We extend a welcome to you, the reader, whomever you might be and wherever you happen to be encountering this sharing of wisdom. Those of us who have worked together with Elder Sharon constitute a community of researchers in conversation with one another and, by extension, now with you. We have recognized and want to name a learning that we share in composing research texts such as this, which is the knowledge that is cocreated and found within and between relationships with one another. Creating oneness, as the title implies, extends backward and forward throughout research. This holds true in the gathering of knowledge as well as in the consumption of knowledge shared, although we reject the values underpinning the latter term as an individualistic way of engaging with a research text. Instead, our invitation to you is to approach this text as you would a conversation, as a place where you may both listen and contribute. The findings, although that term is reductionist, are not to be taken as recipes to be replicated acontextually. Rather, they are meant to inspire and encourage; whether you are a researcher or not, we hope that they help you to bring life into curiosity and the process of inquiry and to reconsider the space you share with others along the way as a sacred space to experiment in creating oneness.
Traditionally, Indigenous women were their communities' healers, caretakers, and matriarchs. However, through colonization, patriarchy, oppression, trauma, and persistent structural inequities, many have been denied their connections to culture and wellness, and their voices are excluded from the mainstream (Fayant, 2019; Klaws, 2013; Valaskakis, 2009). Indigenous women living in cities have been invisible in health service planning and program development, even though they remain overrepresented in the rates of victims of violence, infectious diseases such as HIV and hepatitis C, mental illness and addictions, and chronic diseases (Fayed et al., 2018; Gracey & King, 2009; King et al., 2009).
Equity-oriented care—contextually tailored, trauma- and violence-informed, and incorporating cultural safety with harm reduction as a wise practice—is recommended for Indigenous people experiencing health inequities (Browne et al., 2012,2016). However, few Indigenous-led interventions exist that aim to improve the wellness of Indigenous women through a wholistic and cultural perspective. A large gap exists in the Western understanding of the effectiveness and the effect of land-based activities as healing interventions for Indigenous people (Duran & Walters, 2004; Goodkind et al., 2015).
The Stamsh Slhany Lhawat (SSL)1 project moves beyond equity-oriented care by creating space for Indigenous women specifically in the most important aspect of health and wellness—our connection to land. The project's name reflects the women's self determination, resilience, and role in society (resisting oppression, healing themselves, and others) and honours the Coast Salish people and their unceded territories. The cultural aspect of the research protocol was designed and implemented by a team of community research associates led by the author. Collectively, they are part of the Indigenous Wellness Research Group (IWRG), which is co-located at the University of Saskatchewan and Simon Fraser University. IWRG is known as pewaseskwan in Saskatchewan and kwálhshen in British Columbia.2
SSL used Indigenous methodologies to create a research model where Indigenous women held the dynamic power to drive the research. Equity, empowerment, and safety were established as part of the research process as defined and articulated by the women involved. Indigenous methods like sharing circles, storytelling, witnessing, narrative, and dialogue allow women to be seen, heard, and participate in the design, development, and implementation of health policies (Dennis, 2010; Iseke, 2013; Jacklin et al., 2016). SSL intentionally used these methods, which emanate from an Indigenous epistemology, to construct relevant, meaningful spaces by Indigenous women, for Indigenous women. Each phase of the research project, from protocol development to project implementation, evolved via a collaborative decision-making process (Kovach, 2009; Wilson, 2008) with a Community Guiding Circle, guidance from Elders, and iterative reciprocal learning between the facilitators and the participants.
The study's objectives were addressed through four sets of sequential sharing circles, each with a small, unique group of participants. These were followed by a cultural activity day and a final retreat involving all the participants. Sequential sharing circles support trust, build rapport between researchers and participants, nurture a sense of community, and facilitate healing and empowerment through group discussion (Jacklin et al., 2016).
SSL interwove culture-based traditional healing activities, ceremonies, and teachings with the research component. The study captured the experiences and wisdom of a group of Indigenous women from the Downtown Eastside (DTES) of Vancouver, British Columbia, in the development of a culture-based and land-based intervention and wellness program for urban Indigenous women, which included strategies for identifying the causes and prevention of substance use, infectious diseases (for example, HIV and HCV), and chronic diseases prevalent in the DTES. This study was funded by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research through a competitive peer-reviewed grant process (#384090). The Simon Fraser University Office of Research Ethics approved the study (#2017s0470), and informed consent was sought from all the participants.
