The 4th annual Spirit Walk took place in Montreal on June 17, 2017, raising over $18,000 to support the Native Women’s Shelter of Montreal in giving Indigenous women the chance to attend a traditional healing retreat. The walk took place intentionally before National Aboriginal Day today to encourage people to feel like they have a means of supporting urban Indigenous peoples, and of participating in Canada’s National Year of Dialogue for Reconciliation and Renewed Relationships.
Emma Kroeker is one of the lead organizers of the Spirit Walk and Nakuset is the Executive Director of the Native Women’s Shelter of Montreal. They spoke with us about the importance of the healing retreat for urban Indigenous women and how it helps to build a sense of social connectedness among and beyond the group of women who participate.
“The walk is a perfect fit as a fundraiser for the healing retreat,” says Kroeker. “Women and kids get to connect with nature and it gets participants out to enjoy nature as well.”
Kroeker explained how there is a lack of opportunities for Indigenous peoples living in an urban context to participate in traditional ceremonies and connect with the land. She feels the retreat provides an opportunity for women, particularly those who come from reserves in rural areas, to re-engage with familiar landscapes while navigating the adversities they face in Montreal.
“Women face all different types of adversities; when they come here they struggle,” explains Nakuset. “From finding an apartment, finding welfare, fighting with the government in terms of youth protection or court or whatever their reason is for coming to the shelter, it’s always a struggle.”
The healing retreat provides Indigenous women and their children with a chance to refocus and reflect along with elders in a safe space. They participate in sweat lodges, traditional crafts, beading and leatherwork. “We don’t know what they will make this year, but the idea is that the women can also learn a new skill, a traditional skill if they aren’t already familiar with it so they can continue to create when they get back to the city,” explains Kroeker.
Women that come to the Native Women’s Shelter of Montreal are from different First Nations. The retreat gives them an opportunity to connect and learn from each other through workshops and also, for example, by sharing songs and s’mores around a campfire. “They are learning about different themes of struggle, and it’s a shared experience. They are sharing different types of coping mechanisms and support systems so it’s a strengthening process as well,” explains Nakuset. “It’s creating positive memories and as Indigenous people there aren’t many of them,” she adds.
Nakuset is touched by the support of non-Indigenous people in making the retreat a possibility. “Everyone is doing this for the women,” she says. “We’ve all pledged to help women and children; there’s no ego or self-centeredness about it. It’s all about reconciliation. You don’t understand the racism we face every single day, all the obstacles we face and how incredibly difficult it is to be Indigenous. It’s amazing that we are still here, and for the community to come and think this is a good thing for women, it’s fantastic.”
Women from the shelter also participate in the walk and the creation of the artwork for t-shirts and posters. Kroeker feels this acknowledgement and support is incredibly important for the women. “They get to be part of the celebrations and the gatherings. The woman who created last year’s design was very proud to see people wearing the design she created.”
One of the women that participated in a past retreat, who identifies as Sky Watcher, recounts her experience. She writes about how the retreat acknowledged and respected her spirituality and created a sense of social connectedness. “No matter where we sat, we weren’t alone. The women are in a lot of pain; they opened up and talked about a lot of their pain. They had to let go during the sweat. It’s all about letting go of the baggage and leaving it to our ancestors; this is what was so nice. All the pains that the women have, it’s like there was a feeling of heaviness lifting. It felt like we were all secure. It’s like a little magic star that fell on these women for a moment.”
If you would like to support the Native Women’s Shelter of Montreal or follow their work, please visit their website or find them on Facebook. The organization will also be hosting a National Aboriginal Day celebration in Montreal in Cabot Square on June 21 between 3:30 and 6:00PM, featuring carvers, musicians, hoop dancers and much more.