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Saskatchewan's Great Spirit


© St. Petersburg Times

When does a steam bath become a spiritual exercise? When it's a Cree sweat-lodge ceremony conducted on the rolling plains near Regina, Saskatchewan.

I spent a summer week in Canada's enormous breadbasket of a province. It turns out to be a good spot for a follow-your-nose kind of excursion, a trip where you explore the days away, trusting your instincts for food, lodging and activities. The things-to-do seem to fall into two categories: cowboys and Indians . Well, okay, farmers and First Nation Peoples.

The spots to see -- Regina, Saskatoon and Prince Albert National Park -- lie about four hours' drive from each other, though by any scale, the place is immense -- as big as California plus goodly chunks of Nevada and Arizona. Now divvy it into thirds: the northernmost is mucky, treeless tundra; the center, forest; the lower portion, the area unfurling north from Montana, used to be bison grazing on buffalo grass. Now it's planted in wheat.

Saskatchewan is as flat as your kitchen table and as decked out with food as Sunday supper. Wheat, barley, corn and rye wash in waves from horizon to horizon. When the breeze starts to blow and all that grass starts to move, you might think you're cresting breakers atop a golden sea.

And the sky blisters with billowing clouds.

Anyway, on my first morning in Regina I checked out the RCMP Academy, then went to the Royal Saskatchewan Museum to tour their First Nations Galleries. The First Nations are the Assiniboin, Sioux, Cree, Salteaux and Chippewa tribes. They settled these parts thousands of years ago and still make up 40 percent of the province's population.

One of the exhibits there is a sweat-lodge. The label explains, "A sweat is a spiritual ceremony for healing, prayer and cleansing the spirit. A broth of cedar, sage and sweet grass is sprinkled on heated rocks four times while participants pray, sing or chant." This presentation was the perfect introduction to the real thing.

The Piapot Indian Reserve is 40 miles east of Regina in a cleft of land forged by the Qu'Appelle River. On one shallow cliff there, covered with linden bush and buzzing with mosquitoes, sits a little dome -- a lodge -- constructed of four saplings lashed over each other and covered with blankets. A fire, tended by two Cree men and their two sons, crackled outside the low opening. Shifting from foot to foot, barefoot, in shorts, and trying to look comfortable -- yet absurdly out of place -- pranced a half-dozen adventurous white souls, including me, who had paid $20 each for a genuine sweat.

In we go. In come the red-hot rocks, piled into a pit. In come our hosts. In comes the bucket of broth.

Art Kaiswatum, the Cree who guides the sweat, explains. "We believe man and earth are one," he says. "From these rocks, we receive our cleansing."

It's an experience that unfolds. The flap comes down, I'm in pitch darkness, and Kaiswatum has poured four ladles of the potpourri onto the rocks. "Pray to your own God," he says. Slowly the hot vapor, meshed of sage and mint, envelops me. The dome seems to lighten from utter blackness to the sensation of sunset on a cloudy day. While Kaiswatum raps a mallet on a skin drum, chanting, my blood pressure lowers and my breathing slows.

We repeat this three times, though four is the usual, signifying earth, air, fire and water. Between each sweat, we emerge into the refreshing breeze and finally, somehow, each of us grows comfortable, walking barefoot on raw ground, chatting lightheartedly with Canadian Cree natives about matters of the spirit, experiencing earth, air, fire and water ourselves. My soul felt big as the sky. Matters of the stomach

I've traveled quite a bit in Canada, and in some rural areas the food can taste sort of ... defrosted. Not at the Bluenose Vacation Farm, though. Ken and Jo Mader own this wheat spread where folks come for down-home dinners or to experience farm chores and spend the night. Inside the stone farmhouse, with pale green walls and sheer drapes to let the sunset in, I chow down fried chicken, corn salad and biscuits. For dessert: Saskatoon berry pie and the delightful sound of someone else doing the dishes.