More than half (60%) of the 26 participants shared that they were using substances at the time of data collection; approxmately 30% were participating in parenting programs; approxmately 20% were involved with community-based organizations delivering services for women involved with street-based sex trade; and approxmately 20% were living in recovery homes. Approximately 90% were mothers and grandmothers and all but four were involved in raising children or grandchildren. Everyone was willing to learn how to love, respect, and honour themselves and others. Furthermore, they displayed compassion for one another, extending understanding to those around them dealing with substance use, homelessness, and other social issues. Notably, these women exhibited profound resilience despite the persistnant trauma in their lives.
This document helps evolve the narrative around collaboration in etuaptmumk (Two-eyed Seeing), a model bringing together Indigenous and Western worldviews or knowledge as envisioned by Elders Albert and Murdena Marshall (Iwama et al., 2009). It describes some of the processes that created spiritual and emotional safety in the research activities that the IWRG carried out, focusing on the SSL project. It is not a “how to” manual because cultural aspects must always include appropriate Indigenous collaboration with consideration given to specific contexts. Instead, Two-eyed Seeing is meant to inspire novel and collaborative approaches to research practice.
Transforming Traditions Into Research
We walk on the breath of our ancestors.
- Victor Reece, Tsimshian Elder
We respectfully and humbly acknowledge all the generations who created beauty in the world in the form of rituals, dances, and songs. We acknowledge our ancestors who fought to hold on to our teachings and bundles (ceremonial medicines), so that we could live and understand who we are and where we come from. We acknowledge that without their love, light, compassion, and bravery in the face of colonization, we would have nothing as Nations and as individuals.
As an Elder, I (Sharon) believe that it is vital to evolve our cultural practices to serve our communities today. My Grandmother used to say, “The ancestors are so lonely in the spirit world, they are waiting for us to call on them.” I believe our ancestors offer a wealth of wisdom that guides us toward the light. Our ancestors gifted us with the teachings of the medicine wheel, which has four directions that simultaneously represent the four seasons and the sacred cycle of life. Rebirth in spring does not come without death in the fall and the long quiet frozen winter months when Mother Earth sleeps. As Indigenous people, I feel we are in a fall season because the death of many of the elements and connections that held our culture together prior to contact are challenged by ongoing settler encroachment in all aspects of our world. In the process of colonization, many cultural practices have changed, as have our traditional foods, housing, landscapes, and communities. I believe that we need to be creative and fearless in adapting and evolving our culture to provide meaningful and life-giving cultural opportunities in our contemporary environment that is a place of hybridity.
I recognize the many medicine keepers, visionaries, and teachers who established the path we tried to emulate in the SSL project, which was grounded in Indigenous protocols, values, and partnerships whenever possible. Our projects co-created innovative, etuaptmumk (Two-eyed Seeing) research experiences that also supported emotional health and wellness. Developing an Indigenous approach to research is part of a process that has been evolving for many decades, in many different ways. We do not claim the cultural ideas and concepts as original; however, we combined a set of values, wise practices, and principles in a unique, innovative way.
Integrating culture into the research process meant that every question we asked the participants was supported in a ceremonial way. The questions focused on the women's life experiences and the resources they thought that they needed to transform their health and lives. An Indigenous research approach recognizes the stories offered by the women as valid forms of knowledge (the way of thinking is echoed in the work of Clandinin & Connelly, 2000) and reminds us to think narratively about lives (Young et al., 2015) and to honour the knowledge as authoritative without the need to support it by drawing connections with broader literature. We believe that it is essential to become open to the surprises and uncertainties (Clandinin, 2013) that may emerge through relationships in research. The following is a rationale and a description of this approach.
Creating Cultural Safety and Responsiveness
Our vision was to embrace our ancestors' wisdom and create an interactive, meaningful environment, and an enriched research process. This meant creating a research space to facilitate the energy the participants brought to the conversations that was also grounded in serene patience, witnessing, honouring, and compassion. These positive influences were balanced with respect to the importance of local protocol and community practices. We also made our decisions based on our participants' intellectual, physical, emotional, and spiritual needs.
The team set a calm, mutually supportive tone. Any tension could trigger a stress response that could shut participants down emotionally. Maintaining a slow, even flow of the research and activites was important; the rituals bonded everyone together and helped increase participants' opportunities to share their truths.
