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Cultural Youth Camps: A Unity of Heart, Mind, & Spirit

September 15th 2023

Cultural Youth Camps: A Unity of Heart, Mind, & Spirit

Miskanawah Cultural Camps uniquely serve to increase cultural awareness, knowledge, and participation so children, youth, and families begin or continue to form connections between their own cultures and authentic self-images and identities. Our camps provide much needed opportunities for youth to completely disconnect from urban environments, to be still, and to learn from the Land. We are unique in our ability to offer powerful, culturally grounded, life changing development experiences while remaining truly accessible and sensitive to the realities experienced by young people, especially Indigenous youth growing up in an urban setting. The breadth of our programs provide a relevant way for young people to successfully navigate the challenging issues that face so many Indigenous youth: a sense of healthy belonging and identity; positive cultural connection; independence; educational achievement; living a healthy life; having a positive vision and sense of meaning, and finding a healthy peer community.

Miskanawah Youth Culture Camps are centered on traditional teachings of respect, love, dignity, honour, and humility, and focus on empowering one’s spirit through exposure to traditional Indigenous teachings, language, songs, stories, and ceremonies within the natural surroundings of Mother Earth. Youth learn and engage in traditional rites of passage and discover the meaning of Oskâpewis, the ceremonial role of the helper: youth being helpers in their own healing, in their families, for Elders, and for their communities as they learn the ways of adulthood. Campers engage in daily talking circles and receive traditional teachings from Elders. Past experiences include white water rafting in Kananaskis, hiking, traditional games, swimming, medicine harvesting, and attending a Sweat Lodge Ceremony.

Sun and Moon Camp: Creation Story

My name is Amber Ward, Thunderbird Eagle Woman. I am a Cultural Impact Evaluator at Miskanawah and I had the honor and privilege of being a part of planning Miskanawah’s first independent youth camps, as well as attending both camps as a youth counselor. I have been asked to share how the camps came about and what I observed at both camps.

Miskanawah was gifted the opportunity by Government of Canada, Canadian Heritage to facilitate two language-based culture camps this year. It was quickly decided that we would focus on running two smaller, more intimate camps for youth from Miskanawah, as well as young people from the community. We wanted to focus on intentionally building relationships with the young people attending and produce a sense of community. The first week of camp being the “Sun – Camp” for male, and non-binary youth. The second camp being the “Moon – Camp” for female, and non-binary youth. We wanted to allow for teachings to be catered to the young people at each camp, while also learning about teachings from a different perspective than they may have received otherwise. And with that, Miskanawah support staff hit the ground running for 3 months, delegating, planning, preparing, and praying. A couple of weeks prior to camp, offerings were brought to Lodge to offer prayers for blessings, guidance and safety for every young person embarking on the camp experience.

Initially, we had planned to host the "Sun Camp" for male and non-binary youth and the "Moon Camp" for female and non-binary youth. The idea was to tailor teachings to the specific needs of each group while allowing them to learn from a different perspective. Nevertheless, as we delved into the planning, it became evident that such divisions did not do justice to the complex challenges and struggles faced by these remarkable young people.

Each camper, regardless of gender or camp attended, has experienced intergenerational trauma, addiction, mental health issues, and a sense of displacement. This displacement could be within their own homes, peer groups, or even within themselves as they navigate the journey of self-discovery. Dividing them based on their anatomy would undermine the uniqueness of their individual experiences.

What transpired at camp was a profound realization. While there were differences between the Sun and Moon camps, they were primarily shaped by the campers themselves, not their gender. Sun campers shared openly during teaching times, displaying incredible strength by sharing vulnerabilities and discussing challenges in their relationships. Moon campers, on the other hand, felt more comfortable opening up in quieter settings such as around the evening campfire. Both groups exhibited courage in sharing their experiences and struggles, as well as in embracing something entirely new.

Every day, campers were enriched with teachings from Elders and Knowledge Keepers, Patrick and Patricia Daigneault, Wanda First Rider, Blair Thomas, Talenny HeavyHead, and Sarah Good Medicine. These remarkable individuals shared knowledge about medicines, academia, sage, teepees, geometry, songs, and tobacco ties. They filled our hearts with wisdom, love, and care, and their presence was a constant blessing.

As the days progressed, campers found their unique rhythm. They explored the wilderness, enjoyed glowstick nights, gathered around evening campfires, went on hikes and river walks, and cherished quiet moments. Smiles and laughter echoed throughout the camp, thanks to the incredible kitchen staff who prepared delicious meals with grace and resilience.

The structure of each day was carefully designed to provide a balance of cultural teachings, self-discovery, and camaraderie. Mornings began with the gentle call to wake up, followed by a hearty breakfast that fueled both body and soul. A period of ‘chill time’ allowed campers to reflect and relax, preparing them for the enriching teachings that followed. After a nourishing lunch, more teachings were offered, instilling wisdom and cultural knowledge, including teachings on traditional language and song. The afternoon was a time for campers to connect and hang out, strengthening bonds and building memories. Dinner was followed by more teachings or fireside chats that encouraged profound conversations and introspection. Evenings were reserved for hanging out, laughter, and sharing stories before bed, eagerly anticipating the adventures and discoveries of the next day. This structured rhythm of the day ensured that every moment was filled with growth, learning, and the nurturing of a deep sense of community.

Towards the end of each week, both camps learned how to prepare the sweat lodge and cloth offerings, a demanding but rewarding task. Most campers participated in the sweat lodge, and everyone gathered for a memorable feast.

As the time to bid farewell approached, campers reflected and shared their thoughts on what the week meant to them. Many expressed a desire for the camp to be longer, but all acknowledged the significance of the experience. Some valued the teachings, others cherished the connections, and for some, it was the chance to be themselves away from home. Although not all the campers stayed for the entire week, I am confident that every camper went home with something that that they can hold onto, to keep them grounded, as they continue their journeys.

One of the teachings that stood out for several of us was the teaching on love. Sarah Good Medicine shared that in Blackfoot the word for love doesn’t simply mean “I love you,” it means “I see you. Not a physical seeing, but rather an intimate one that comes from connection and knowing a person. It means I see you for who you are, who you aren’t, and I love you in your entirety.” I believe that kind of love is what was witnessed day in and day out at camp, in the planning and preparations leading up to camp, in every meal and activity, during every conversation and in the teachings that were gifted to us by the Elders and Knowledge Keepers.

In conclusion, we extend our heartfelt thanks to everyone who supported us in this remarkable journey. We anticipate many more years of camps and the adventures they will bring. The love we witnessed at camp, the kind of love that sees people for who they truly are and loves them entirely, speaks to the power of unity, understanding, and cultural enrichment. To the staff, Elders, Knowledge Keepers, and the campers, kinanâskomitinaw (I am grateful to you all).

Thank you for making this journey one we will cherish forever.

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