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Aboriginal Sex Offenders: Melding Spiritual Healing with Cognitive-Behavioural Treatment

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The aboriginal Offender Programs section of the Correctional Service of Canada has developed an aboriginal spirituality information kit. It was written by two aboriginal Elders, Art Solomon and John Stonechild. They will be cited here as we examine the different elements that are part of aboriginal spirituality.

aboriginal spirituality is based on the fundamental inter-connectedness of all natural things, all forms of life. There is no distinction between spiritual life and cultural life. For Canadian aboriginals, spirituality is a total way of life (Solomon and Stonechild: 1). The information kit states that ceremonies are the primary vehicle of religious expression that need a ceremonial leader or Elder to assure the authenticity and integrity of religious observances. There is no written doctrine. Teachings are passed on verbally by recognized Elders.

Individuals concentrate on the realism of the inner self, particularly self-to-self and self to others (Solomon and Stonechild: 2). The aboriginal individual seeks the four aspects of enlightenment: strength, knowledge, understanding and sharing. The authors indicate that inner conflicts and fears are confronted in an effort to develop emotional/mental truth and honesty and to remove conflict.

With respect to Elders, they may be either women or men. One of their major characteristics is wisdom, which relates directly to age. One Elder might have the "gift" or power to interpret dreams, another to apply herbal remedies, a third to heal in a sweat lodge. As a rule, no Elder can carry out all ceremonies.

In individual and group ceremonies, aboriginals communicate with the Creator and spirit helpers through prayers. The pipe is the instrument of choice for prayers. This excerpt describes the use of pipes in aboriginal ceremonies:

"Pipes are used for private and group prayers. Prayers are transmitted in the smoke of burning plant material in the bowl of the pipes. Pipes are of no set length. The stems may or may not be decorated with beads or leather. The bowl may be simple soapstone, or marble inlaid with silver. The bowl and stem are detached from one another while being carried from one place to another. Women have pipes which are used only by women. A man cannot touch a woman's pipe, unless asked by the woman to do so. Likewise, there are warrior pipes which may be used only by men. The pipe is not a personal possession. It belongs to the community. The holder of the pipe is considered a custodian."

The pipe ceremony is one of the primary group gatherings over which Elders preside (Solomon and Stonechild: 4). It has its own rules and protocol:

Participants gather in a circle. A braid of sweetgrass, one of the four sacred plants, is burnt as an incense to purify worshippers before the pipe is lit. Burning sweetgrass also symbolizes unity, the coming together of many hearts and minds as one person. The Elder strikes a match, puts it to one end of a braid of sweetgrass and then fans the smoldering grass with a sacred eagle feather, to encourage the production of smoke. She or he draws the smoke four times to the face, using a hand, and then passes the sweetgrass braid to another participant... Tobacco (either red willow shavings, called kinni-kinnick or commercial tobacco) is then usually placed in the pipe by the Elder, who offers the pipe to each of the four sacred medicine powers in the four directions... The spirits will be asked for assistance with the main prayer. It might be a prayer for one of the participants, for someone far away or for someone who has gone to the spirit world. Then the pipe, which eventually is passed from person to person, might be offered to all of creation, to the spirit helpers who are invisible but who are always there.

The sacred circle is similar to the pipe ceremony, with the addition of a time provision allowing each participants to address the circle, if desired (Solomon and Stonechild: 5). There is also a special form of prayer which is fasting. In this case, an Elder provides the necessary ceremonial setting and conditions and guides the person who is fasting. Solomon and Stonechild indicate that fasting involves total renunciation of food and water for a period of days determined by the person who is fasting. It goes on to say that health consideration are evaluated by the Elder and a Doctor prior to commencement of the fast.

Another fundamental collective ceremony is the sweat lodge. Solomon and Stonechild state that it is a purification procedure which precedes spiritual quests:

Participants gather in the dark of an out-of-doors, covered bough structure and pray while steam rises from red-hot rocks doused with water. A doorkeeper, who remains outside, opens a flap into the lodge four times. On each occasion the doorkeeper contributes four hot rocks to the interior altar. The prepared pipe is also admitted for smoking. In order to build a sweat lodge within a federal institution, an Elder supervises delivery by truck of essential materials, including stones, canvas or blankets, poles, a pitchfork, shovel, axe and possibly a crowbar with which to make holes in the ground. An appropriate site is a virginal section of ground which has not been desecrated by the trampling of feet or the disposal of waste matter... It takes about one-and-a-half hours to make a five-foot-high, igloo-shaped structure out of bent willow branches tied together with twine. The structure is covered with canvas or blankets, to exclude all light. It can accommodate about eight persons at a time... There are prayers and singing as well as pipe smoking during the two-hour ceremony.

Feasting is another ceremony that can be part of a sweat lodge. There are specific rituals to follow, requiring the use of certain types of food (Solomon and Stonechild: 8). Different tribes have different kinds of sacred foods. Although they may differ, their symbolic importance remains the same.

Every ceremony or ritual is accompanied by special articles. Eagle wings and feathers, rawhide gourds, drums, abalone shells, altar cloths and prints are some of the articles in use, in addition to the pipe. The four sacred plants (sweetgrass, sage, cedar and tobacco or kinni-kinnick) are also often worn in a "medicine" pouch which hangs from the neck (Solomon and Stonechild: 9). They suggest that each Elder can have additional personal sacred items. They warn that religious articles carried by Elders must not be touched by anyone other than the Elder.

The information kit states that the Correctional Service of Canada recognizes the oneness of culture, spirituality and religion of Canadian aboriginal peoples, by according aboriginal religion, the status and protection equal to that of other religions:

It extends to aboriginal individuals under its supervision those opportunities necessary to practice religious freedom which are consistent with the prudent requirements of facility security. This shall include access to appropriate space and materials, Elders, spiritual advisors, publications and religious objects or symbols.