We were mindful of the challenges that urban Indigenous communities face and we had respect for the strength and resilience in our people and our communities, which are rich in cultural diversity and include a broad range of life experiences. Some are from families who have lived in cities for several generations, while others are newcomers. Creating rituals that honour these differences was an important step in cultivating an empathic atmosphere.
We all hold our Indigeneity in different ways and for different purposes. Colonization fragmented our communities with oppressive laws and the enforced separation from family and cultural practices, resulting in people becoming challenged by their identities and histories (Tuck & Yang, 2012). Thus, some people personally internalize colonization and associate their pain with their Indigenous identity and cultural practices; they feel shame, fear, and rejection when exploring their cultural roots, which can prevent participation.
My mom totally abandoned our culture. I actually didn't even know I was Aboriginal till I was about, say, seven years old. And when I found out, it was a big ordeal for me.
- SSL Participant
Our Indigenous cultures evolved over a different time and in places different than our modern colonized and settled nation (Palmer, 2005). In cities, we no longer have ready access to our territorial lands, resources, ceremonies, and teachings or the time to participate in these rites of passage.
And these circles, even though it's just been my first circle, it's really brought me even higher … in my spirituality, in being an Indigenous woman. Because this is what I needed, what will get me through my life, knowing how to go through these rooms, and through circles.
- SSL Participant
Many participants had no prior contact or experience with their culture. Entering a different cultural environment can be emotionally challenging, especially for women who have experienced so much disruption, rejection, and harsh living environments. All the participants welcomed the opportunity to be in a traditional cultural space, but for some, it meant risking making mistakes because they did not know the proper protocols or fearing that our cultural heritage might be harmful. We recognize these reactions as effects of ongoing colonization.
And finding pride, in who you are, and what you've been through. And then, being a true warrior, too. The feeling inside of us, that we don't need to conform, or be deformed, because of others' lustful, disgusting ways that they made us. And realizing that we can still be beautiful, and we are beautiful.
- SSL Participant
Our ancestors never experienced the kinds of spiritual division, family separation, urbanization, and modern disease that is a part of the colonized experience. Cultural continuity was not a concept to aspire toward but a way of life that was practiced for generations. Thinking about the disruption to this continuity, we needed to innovate our cultural practices without misappropriating traditions or losing the integrity of ceremony. Through discussions, careful consideration, and turning inward, we created a culturally rich and safe environment for the women involved in this vital research.
Creating a Safe Cultural Space
All the participants had experienced ongoing systemic abuse and marginalization in the health care system. Therefore, we developed a plan inspired by cultural protocols and practices to create a welcoming, calm, flexible, and honouring space in which to ask the research questions. Below is an outline of our protocols and practices.
Oneness: We cultivated a state of oneness, or inclusiveness, by verbally acknowledging that all faiths, genders, orientations, cultural values, practices, and identities were honoured and welcomed. We adopted a harm reduction approach (Canadian AIDS Treatment Information Exchange, 2020; Interagency Coalition on AIDS and Development, 2019) so that women who were actively using substances or alcohol felt welcome.
A lot of self-doubt and addiction, if you have addictions, sometimes they can … well, addictions close you down, right? So, yeah. Having enough respect for my culture to not even go there like that. Some people say it's ok; but then, if you know, it doesn't feel right. But I went to cultural activities when I was under the influence, because I was desperate. And the Elders knew; they just put other sober Elders around me and put me in the middle. You know, there's always a way. But those things do stop you.
- SSL Participant
Compassion: Women were embraced for everything they were, including their beliefs, their life journeys, their successes and challenges in life, and their current states of mind.
Team disclosure: Each morning during the circle, the research team participated alongside the women, also sharing their personal thoughts and feelings. We disclosed personal information but observed boundaries to maintain the focus on the participants, so any issues the team might have shared were appropriately contained to honour the responsibility of keeping the circle grounded. This helped create accountability, responsibility, and equality among everyone.
Inclusion: The team fostered inclusion by always encouraging the participants to engage in the rituals and ceremonies. Over time, many women arrived early to help set up the sacred space. Historically, our cultures emulated the balance found in nature, and in this way, Indigneous Matriarchs were an integral and important aspect in our sacred ceremonial life. Many participants took the opportunity to belong, take ownership, and connect to their Indigenous identity, which was inspiring for the team to witness.
