On the Journey with the Spiritwalkers

Long Lake #58 First Nation and Ginoogaming First Nation will be leading their annual healing walk in honour of people we have lost to Drugs/ Alcohol Addictions, Cancer, Missing Women/Men, Residential School/ Day School Survivors/ Descendants, Land, Water & Air, and Racism
Long Lake #58 First Nation and Ginoogaming First Nation will be leading their annual healing walk in honour of people we have lost to Drugs/ Alcohol Addictions, Cancer, Missing Women/Men, Residential School/ Day School Survivors/ Descendants, Land, Water & Air, and Racism

Long Lake #58 First Nation and Ginoogaming First Nation will be leading their annual healing walk in honour of people we have lost to Drugs/ Alcohol Addictions, Cancer, Missing Women/Men, Residential School/ Day School Survivors/ Descendants, Land, Water & Air, and Racism
Long Lake #58 First Nation and Ginoogaming First Nation will be leading their annual healing walk in honour of people we have lost to Drugs/ Alcohol Addictions, Cancer, Missing Women/Men, Residential School/ Day School Survivors/ Descendants, Land, Water & Air, and Racism

by Peter Rasevych

It is Tuesday evening, the finish of Day 3 of Healing Walk 2018, the 2ndannual Healing Walk even hosted by Ginoogaming First Nation and Long Lake #58 First Nation near the Town of Longlac, and I am still admiring the strength and resolve of the people who are taking part in this year’s event.

To be a “Spiritwalker”, a person who participates in this Healing Walk event, there are only a few prerequisites: (1) a personal commitment to both personal as well as community-level healing and wellness; and (2) the desire to walk long distances.

“Long” may be a relative term. Some Spiritwalkers will join us for short bursts of only a kilometre or two. This is still a vital and important contribution to the team. Others will walk for longer distances, extending out to five kilometres, or maybe even ten kilometres.

The average human walking speed on flat pavement is five kilometres per hour, so this equals an hour or two, which is also remarkable in terms of achievement and contribution to the entire group as a whole.

Spiritwalkers do not walk as individuals, but rather we walk as a unified team, that starts off each morning by splitting into groups after a smudging and prayer ceremony. The entire group rejoins together at the end of each day to share food, laughs, sacred prayer, and one another’s great company.

Finally, there are other Spiritwalkers who do go all out: walking 20 kilometres, or more, per day. But all Spiritwalkers are equal. We all work together as a team. We tackle the huge 52-kilometre daily distances as a unit. We suffer together, we laugh together, we pray together, we heal together.

Spiritwalkers are humble people, and it does not matter to us how much of a distance one walks – the important thing is that we are walking at all. We walk for the people, and for our communities who need healing and strength. We suffer for them and we pray for them.

In pre-contact times, “Spiritwalker” was a term used to refer to a person who utilizes walking long distances as a way to attain a trance-like state, obtaining visions and advice from spirits pertaining to the well-being of the nation. Indigenous cultures make reference to Spiritwalkers, who can bridge the gap between this material (physical) world, and the non-material (spiritual) world, for the purpose of healing community (or nation).

Communicating with Chi-Manitou (the Creator), or with spirits, for healing is the name of the game for a Spiritwalker. This is accomplished through prayer and meditation of the trail.

I can personally attest to this: having walked a total of 23.2 km on Sunday to begin the walk, and another 25 km yesterday, I can say that there were indeed times during the past few days that I did feel myself employing a gait that bordered on entry into a spiritual dimension. It felt like while I was moving at a monotonous pace and rhythm, all alone leading a group on the Trans-Canada highway carrying an eagle feather staff…so steady and flowing…that I was floating and not actually walking.

The spiritual visions and thoughts that I experienced are not meant for explication in this forum. But, suffice to say that it was the intense prayer, humility, and the sacred respect that produced this. I remain eternally grateful to my fellow Spiritwalkers, and to the two Healing Walk event coordinators.

Coordinator Cecil Mendowegan (Ginoogaming First Nation’s National Native Alcohol & Drug Abuse Program Worker) drives one of the Healing Walk 2018 support vehicles. A second support vehicle is driven by Cecil’s Co-coordinator, Allan Towegishig (former Chief of Long Lake #58 First Nation). These two community leaders started the event last year, in June 2017. They intend for it to become an annual event that will hopefully catch on to more people supporting the cause.

Each day employs a theme that the Spiritwalkers pray and meditate on. Day 1 commenced at the Ginoogaming First Nation powwow grounds, at the sacred fire site. Allan and Cecil conducted a pipe ceremony. Sure enough, the dozen or so people present were witness to Migizi (an eagle) visit when Cecil and Allan began drumming some healing songs. It was very fitting that the Day 1 theme was healing from drug and alcohol abuse.