The next day I head for the city of Saskatoon, 150 miles northwest, to explore the Western Development Museum. In a big structure, using about 10,000 donated artifacts, the city as it stood in 1910 has been re-created. As you'd expect, there are tons of farm implements, a general store and a dry goods outlet; but you'll also find a photo studio, a clock-repair shop and a complete train station.

Downtown, the Ukrainian Museum displays and sells the intricate straw weavings and geometric painted eggs for which the province is famous. Created by Ukrainian farm women in the area, the eggs are difficult to find nowadays and expensive.

An hour later I was out on the prairie again. "Wanuskewin? Where do you Canadians get these names?" I joshed the woman behind the counter at Wanuskewin Heritage Park. "It's Cree," she snapped back, "meaning "seeking peace of mind.' It's meant to be whispered."

Indeed, pronounced Wah-nus-KAY-win, it rolls off the tongue as easily as smoke drifts out of a tepee into a starlit night.

"Besides," she retorted, chuckling, "it's no worse than Cincinnati."

The 250-acre park provides an overview of the native presence here over the past 6,000 years. The interpretive center offers an introductory film, artifact displays and a storytelling circle. Outside, four trails lead visitors past ancient tepee rings, around archaeological digs, and under a buffalo jump -- where men, 3,000 years before King Tut, ran bison off this cliff to kill them. Women waited below to process the animals.

I asked one of the rangers, Connie Braun, a Cree, what the place means to her, and she answered, "This represents a place where natives and non-natives try to achieve something together, to learn from each other." Then she thought a bit and sighed, "I can feel the earth breathing here," she added.

Myself, I think I felt it 130 miles north in Prince Albert National Park. It's the quintessential Canadian experience: woods, water and wildlife. I spent one day knocking around Waskesiu Lake, a little hamlet that reminded me of Colorado mountain towns 30 years ago. In the morning I took an easy hike into the forest, then had flapjacks and coffee in a cafe. Later I paddled a canoe around the lake.

On my final day, I made a pilgrimage by car, boat and foot to the cabin of Grey Owl. Mr. Owl was a native writer who lived on the edge of Ajawan Lake in a cabin with his beavers, Jelly Roll and Rawhide. He wrote books and magazine pieces during the 1930s, urging governments to conserve wilderness, to protect species. He said things like, "Remember, you belong to nature, not it to you." This acclaimed Indian is credited with convincing the government to preserve thousands of acres.

But few knew his real story till after he died. Grey Owl was really Archibald Belaney, born in Hastings, England. He dyed his hair and inked his skin for years so he would be thought of as being Cree.

After a week in Saskatchewan, I can't say I blame him.

(All amounts are in Canadian dollars and all area codes are 306.) Getting there:

Air Canada flies in and out of both Regina and Saskatoon several times a day. Where to stay:

Hotel Saskatchewan, Regina; 522-7691; $135, and worth every penny.

Bluenose Vacation Farm, Qu'Appelle; 699-7192; $54.

Delta Bessborough Hotel, Saskatoon; 244-5521; $84 (ask for a remodeled room).

Hawood Inn, Prince Albert National Park; 663-5911; $75. Things to do:

RCMP Academy; 780-5838; 8 a.m.-6:45 p.m.; no charge. Royal Saskatchewan Museum; 787-2815; 9 a.m.-8:30 p.m.; no charge.

Piapot Sweat, TourQuest; 731-2377, $20 per person. This is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Be prepared to be flexible about schedule and itinerary. TourQuest also offers a six-day independent program focused on the Cree which includes a sweat, a pow-wow, Wanuskewin and native meals.

Western Development Museum; 931-1910; 9 a.m.-5 p.m.; adults, $4.50; over 65, $3.50; students, $1.50.

Wanuskewin Heritage Park; 931-6767; 9 a.m. to 9 p.m.; adults, $6; over 65, $4.50; students, $4; children, $2.50.

Ukrainian Museum of Canada; 244-3800; Monday-Saturday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m.; adults, $2; over 65, $1; students, 50 cents.

For more information about Saskatchewan, call (800) 667-7191 or (306) 787-2300.

Originally published August 17, 1997

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