Gradually, the women were invited to help create the daily rituals, which provided regulating and comforting rhythms for those struggling with chaos in their lives. Their contibutions led to a deeper connection with the rituals, and sometimes, the women reminded the team of ceremonial details that had been overlooked. Unprompted, they shared stories, wisdom, and songs that were inspired by this egalitarian approach and embrace of cultural diversity. This consistent cycle of inclusion created an ever-deepening connection that enriched everyone's experiences and made for a safe, nurturing, and grounded environment.
Creating the space: Inspired by the Anishinaabe tradition of claiming a personal territory for vision quests and the Tsimshian traditions of honouring a sacred space, we placed tobacco or cedar boughs in the corners of the room to declare that this was “our territory.” The Elder was part of the Tsimshian community through her partnership with master carver Victor Reece. At the beginning of each session, participants were invited to take turns making a sacred and safe place for themselves to work in by carefully placing the medicines in the corners of the room. Together, we also placed symbolic and sacred objects at the centre of the circle. This was intended to create an environment where participants could own the space. This open cultural space prevented situations that were humiliating or shameful for participants without cultural experience; it facilitated safety. During the four sessions, many basic ceremonial protocols and other teachings were spontaneously shared.
Territorial acknowledgement: Once the circle was ready and everyone was gathered, we acknowledged and gave thanks to the Coast Salish people, on whose territory we were living and working.
Fire and water: Each opening ceremony included the sacred elements of fire and water. The circle began with participants being invited to light a candle for the Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women and Girls3, as well as our ancestors. The invitation for a participant to literally “bring the light” created another opportunity for inclusiveness. We became more comfortable and intimate with each other as this ceremony became a deeper, more grounded act in which some of the women gave themselves to the moment in a very reverent, inspiring way.
A water ceremony was offered as a grounding ritual. This is a woman's ceremony that has reemerged in multiple contemporary forms across Turtle Island (as North America is known by many Indigenous peoples). Water is sacred, water is life, and water is goverened by Grandmother Moon. The Elder created this particular water ceremony as a healing and restorative ritual for the Anzak First Nation after the Fort McMurray wildfire of 2016 that forced 80,000 people in northern Alberta to flee their homes (The Canadian Press, 2017). This water ceremony was done instead of smudging (see below) because smoke, even small wisps, could be traumatizing. It also accommodated women with smoke allergies and smoke-free spaces where smudges were not possible. Participants had the option to forego this ritual. The ceremony began with a water song to ground the circle. Eagle Spirit Woman (Candice Norris), a PRA on the team, has very powerful medicines with her ability to sing and to hold the space with dignity and peace. After blessing the seven sacred directions, the Elder walked around the circle with a birch bark pail of water and touched each participant's hands with an eagle feather, pausing long enough to create a gentle connection.
I think, definitely, if we had cultural practices that had Indigenous symbols, like the water ceremony, people could start thinking about sacredness. And, start healing.
- SSL Participant
Smudge: A smudge is the ritual lighting of sacred cedar, sweetgrass, sage, and/or tobacco. Wisps of smoke are used for spiritual purification and protection. A smudge was always available in case participants desired it. Participants could request a smudge when they were experiencing emotional pain or stress. Eagle Spirit Woman (Candice Norris) would take individual participants outdoors and offer a smudge. This act gave women one on one support, a breath of fresh air, and it protected others from the smoke. Women always returned to the circle looking grounded and content.
And it makes me feel good to know that I can do those things. It gives myself back to who I am. I've lost so much in my culture. I'm so grateful to be able to come back to this and learn that it hasn't disappeared.
- SSL Participant
The power of the circle: The Anishinaabe people have always known the power of the number zero because it is both zero and infinity. Most of our rituals emulate this infinite symbol of life. Our rain dances, sweat lodges, feasts, and community gatherings are all held in a circle. When we gather, Elders insist on everyone maintaining a circle formation because a mystical, unseen force is invoked when we sit in a circle. The circle has no beginning or end, it goes on forever.