The legalization of marijuana will only add to further damage in Indigenous communities, who are wracked by nicotine addictions, alcohol addictions, opioid crises and addictions, and other drugs including cocaine and methamphetamine. It is a constant battle against all of these narcotic substances.

Spiritwalkers began the Sunday morning journey on July 15 by praying for our people who are overcoming the effects of generation upon generation of residential and Indian Day School abuse. For many, drugs and alcohol are ways to escape the intergenerational trauma.

Ontario Provincial Police officers Erica and Brian from the Greenstone detachment were on hand to provide support for the initiative. It is truly an honour to be able to be a part of the event. Psychotherapist Jasmine Burton attended the opening from as far away as Thunder Bay. This is a dedication to the First Nation community. Simon Moonias attended from Eabametoong First Nation (last year, his father walked the entire event). The start of a 322-kilometre journey began with one step.

Long Lake #58 First Nation is a nearby sister community that produces some fine Spiritwalkers. As we entered the community, we were pleased to see a few join up. That is how it is done – all you need to do is walk with us.

Day 2 (Monday, July 16) prayer theme was “Courage and Cancer.” Many may not be aware that First Nation communities have only 33% access to healthy foods that mainstream Canadian communities do. Costs for fruits and vegetables can be quite high.

Access a cleaner, healthier diet through hunting and fishing? Many First Nations have been largely removed or restricted from utilizing traditional territory for that due to industrial activity which is everywhere around them. It costs more and more to access wild meat, as one now has to range farther and farther out.

This ties into a lack of physical activity on First Nations, thereby exacerbating the cancer risk. Cigarette smoking and alcohol consumption (see above) are other factors in cancer rates on First Nations. Transportation issues to medical facilities. Dealing with getting the proper medication to be administered to individuals living in First Nation communities. Lower rates of breast cancer screening for First Nations women. All factors that contribute to courage and healing needed for Indigenous people in the battle against cancer.

Day 3 (Tuesday, July 17) prayer theme was missing and murdered Indigenous women and men. According to Cecil Mendowegan, “It isn’t just women who are going missing and murdered. It is our young men and boys too. We can’t focus on just one gender. It is everyone. It is all of our people. There are even people who are transgender, who identify as neither women or men. We need to focus on everyone, so that is why we include both genders.”

Many Indigenous communities have lost too many people, who have never returned home. There are too many loose ends in cases that have never been solved. The Spiritwalkers meditated on this, in prayer, on the highway today: Indigenous women and men are much more likely to be killed than other Canadians – in cases where disappearances are “unknown” and where foul play is “suspected.” The most marginalized people are those who live on the streets of cities, many of whom vanish.

The blind eye that has been shown to this issue by Canadian political institutions is: shameful.

Day 4 (Wednesday, July 18) will be tomorrow, and the focus of the prayer and healing will be on the survivors of Indian residential and day schools and their descendants. The effects of these schools are becoming more well-known in contemporary Canada, and the Spiritwalkers pray for healing as many may not be aware that such effects can impact the descendants of the survivors just as much as the survivors themselves.

Elevated risks of drug and alcohol addictions, and suicides…cancer…(see above). The Healing Walk issues are all intertwined. Allan and Cecil have made it so that the Healing Walk event is really, a 7-day prayer for all people to heal personally as well as to heal the greater community.

Interestingly, Day 5 (Thursday, July 19) will commence after the Spiritwalkers arrive at Lake Helen First Nation near Nipigon. Starting around 10:00 am, the Healing Walk event will shut down Trans-Canada traffic on Highway 11/17, in order to enable all participants to cross the Nipigon River Bridge.

The prayer theme for Day 5? Suicides. Far too many have left indigenous communities in this way, with suicide rates several times the national average for decades now. This should not be happening. Once again, for Canada: shameful.

By the time Day 6 (Friday, July 20) rolls around, we Spiritwalkers will be almost done: walking from the community of Pearl, about 50 km from Thunder Bay, to the Terry Fox Memorial and Monument near the entrance of the city. Meditating on “Land, Water, and Air,” Spiritwalkers will be praying for our communities and our relationships to the trees, the plants, our sacred medicines, our animal relations, our waters (lakes, rivers, creeks), and the air that we breathe – all of which have been desecrated by industrial encroachment onto our traditional territories.

The issues do indeed come full circle. All are related and intertwined.

