The timbre of Rob Apetagon's deep voice cuts through the dark, smoky sweat lodge while he calls out to the Great Spirits in his native Cree tongue. The intent and emotion of his words transcend the language barrier throughout this time-honoured purification and healing ritual. The air is thick with the scent of burning wood.
The fire pit morphs into a cauldron of sparks, briefly lighting up the faces of our circle of eight sweat lodge newbies. Then we're immersed in darkness again. All is quiet, except for the spitting of the fi re and the hypnotic drip of moisture on our now-slippery torsos.
The silence is broken by a spine-chilling rattle, followed by the rhythmic beating of a drum. Rob, a noted aboriginal storyteller, invites us to join in the chanting. My body temperature soars and I feel relaxed. Then there's a flash of light. The flap of the sweat lodge is thrust open just long enough for a helper to lean in and dump more red-hot rocks and burning embers into the pit. Rob ladles on more water, which unleashes another wave of heat, smoke and sweat.
Rob switches to English for a few minutes to check in with us. "I sense a longing in the group; some of you are struggling. Mother Nature will take care of you." His encouragement is matter-of- fact. He's as rooted as our sorry butts planted on the floor of the Maadoososon Sweat Lodge.
The lodge is located at Circle of Life Thunderbird House, an aboriginal culture centre designed by world-renowned aboriginal architect Douglas Cardinal, on the outskirts of Winnipeg, a city perfectly suited to anyone wishing to explore Canada's aboriginal cultures.
Visitors to can sign up for storytelling workshops, join an elder in the "A Circle of Life Medicine Walk," or spend the night in a teepee and awake to a sunrise ceremony.
Aboriginal heritage is also front and centre at the Fort Whyte Nature Centre, about 20 minutes from downtown Winnipeg. There you can learn about the unique characteristics of First Nations people (how they made use of the bison – there's a herd of 40 beasts roaming the property), Métis (hear about their life as voyageurs) and Inuit (enjoy a throat-singing performance).
There's also an authentic teepee encampment and nature interpretation complex, plus numerous kids' activities (snowshoe lessons and ice-fishing in winter; year-round dream-catcher workshops; and seasonal birding excursions). Fort Whyte also houses Buffalo Stone Café, where you can nosh on Bison Ragout and Red River Bread.
One of the highlights of my visit was the Manito Ahbee International Pow Wow. Watching more than 500 fancy dancers, chicken dancers, traditional dancers and grass dancers perform with 22 drum groups was a mesmerizing explosion of colour and music. It was fun to just kick back and watch them work up a little sweat.
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