The sharing circle's structure provides equality because everyone is shoulder to shoulder and can see and witness each other. Sharing circles, also known as talking circles or healing circles, are a traditional form of group communication, deliberation, and decision making. They have been incorporated into research as an Indigenous alternative to focus groups, which are not grounded in ceremony or facilitated with a recognition of the spiritual aspects of gathering together. Circles provide participants the opportunity to speak and be heard without competing for air time. You can share until you have said all you wanted to say and no one will interrupt you. Our Elders ask us to listen to each other with our hearts; they teach us that listening is more important than talking. This ancient ceremony creates an opportunity for deep intimacy because the formation allows for physical, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual connectedness.
The power of storytelling and creating: Each project incorporated opportunities for participants to be creative using traditional symbols, medicine, and crafts such as beading and making personal bundles. In one exercise, participants were invited to select coloured pony beads to represent their strengths, personal wisdoms, and resilience. After an intention for the beads was shared by the Elder, the women gathered beads that helped them express themselves. The time spent selecting the beads and sharing the reason for choosing certain colours was a very positive emotional and spiritual process. On the final day of sequential sharing circles, participants made personal storytelling necklaces with their beads. These necklaces were visual depictions of their stories, values, or dreams, and they helped participants embrace and reconcile their histories and identities in a cultural way.
My first bead is for my culture and ceremonies. They give me strength. Real courage. And meaning. And bring me to where I can find my ancestors with me. The spirits walk with me and they guide me. The second bead is my family. And by family, I just mean that connection to where I belong, where I find my strength, and where I really love. I belong. And my third one is my Mom, who's gone. But the first five and a half years she was gone, she visited me, every night, in my dreams.
- SSL Participant
Tears are medicine: Crying can be an uncomfortable experience in Western society, but many Indigenous cultures teach that tears are medicine for our spirits. When a person cries, they are in their power, being who they truly are in the world in that moment. Tears cleanse the wounds of loss or pain. We are taught to never interrupt a person when they are crying because they are in this holiest of moments. We see the grieving person as powerful, whole, and close to the Creator.
The circle holds a sacred power that allows everyone the opportunity to be who they truly are, whether they are angry, laughing, or crying. Our people call this sacred journey the warrior's path, the relentless pursuit of one's own truths. Some participants seemed apprehensive and awkward when another person got emotional, but over time, this dynamic shifted and there was more comfort between everyone with the feelings being expressed. Eventually, the participants calmly witnessed each other grieving in a very powerful, silent way. They also consoled women who verbalized shame for becoming too emotional.
Overview of Ceremony in the Research Component
After the check-in with the team and the women in the circle, we did a short orientation to the medicine wheel. The medicine wheel is a symbolic tool passed down through the generations in many different cultures across Turtle Island. The women were given a very brief explanation of the medicine wheel to orient them to one that was placed in the centre of our circle. The structure of the medicine wheel is founded on the order of the universe. The basic aspects of the medicine wheel were laid out: the four directions, the four seasons, the four stages of life, and the four worlds.
The medicine wheel teaching was designed such that the Elder would prompt circle members with guiding questions until they had the correct answers for the wheel. Soon, the participants became experts, and it took less time to label the medicine wheel. Often giggles would erupt as women shouted out answers or preempted the Elder with the appropriate answers (i.e., the East is the first sacred direction because the sun rises in the East). This aspect of the day was very successful and important because the right answers buoyed the participants' confidence, the repetition was comforting, and the laughter relaxed everyone and helped them be themselves. The various realms of the medicine wheel provided the potential for the women to tell a nonverbal story about how they felt with each question (Figures 1 and 2).
Symbols for Connection
Each morning, the Elder filled baskets with natural objects like rocks, seeds, shells, and feathers. Each object was symbolic, and there was a lesson and a purpose for each one that correlated with the research questions. Symbols are important as orienting devices and objects of focus because they are tangible and accessible images for reflection and introspection. We believe in the importance of accessibility in research and chose to use symbols, which create connection and drew the women in to a space of sharing rather than stating questions that seek specific answers, which may often situate the participant as an outsider to a study. A cloth covered the items, so there was always some anticipation and alertness among the participants because they waited to see what was in the basket. We chose symbols that had attributes that complemented the research questions.
Stones: Many cultures on Turtle Island honour stones as the first “Nation” here on Earth. Some Nations believe that rocks are the first storytellers; they are revered because they have witnessed everything that has happened since time began. Stones were chosen for the first set of questions, which were were primarily autobigraphical.
Shells: Shells represent the ocean and the deep inner realm of Mother Earth. They are a symbol of our inner selves. The questions this day, correspondingly, were constructed with more depth; participants were asked to share more of their feelings about their lives, health, and environment.