Finally, Day 7 will commence at 10:00 am at the Thunder Bay City Hall. It will be a short walk, concluding the event at Fort William First Nation. The prayer theme for the day? What else could it be but racism? In a city that is statistically the most racist and anti-Indigenous in all of Canada, Spiritwalkers will be praying for hope and healing for all as we walk through the city.

Want to be a Spiritwalker? Anyone can. All you need to do is show up with your commitment to healing and join us.

The work done by Cecil and Allan cannot be underestimated. Tirelessly, they contact sponsors including Nishnawbe-Aski Nation, Dilico Ojibway Child & Family Services, and others. They are always doing their best to keep the Spiritwalkers going with food, water, places to sleep, and anything else.

Michelin Dumont of the Geraldton Thunderbird Friendship Centre fed Spiritwalkers in the pouring rain at the end of Day 1 of the event. Beverly Bottle, of Partridge Lake First Nation (Animbiigoo Zaagi igan Anishnaabek near Jellicoe, with a band office in Beardmore), provided cheeseburgers to feed the spiritwalkers passing by on Highway 11, on Day 2. And today, on Day 3, Biinjitiwaabik Zaaging Anishnawbek (Rocky Bay First Nation) employed many cooks who provided a feast in their community hall to the Spiritwalkers, in addition to providing the hall for sleeping accommodations. Nishnawbe-Aski Nation Deputy Grand Chief Betty Achneepineskum and NAN Community Crisis Manager made a visit to the Spiritwalkers at Biijitiwaabik Zaaging, replenishing Cecil and Allan’s water and fresh fruit supplies. Matawa First Nations have also provided sponsorship for the walkers.

Everyone pulls together. Everyone is in this for one another. Health and healing. Future generations may look forward to healthier communities in the future, as Allan and Cecil continue with their community education. Consciousness-raising, public education, and community awareness can be very effective in this battle for the spirits and lives of Indigenous peoples in Canada.

Do I have sore feet? Yes. After walking an average of 20 kilometres per day for the past three days, for sure I do. Will that stop me? Never.

We will see everyone tomorrow morning at 10:00 am, to begin the day in Biinjitiwaabik Zaaging.

We will see everyone on Thursday morning at 10:00 am, at the Nipigon River Bridge.

We will see everyone on Friday morning at 10:00 am, at the Highway 11/17 picnic stop at Pearl.

And we will see everyone at Thunder Bay City Hall on Saturday morning at 10:00 am. This is because Spiritwalkers are human beings who are devoted to the healing and health of their communities, and if you can suffer and walk like that every day, then there isn’t really anything that can stop you as you get stronger and stronger with each passing day.

Miigwech.

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Peter Rasevych is a Ginoogaming First Nation band member who also has family roots in Long Lake #58 First Nation, as well as Fort William First Nation. He is an avid trapper, fisherman, and hunter on his family’s traditional territory near Longlac, in northwestern Ontario. He is also a fully licensed children’s hockey, soccer, and lacrosse coach. He was born in Toronto, Ontario and was raised there as well as in Montreal, Quebec. As a youth, Peter attended high school in the Town of Pickering (near Toronto) as well as at Riverdale High School (in Montreal). He graduated from John Abbott College (a CEGEP in Ste-Anne-de-Bellevue, Quebec) with a DEC (Diploma D’Etudes Collegiales) in Social Sciences after studying there from 1989-91. He attained Honour Roll status for three of his four semesters there. He was then awarded with a Bachelor of Arts Degree (BA in English) from McGill University (Montreal) in 1994, after three years of study there. After travelling across Canada and living and working in the bush, he later attended Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, where he graduated with an Honours Bachelor of Arts (HBA in English) in 1998, as well as a Master’s Degree (MA in English) in 2001, where he completed a thesis which was published by the National Library of Canada. Peter’s research focus on traditional First Nations spiritual values, beliefs and culture led him to pursue a PhD in Natural Resources Management at Lakehead University from 2009-12. His research was centred on traditional Anishnawbe spiritual knowledge as it relates to the land, water, and animals. He has also worked for many years in First Nations community development, education, and human and social development at the local band office level on Ginoogaming First Nation, as well as at the tribal council level (Matawa First Nations), and also at the provincial territorial level (OSHKI, for Nishnawbe-Aski Nation). He has taught post-secondary courses for Confederation College (Negahneewin College) in Thunder Bay, in addition to instructing for courses at Lakehead University (Indigenous Learning, English, and Social Work). In addition to articles, his writing interests include research reports, essays, and creative outlets such as short stories, poetry, songs, and short novels. His interests include traditional Anishnawbe spirituality, and camping/living out in the bush as he has done with family since the age of 4.