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Center dedicated to reviving cultural and healing traditions

WINNIPEG, Manitoba - A quarter-million dollar sweat lodge facility opened officially here on a brisk Oct. 15.

The maa-doo-do-son, "the place of creation," was built on the grounds of the Circle of Life Thunderbird House as part of its $433,000 government funded urban homeless program. Four tipis were also put up for people who come in from the street for the counseling components of the program.

The Thunderbird House, designed by Douglas Cardinal, is the spiritual center of Neeginan, the Aboriginal non-profit that is transforming the Main Street area of downtown Winnipeg. This area is known as the "core district" because of its high rate of crime, which involves many Aboriginal people.

Thunderbird House's programs are dedicated to returning cultural and healing traditions to Aboriginal people and to sharing with anyone who is interested in these traditions.

Mary Richard, M?tis, chairperson of Thunderbird House, has envisioned a complete transformation of the area that would make Winnipeg known worldwide for its sharing of Aboriginal culture.

"We also need tourism, to tell the history of the river, to take people ice fishing and dog sledding, and still work with people on the street," she said.

The maa-doo-do-son was opened prior to the official event with a purification ceremony attended by 25 Aboriginal women and one man who was the firekeeper.

"Women have to open it because they are the creators and that's where life begins," said Cree Elder Don Cardinal who guided the planning of the facility.

By the morning of Oct. 19, the glass of the Thunderbird reflected the clear blue sky and warm temperatures greeted people who had come for a ceremony.

Attending were 20 people of M?tis, Ojibwe, Cree, German, English and Italian backgrounds; some worked in health care, some in business, some were jobless, and others homeless.

They were participants in the Thunderbird House's Rights of Passage program, run by Cardinal, now in its third year. The program reintroduces cultural traditions almost erased by Christianity and the residential school system.

Cardinal led the ceremony. Wilfred Buck, Cree, who is a pipe carrier working in Selkirk, also attended and sang.

Edwin McKenzie, 56, a M?tis city resident, relaxed in front of the fire, which had been built in a 12-foot-high brick fireplace in front of the lodge, built within the facility which is heated year-round, has changing rooms and showers, and was designed to be open to the outside.

McKenzie spoke of his childhood, when he knew the red willow as a stick to be beaten with for attending a drum dance.

"Native culture was like voodoo, a curse," he said.

Shot in the hip in 1966, McKenzie said he had undergone 156 operations over a period of 30 years. He worked as a caregiver to the severely handicapped for $6 to $7 an hour rather than take welfare. Often he had to choose between pills and food.

"I go to a doctor. All he understands is how much he charges and I'm trying to explain what's happening with me. What type of healing is that?" he asked.

McKenzie had to apply for disability last year, when his health began to deteriorate. Now, the system that he had paid into all of his life was denying his application, he said.

"I needed to get back to my culture - healing from the inside out," he said. "I get calmed down. I get so mad at the system. Now I wake up thinking that something good is going to happen today. I think positive," he said.

"It's time they started having experiences they are comfortable with," said Cardinal. "They are starting to find out who they really are. That will help in other parts of their lives, when doctors work with them to restore them, for example."

The Core District

The core district of Winnipeg is well known for its high crime rate. Thunderbird House is flanked by street activity and welfare hotels. Last summer, one of Richards development officers saw a woman fall from an upper floor of the brothel/hotel abutting Thunderbird House's parking lot.

Local addicts have recently asked for a lodge. In exchange they are keeping the area clean.

Indian Health Services is Inequitable

Indian Health Services in Canada only pays for a status Indian to be referred for traditional healing, and in the city only through the recommendation of a Western physician. Band councils determine the type of payment made.

Federal laws governing herbal medicines, provincial laws restricting travel reimbursement of traditional healers and denial and under delivery of primary medical services are a few of the other health system problems facing Aboriginal people in Canada, which emanate from dishonoring of treaty rights.

McKenzie is one of many dedicated people working on the problems and to gain access to traditional medicine.

"We're trying to get funding for herbal remedies, yet they can give us hard drugs that can kill people," he said.

The Thunderbird House, this homeless initiative, the Rights of Passage program, a recently funded gang program, and an Aboriginal education and employment center are some of the programs in this area that are working toward an integrated and well-funded effort to transform an inner city Native community into a modern model of economic and social development that is centered around traditional culture and wellness.

When asked about criticisms of ceremonies being held in an urban environment, Cardinal said, "Why shouldn't Spirit come into the city?"