Seeds: All life begins from seeds. Each sacred seed contains the mystery of life. When a seed is placed in the ground and watered, it transforms into life. Seeds honour women, the seed carriers for human life. Seeds are also a metaphor for planting seeds of transformation. The questions this day were about changes the women wanted in their health, lives, and communities.
Feathers: Feathers are a symbol from the bird nation. They symbolize our capacity to dream and create or to metaphorically fly and see far. Feathers represent our prayers, hopes, and ideas of self-transformation. The feather questions dealt with the wellness vision the women held for themselves and their community.
The Bundles: Participants kept their symbolic objects in individual bags. On the final day, each woman was given a special cloth and ribbon to create a bundle to keep the objects and have a physical representation of the stories, thoughts, and prayers shared during our time together. We hoped that these bundles would be part of the participants' stories and that they will hold them up in times of struggle, and in this way, our circle will continue beyond the research.
Rituals of Empowerment
Before the questions began, the basket of symbolic objects was passed reverently around the circle while a healing song was offered. This connected the participants to the process, to each other, and to the objects. After the song, a team member walked around the circle with the basket, and each participant took a rock, seed, shell, or feather and held on to it while they answered the question. Sometimes, the character of the object would trigger a response. The colour or shape would remind participants of something related to the research questions. This was sometimes astonishing because there seemed to be universal forces at work, the way it happens when we are out on the land and/or living life. After the participant answered the question, the Elder encouraged her to hold the symbol close to her heart, walk around the medicine wheel, and place it where she felt inspired.
This ritualistic moment honoured the painful disclosures some women made about their lives. It also created an opportunity for the team to gather nonverbal data because the placement of the symbol on the medicine wheel told another story. The medicine wheel is a metaphorical tool used to describe the past, present, and future, and the physical world around us. Its centre represents our inner realm or Mother Earth, and the wheel represents our world. Outside the wheel is the sky and the border of the blanket represents the great mystery. The photograph in Figure 1 (above) was taken during the day feathers were used. Many women placed them in the figurative sky and close to each other, while others had their feathers placed in the world or on the ground. The placement of the feathers conveys another response to the questions.
As the four days progressed, most women became more engaged in the process and took time to reflect inwards and place their symbols on the medicine wheel thoughtfully and carefully. When they reacted to the questions with stress or sadness, we observed this ritual as a way to respect their feelings in a process where everyone was connected.
This ritual also created moments of closure after each participant had shared, fostering a sense of honour and respect, especially after intense responses. These moments united the group because there was space for everyone to connect and ground their emotions before the next person spoke. After everyone answered the first question, the next basket was taken around the circle and the process was repeated for all the questions.
The colonization of Turtle Island resulted in our people being disconnected from their spirits, identities, thoughts, and feelings, and from their relationships with each other and the environment. The process we invoked in the circle was about creating and supporting connection, a deliberate decolonizing apporach to research (Zavala, 2013). The rituals that accompanied the research questions created numerous opportunities for those involved to support, honour one another, and connect. Many participants became grounded and peaceful when they were encouraged to hold their stones, which was powerful and moving to observe. Many were in survival mode, with behaviours emerging from habits that repelled others, but in these precious moments, they owned their space and became at peace with themselves. This was not always the case, but it occurred with most participants to varying degrees.
What people say or do not say in a given moment is a way for them to create emotional, intellectual, physical, and spiritual sovereignty. This independence was nurtured several ways. We encouraged the women by praising them instead of correcting them, which would have been an act of placing ourselves above them. Traditionally, the preferred Indigenous way of teaching is praising people when they are successful, so they become more confident in what they are doing right, instead of reflecting on their errors. For example, my grandmother encouraged me to find my answers from within or she shared stories with wisdom for me to reflect on, which nurtured my independence. The offering of tobacco to the earth and praying for guidance is a ceremony taught to help humans connect with the Great Spirit and the forces in nature and turn inward, finding answers within one's own spirit. Women were supported and encouraged to use the medicines to find their own paths.
