women surveyed said they were victims of spousal assault, compared with 37 per cent of non-Indigenous women.
• One-third of these women report that their children witnessed the violence.
• Indigenous women are 3.5 times more at risk of becoming victims of a violent crime than non-Indigenous women.
Nepinak and Jackie Bromley, the cultural lead elder, say it’s vital the mothers and children who use the shelter are reconnected with their culture and learn spiritual development. “So many people are fearful of their Indigenous culture,” says Bromley. Many of the women and children served at the lodge have either never been able to take part in Indigenous culture or did at one time but got away from traditions.
That’s what happened to Lacey. The 31-year-old mother recently came to Awo Taan with her two daughters, nine-year-old Dazlynne and two-year-old Faith. She had moved to Calgary from Saskatchewan to escape an abusive relationship and to start a new life for herself and her daughters. She wants to get a job and go to school to become a social worker, building on an experience she had in Saskatchewan as a youth counsellor.
She could have moved in with her family, she says, but was afraid her former partner would find her. “I had to put as much space between us to raise my two girls.”
Lacey found Awo Taan in an online search. She liked its philosophy of reconnecting to Indigenous culture but also that staff could help her find housing, look for a job and get ready to attend school. Her nine-year-old daughter has fit in easily at school, making many friends on the first day.
Holding her busy toddler on her lap, Lacey talks about how she feels more relaxed and hopeful about the future. “I feel like I’m staying with an extended family,” she says softly. “We all want the same things.”
Clients can stay at Awo Taan for 21 days. The lodge provides a place to sleep, three meals a day, a play area for children with a child care worker and a common area for socializing. Residents can go to the cosy Elders Room to have quiet time or discuss what’s on their mind with anyone. The lodge also has an on-site nurse practitioner to help with health issues, such as finding a family doctor and general wellness.
From April 1, 2017, to March 31, 2018, the lodge’s staff, who are mainly social workers, fielded 2,226 crisis calls and served 255 women and 275 children. In the same time period, the lodge had to turn away 1,058 women and children. With 32 beds and seven bedrooms, it is always full, says Nepinak.
Lacey says she can already see a change in her daughters’ behaviour since coming to the lodge. Without the fear she once had in her life, “We communicate more; I’m in a better relationship with my daughters because I feel more relaxed.”
Not only does she feel more connected to her kids, but also with the staff and other residents. After Lacey leaves, she will still have a lot of support. “We don’t leave our clients when they leave here,” says Bromley.
Lacey, too, has changed, says Bromley. “At first, clients are quiet; it seems like they’re lost. When they come here, even after a week you see them open up. It’s a good sign to see them smile.”
The many services the lodge provides in conjunction with other agencies in Calgary helps set up the women for success, emotionally, physically, mentally and spiritually, says Nepanak. “Someone who says no to family violence and recognizes family violence … that to me is success.”
Awo Taan (www.awotaan.org) is one of 12 recipient agencies of the 2018 Calgary Herald Christmas Fund.
To donate, call 403-235-7481 or go to https://secure.e2rm.com/registrant/startup.aspx?eventid=273670
To read other Christmas Fund stories, go to calgaryherald.com/christmas fund
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