Peyal Laceese lights the fire as part of preparations for a six-day sweat lodge at Teztan Biny (Fish Lake) recently.

Peyal Laceese lights the fire as part of preparations for a six-day sweat lodge at Teztan Biny (Fish Lake) recently.

Building on tradition at Teztan Biny

Build it and they will come, is the phrase Cecil Grinder keeps mulling over as he prepares the sweat lodge site at Teztan Biny (Fish Lake).

Build it and they will come. That’s the phrase Cecil Grinder keeps mulling over as he prepares the sweat lodge site at Teztan Biny (Fish Lake) for another sacred ceremony.

Hosting a five-night/six-day event in that remote part of the Chilcotin at the end of September is no small matter. There are no guarantees the weather will cooperate or anyone will show up, but Cecil went ahead anyway and laid the groundwork.

Since he retired from a 20-year career with the RCMP, Cecil has turned his energy to helping the youth of his Tsilhqot’in Nation. He has a gift for that, and his way with young people is impressive. He mixes gentle firmness and persistence with caring and understanding, and empowers those around him with responsibility.

Cecil laughs how his load is lightened by delegating responsibility.

When we arrive at the public campground at Teztan Biny on September 26 it was already getting dark. It was Day Three of the six-day event, and we were just in time for the evening sweat.

I was apprehensive about heading out to an event billed as a four-day fasting sweat. I’ve been around the block enough times to realize it’s not wise to engage in something you are not prepared for. At the same time it felt important to support Cecil’s noble cause. Cecil Grinder’s “noble cause” at Teztan Biny began several years ago when he hosted a four-day fasting sweat for a young man ready to pursue his inner spiritual quest. That’s when Cecil first built the big sweat lodge and set up the camp at the end of the road beyond the public campground. A smaller fasting lodge was erected in a secluded spot nearby.

I was glad to learn that the fasting part of the sweat wasn’t mandatory, so I willingly joined in.

Nine of us took part in the ceremony that night, three women and six men. Two of the participants were high school youth that Cecil was mentoring.

In a shift from his usual role as Tsilhqot’in National Government (TNG) legal counsel, Jay Nelson, scooped red glowing rocks from the fire with a long-handled fork, and passed them to Cecil who placed them carefully in the centre pit of the lodge. All summer Jay had dutifully worked around the clock representing the TNG at the environmental panel hearings for the proposed New Prosperity Mine at Fish Lake.

Grinder keeps sweat lodges alive and well

Now he was on the land participating in the Tsilhqot’in culture with his wife, Dominique, and young son, Sasha, in a way he had never done before.

Next to me in the lodge was Friends of Nemiah Valley (FONV) president David Williams. I didn’t even know David had come into the lodge until it was his turn to speak and offer a prayer.

For more than two decades David has been a tireless supporter of the Xeni Gwet’in efforts to secure the rights and control of their traditional territory. He also played a significant role at the recent panel hearings, by bringing several expert witnesses to testify.

Once the rocks were in place for the first round, Jay Nelson closed the blanket opening to the lodge and the Cecil passed the duty of running the sweat to his 16-year-old protégé, Peyal Laceese.

Peyal, a student at the Carson Campus of Lake City High School in Williams Lake, has been following the Red Road, as he puts it, for several years. He is a grass dancer at pow wows in Western Canada and the United States and learned the traditions of the sweat lodge from Sioux elders.

“There’s no wrong way to pray in the Sioux tradition,” he tells us. “Speak from your heart.”

The other youth in the sweat was Jasmine Quilt, also a student at Lake City Secondary. Her academic assignment for missing a week of school was to keep a journal of the ceremony. The other youth at the ceremony was Shania Cook.

On my other side in the sweat circle was Xeni Gwet’in elder, Norman William, who grew up at Little Fish Lake. He served as Cecil’s right-hand man throughout the six days, cutting firewood, helping set up the camp, and showing people around the area.

The men all sat together, and next to Norman was Emery Phillips, spouse of former Xeni Gwet’in chief and now band councillor, Marilyn Baptiste. As Cecil pointed out later, the sweat brings out the sincere emotional side of participants. He said Emery is no exception. “He has supported our Teztan Biny sweat ceremony from the beginning.”

Next to Emery was Marilyn, and beside Marilyn was my partner, Caterina Geuer.

That made nine of us going the four rounds of the sweat that first evening. For each round more rocks were added from the fire, and the temperature rose inside the willow-frame hut, covered with tarps and blankets. I sweated profusely in this ancient fellowship connecting the raw elements of nature, spirit and matter.I’ve been here before. We humans have the ability to create sacred space, simply by our intention and agreement. God knows it has been done before with temples, cathedrals, mosques and pyramids around the world.

Each night the formation of the sweat was different. On the second and third nights, I took over as rock bearer so Jay, Dominique and Sasha could experience it.

Xeni Gwet’in Chief Roger William took one night from his busy schedule to take part in the ceremony. “The prayers and drumming were for our lands, resources, community members and leaders,” he said later.

In all more than 40 people came and went from the camp over the six days. Some took part in the sweats, others just visited, or supported the gathering in various ways.

Cecil’s spouse, Doreen William, also grew up at Teztan Biny. “One thing I love about this area,” she said, “it tests you with its weather. It’s a very strong spiritual place. You can hear it breathing, the wolves howling in the background, danzden (loons) singing on the lake, the wind whistling, the trees rustling nearby.”

On the final morning, Cecil surveys the camp and reflects on the past few days. He marvels how it all came together, almost like magic.“We came out here with a little bit of food, and people kept bringing stuff. I think we had more food at the end than we started with.”

Unlike some of the large cultural gatherings, the Teztan Biny sweat ceremony wasn’t funded. People did everything on their own.

Peyal Laceese, who was named after the son of historic Tsilhqot’in war chief Klatsassin, said the Teztan Biny sweat ceremony was a fun learning experience. “I thank everyone for passing the knowledge of our traditions and look forward to future opportunities.”

He won’t have long to wait. Cecil has already set the date for the next Teztan Biny sweat gathering for the last weekend in May, 2014. “If you build it people will come,” he repeats.