We also created healthy opportunities for emotional independence with the tradition of honouring the tears that flowed and giving participants time in the circle to come out of emotional moments by themselves. The emotional space for the women to grieve was full of compassion, acceptance, and calm energy. If someone's story triggered overwhelming and intense emotions, we would sing a song, take a break, or participants were offered a smudge. The cultural medicines and practices used to deal with excruciating pain inspired confidence in participants to reflect inward when asked research questions. Once they knew their feelings would be cared for in a respectful, balanced way, they allowed themselves to look deeper within and explore some relevant and difficult times in their lives.
The Closing Ceremony
Each day concluded with a check-in, a song, and a blessing. Participants gathered their symbols from the medicine wheel and put them in their bags. The candle was blown out and the medicines put away. The women symbolically and emotionally cleared the space by putting away their sacred bundles.
At this time, the team witnessed the women's efforts to participate in all the day's activities. The team expressed gratitude and respect for all the emotions, thoughts, and dreams each woman had shared. Teachings were offered to help the women explore the opportunities to bring more ceremony and wisdom into their world. Over time, the women began to witness each other and the team members creating oneness in the group.
The Give-Away Ceremony
The final ceremony for the participants was a give-away. They were given a certificate of completion and medicines for their personal bundles. It was moving for the team to listen to the women's appreciation of the gifts that they had earned. The gifting flowed both ways in most groups. Some women offered the team touching cards, hand knitted (by a participant) slippers, medicine, and keepsakes. Some wrapped their gifts in prayer cloth and presented them with a ceremony. These acts are a testament to the group's equitable nature and the women's confidence in taking a risk to create a special moment.
One woman gifted us a beautifully carved feather. She used her honorarium to commission an artist to make it for the circle. She wrapped it in prayer cloth and tied it with ribbons. She requested time in the morning circle for her ceremony. The team was amazed and moved by this touching gesture and the way the woman created a ceremony to present it. It was a powerful and timeless moment of deep connection.
I felt very empowered by all the medicines. And all the traditions of what a sharing circle is. I've never seen or been to one, that I can remember, and I found it very empowering. All of it, just really made me feel like a person, a whole person. And took a lot of the pain that I carry inside of me, away.
- SSL Participant
The activity day centred around canning blueberries to take home. Traditionally, many Nations consider berries a sacred gift and an important part of our ceremonies. Many songs and prayers honour the blessing of berries. Cultural teachings and a ceremony were offered while the participants prepared the berries for canning, and laughter filled the air as they worked.
Touch the Earth Retreat
In the summer following the sequential sharing circles, we brought together women from all the circles for a three-day retreat. We stayed at Sts'ailes Lhawathet Lalem (Sts'ailes Healing House), in the Pacific Northwest Coast rainforest on Stó:lō territory, approximately 100 km from Vancouver. The retreat included a careful balance of hands-on activities, sharing circles, time in nature and ceremonies, and research questions. The team collaborated on all the activities and ceremonies, which seemed to flow from a place beyond our knowing, as though guided by the forces of the universe and the ancestors.
River ceremony: The Elder had kept the cedar boughs from all the sharing circles and she placed them in the centre of the circle. After a prayer, the women took them down to the river and let them float away in the current. This ceremony immediately connected the women to the environment and put respectful closure to the work done over the winter months while creating emotional and spiritual space for new experiences at the retreat.
Baby moccasins: During the cultural time at the retreat, the women had an opportunity to work on three creative projects for their bundles. Elder Glenda Klassen Delorme, Cowessess First Nation, joined us on the first day to facilitate a baby moccasin-making workshop. These simple moccasins were completed in a few hours. Glenda Klassen Delorme was always warm, gentle, and encouraging. She had healing, wise words for the women, especially when they shared doubts or fears about creating the moccasins. The women told stories, laughed, and helped each other in inspiring ways while they worked.
Rattles: On the second day, we gave the participants small rattles to decorate. Beads, feathers, and paint were available for them to create something meaningful for themselves. They embraced this opportunity with confidence. These rattles had very touching meanings and became reverent symbols of the women's personal choices.
Symbolic umbilical cords: On the third day, the participants made symbolic umbilical cords with cedar bark. The inspiration for the cords came from the Elder who had initially created them as a reconciliation project for urban Indigenous Elders who never had a “Touch the Earth” ceremony when they were born due to the effect of colonization. My Grandmother said “Touch the Earth” was the first coming-of-age ceremony when babies first walk on the earth. Each spring in a great ceremony at dawn, babies who were around two summers old were taken out of their cradle boards so they could literally touch the earth for the first time.
