COVER

A Return to the Earth

At shamanic retreats and sweat lodges, visitors connect with spirits in the land

Susan McClelland April 16 2001
COVER

A Return to the Earth

At shamanic retreats and sweat lodges, visitors connect with spirits in the land

Susan McClelland April 16 2001

A Return to the Earth

COVER

Susan McClelland

It is the first day of the basic shamanic workshop, a weekend retreat where participants learn how native cultures contact the spirit world. A small group is beginning to gather in a second-floor room at Northern Edge Algonquin Retreat and Awareness Centre, about three hours north of Toronto. Everyone is barefoot, quiedy taking seats on floor mats. Shari Geller sets a small drum and two ratdes beside her, and in a soft voice introduces herself. “I’ve wanted to be here for a while now,” says the 32-year-old psychotherapist. “It’s a natural progression in my spiritual growth.”

The diminutive brunette, who splits her work between Toronto and Flesherton, Ont., explains later that she started looking inward when she was 19, shortly after her mother died of cancer. Over the years, she went on a number of Buddhist retreats in Thailand and India. Two years ago, during a trip in New Mexico, Geller had a recurring thought. “I kept thinking that my spiritual guide might not be in human form,” she says. “It took a while for me to recognize this. But once I did, I knew I needed to learn how to connect with the spirit world.”

The journey to the spirit world is one

of the most sacred exercises among almost all indigenous cultures. It involves entering an altered state of consciousness and communicating in the dimension experienced normally in dreams—one that benefits emotional and spiritual well-being. Anthropologists today refer to the journey as shamanism, and over the past few decades people from various religious backgrounds have embraced it. Shamanic-based retreats and sweat lodges—places for communal prayer among native North Americans— have burgeoned from coast to coast. Even some in the medical professions recognize the healing powers of the journey. “It’s not surprising that we are seeing a worldwide renewal in shamanism,” says Bill Brunton, a lecturer at the Foundation for Shamanic Studies in Mill Valley, Calif. “Humans intuitively know this is a way to solve many of our problems.”

Even so, reviving shamanism has been difficult. Shamanic traditions are passed down orally, explains grandmother Sara Smith, a Mohawk elder from Ontario’s Six Nations reserve. And colonization forced generations of indigenous people to abandon their heritage and embrace other religions. But in the past 50 years, women have begun to resurrect female traditions like Wicca, and

At shamanic retreats and sweat lodges, visitors connect with spirits in the land

native elders to share their teachings.

Native cultures that practise shamanism are often referred to as earth-based and are grounded in a belief that all things—the environment, humans and the spirit world—are interconnected. At one time, people “knew there were spirits in the land and in animals,” explains Sharon Van Raalte, a Quebecbased therapist who conducts shamanism workshops. “It was part of the tapestry of survival for humans to contact and respect them.” That tapestry, she says, began to unravel when

churches gained power and a priesthood took over responsibility for contacting the spirit world on behalf of others. “Everyone got cut off from a direct connection with spirit,” Van Raalte says. “They felt lost. And nature came to be seen as a force to be conquered and placed at humanity’s service.”

Those impulses persist, of course, yet the healing powers of shamanism have impressed some members of the medical profession. Calgary psychologist Margaret McLeod sends some clients to shamanic healers in addition to the ther-

apy she provides. There are similarities, McLeod says, between the messages people receive during the shamanic journey and the images her patients see through hypnosis and visualization— standard techniques to help them reach the subconscious. She notes that Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud believed dreams were important sources of information; Jung thought they provided clues to what is needed to restore harmony in a persons life.

Oliver Prüden embraced shamanism in the final few months of his life. Raised a Christian, Prüden was aware that he was Métis but unaware of the culture’s belief system. That changed in 1999, shortly after he was diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumour. The former school trustee and principal in Fort McMurray, Alta., travelled to Anzac, about 40 km to the southwest, to attend a sweat lodge—a small igloo-shaped building covered in cloth. Inside an elder keeps the heat high by pouring water over hot rocks. The heat combined with prayer, says Prudens wife, Vickie, transported Prüden to the altered state of consciousness. During his journey, he felt none of the pain that accompanied his illness. He also reported having conversations with spirits who were waiting for him when he crossed over. When he died last year, at age 59, “he was trusting of his fate,” says Vickie. “It was as if a peace had come over his entire body.”