The women embraced the process of making the symbolic cords. We encouraged them to decide what the cord meant to them, suggesting options such as thinking of the cords as a connection to their mothers, or with Mother Earth, the universe, or whatever they imagined that was comfortable for them. The women braided the cedar bark cords and put crystal beads on the ends to symbolize the water in which we first come alive. Short copper wires were twisted around each cord to hold them in a circle shape. In many Northwest Coast tribes, copper is considered the blood of Mother Earth. The cords were lovingly wrapped in fabric, tied with a ribbon, and placed in a larger bundle with the moccasins and rattles. The creation of these sacred symbols deeply affected many of the women who were braiding a meaningful connection to their life force and with each other at the same time.
Touch the earth ceremony: At the morning check-in circle, the women were instructed to gather stones that represented a part of their life experience that gave them meaning and strength, and cedar for the “Touch the Earth” ceremony. The cedar boughs were gently laid on the floor around the circle.
The ceremony began with the women creating a path with their rocks that led to a red blanket on the floor. Eagle Spirit Woman walked each woman down the path to the blanket, where they were blessed with water and an eagle feather. The Elder “witnessed” all the women, acknowledging each woman's innate strength and gifts. Kindness, generosity, helpfulness, courage, and wisdom are examples of the personal attributes that were shared while each woman received her bundle with the moccasins (the first step), the rattles (the first sound), and the umbilical cords (the first connection). The women embraced this intimate ceremony with comfort and openness. A sense of ease with one another developed because we had created art, sung, feasted, laughed, and shared together.
The beauty of Mother Earth, the protective cedar tree, outside my window. When I'm in the circle, it's there. When I arise from rest, it's there. The immense honour I feel, when we went on our holy walk, drumming, I did feel very, very special and worthy.
- SSL Participant
Drumming the Ecstasy of Transformation
Holy moments do not last forever but when a sense of “oneness” prevails, for a moment, the world is alive to us and we are alive to it. Elder Glenda Klassen Delorme brought her powwow drum to our camp. She hesitated momentarily and questioned bringing it, but her instincts or the wise guidance of the ancestors prevailed, giving us all a sacred gift. I saw joy, freedom, compassion, and ecstasy in my sisters as we sat around the powwow drum. Together, we allowed the forces of transformation to move through our hearts, minds, and bodies as we sang the song that brought us all home, feeling both the pain and beauty of being alive.
Grandmother Moon Illuminates the Darkness
The moon illuminates the world with gentle light at night when we are asleep. My people say Grandmother Moon illuminates our dreams by lighting our night walk. Moonlight also illuminates the darkness inside oursleves. Our true selves are discovered when we turn inward and follow our spirits rather than being governed by external forces. The “Touch the Earth” ceremony created a gentle harmony among the group that honoured “who we really are,” our essence, and our original identity. Everyone was connected and the women appeared to be connected to their spirits. Grandmother Moon gently guided us toward “oneness.”
Wellness is, I guess, to learn to find ways of working with love. Loving my children. Making sure I have a beautiful home. And teaching my children ways to live a happy life, instead of being angry.
- SSL Participant
It is said that our tribes used to work together to create a ceremony. In this world where people continue to feel the effects and culture-shaping powers of colonization and settler colonialism, I have often experienced cultural ceremonies structured around a singular leader, creating a hierarchy that separates everyone because they focus on pleasing the leader rather than turning inward. Oneness means nurturing equality, independence, and respect for each person's spirit. In our research projects, leadership is held both by the Elders and the university research team, but it is manifested in a gentle, compassionate, and encouraging way in collaboration with the participants. Oneness in this context means that we are all moving forward together, like flowing water. As the circles progressed and as emotional and spiritual safety evolved, the women became more candid and authentic answering the research questions. They also learned and practised some Indigenous ways of knowing and being, which strengthened them and the community during the data-gathering process. Research grounded in ceremony creates a space where all the senses and our spirits are engaged. This cultural foundation sets the stage for transformation to be enacted and acknowleged in every dimension.
This study was funded by Canadian Institute of Health Research (CIHR; Grant #384090) in 2017. Sharon Jinkerson-Brass, Candice Norris, Luke Heidebrecht, Kehinde Ametapee, Sarah MacDonald, Alexandra King, and Malcolm King report no financial interests or potential conflicts of interest.