JAMES SMITH CREE NATION, Sask.—It’s completely black inside the dome-shaped Buffalo sweat lodge; not a single beam of light penetrates the inky void. The slow pounding of a lone drum bounces off the walls — soon, more join in unison, building to a steady crescendo.
A woman’s piercing cry is heard as water is splashed on a pile of blazing hot rocks, believed to have been formed by volcanic activity, the scorching sound letting the group know steam they cannot see is rising. Solemn singing is punctuated now and again with guttural howls, prayers in Cree and the rattle of pebbles shaken in gourds.
A woman coughs as the rocks, which are too hot to touch, shoot out some smoke from the embers.
Locals say the heavier your heart, the hotter the sweat.
By the fourth round of sweat, the heat is almost unbearable.
“This is a sliver of the suffering,” whispers B’alam — whose name means “Soul of the jaguar” — “that the people that we pray for go through.”
This sweat ceremony on James Smith Cree Nation is one step on a healing journey for a community that has experienced immeasurable suffering over the past week. Many here are still processing the tragedy that overtook their nation and left 11 members dead in its wake.
What has been called a stabbing rampage sparked a manhunt for two brothers — Myles and Damien Sanderson — that lasted for days. Damien, initially labelled a suspect by RCMP and charged with murder, was later found dead on the First Nation. Myles, meanwhile, was captured along a rural highway on Wednesday night. Shortly after being taken into custody, RCMP say, he went into “medical distress” and died. A review of RCMP actions will be conducted by the Saskatoon police and the Saskatchewan Serious Incident Response Team.
The tragedy also took the lives of Bonnie Goodvoice-Burns, 48, Greg “Jonesy” Burns, 28, Lydia Gloria Burns, 61, Lana Head, 49, Christian Head, 54, Robert (Bobby) Sanderson, 49, Earl Burns, 66, Thomas Burns, 23, Carol Burns, 46, and Wesley Petterson, 78.
In the wake of that, a community has been left to deal with the violent deaths of its members and the fallout from a hellacious four days that had many living in fear.
The sweat this Thursday night, led by Elder Tony Tacan, of the Wahpeton Dakota Nation, is a sacred ceremony aimed at purifying and cleansing the mind, body and spirit. People are encouraged to pray for their families, the community, the victims, or any person or thing they care about.
Before the sweat commences, a community member speaks a few words, setting an intention of sorts.
“Before we can start our healing journey,” he says, “we must find forgiveness.”
The sweat consists of four sessions with breaks in between, and lasts nearly three hours. By the final round, Chief Wally Burns asks for the door to be opened, letting light trickle in from the sunset and nearby sacred fire.
He says in all his years of ceremony, he’s never asked to take a break before.
“That was a first, because it hit me so hard,” he says. “Something hit me really hard in the chest.”
In an interview, Chief Burns reflects on the moment when he learned about the massacre that unfolded on his First Nation.
“I woke up to a call and all of a sudden (notifications on my phone), nonstop … My heart was crushed. I wanted to yell. I wanted to be angry. All these emotions come out. And I think dealing with this whole situation as a chief, and as a human being … it was shattering.”
He says ceremonies like these, and connecting with traditional Indigenous teachings and culture, is a crucial part of the healing process for his nation. And it’s especially important for the youth.
“We’ve got to care for one another, we’ve got to open those doors … in regards to how we raise a child, how we raise a community and look after our elders,” he says.
But coming together as a community won’t be enough to prevent future violence in Indigenous communities, Burns says. Real work needs to be done to make access to services and support easier for First Nations peoples, something that Burns is occupied with day in and day out. He’s calling for more resources, more education, more mental health supports and more addiction treatment centres.
He also wants to see reform in the justice system, as well as more support for tribal policing models, restorative justice, and for Indigenous law to be incorporated into how people are rehabilitated.
Looming behind it all is the legacy of the residential school system, and the intergenerational trauma that he says still ripples through his community. Burns is not a survivor, but his parents were.
“I can speak on behalf of my late father and my late mother on the trauma we went through. Through alcohol. Through violence in the home. All of these things affected us mentally, physically, spiritually. And people don’t see it that way — oh they’re just a drunken Indian. Why are we drunks? Why are the jails full of our people?
“Through generations and generations, the trauma kept going.”
But today, he and his community are focused on healing.
“I think dealing with the whole situation is going to be years and years and years.”
Stuart Head, 56, takes a slow, measured drag of a cigarette, standing on the steps of his grandparents’ abandoned house on James Smith Cree Nation. He’s currently sleeping in his truck — he lives about two hours south, but drove here as fast as he could when his sister called him last weekend and said she was holding their dead brother Christian in her arms.
Head arrived and found his brother’s home cordoned off and surrounded by RCMP officers and cruisers. He says the officers tried to prevent him from going in, but he pushed them out of his way.
He walked into the sight of his brother, bloodied and beaten.
“He put up a fight, you could tell, he hurt one of them boys,” Head says. “And damn it, one of those boys was his own son-in-law.”
His brother’s partner, Lana, was also killed, as was his cousin Bobby. He describes the three of them as giving and loving people, good parents and grandparents.
Head says he was good friends with the accused brothers’ grandfather, Ernie, who he describes as calm, relaxed and a good teacher and mentor.
At this moment, Head is neither calm nor relaxed. He’s full of anger, and admits that he’s been driving up and down the roads at night, looking for the man who allegedly killed his brother.
But at the same time, he sees parallels in his life with the man who terrorized his community. Head, a residential school survivor, says he still grapples with the scars from his past.
Much of his life has been filled with violence.
The James Smith Cree Band, situated near the North Saskatchewan River, was established in 1876. It’s about 15,000 hectares in size and has a population of about 3,400. The nearest city centre is Prince Albert, about 60 kilometres east.
The Prince Albert Indian Residential School was an amalgamation of the St. Alban’s Indian Residential School in Prince Albert, managed by the Anglican Church of Canada, and the All Saints Indian Residential School in Lac La Ronge, which burned down in 1947. Those students were then sent to Prince Albert. In 1951, the two schools merged and it was officially named the Prince Albert Indian Residential School in 1953.
According to the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation, it grew to be the second-largest residential school in Canada and ultimately closed in 1997, making it one of the last operating residential schools.
Eleanore Sunchild, a prominent lawyer for Indigenous rights in Saskatchewan, says the Prince Albert school was “full” of abuse; she has represented several clients who told her first hand of their experiences.
“A lot of times they’ve told me you’re the first person I’ve ever told. Which is an honour, but it also breaks my heart that they’ve had no sense of healing or any process of letting go,” she says.
“People can’t get over it because they’ve barely started talking about it … abuse doesn’t just stop with the survivor. It’s like a poison that seeps into the community.”
Head remembers fleeing the Prince Albert Indian Residential School as a 10-year-old boy, having packed a bagged lunch, following the train tracks from Prince Albert to the small town of Kinistino, about 25 kilometres from James Smith. It took him three days and three nights to get home; he would sleep all day, hide, then run all night.
This happened again the following year, after he was returned to the school.
“I wanted to get away from there because I was dealing with too much racism,” Head says, recalling that he would get called a “dirty little Indian” at the school.
He was also bullied. When he left the school, he vowed to never let that happen again to him or his family.
“After that it was just violence,” Head recalls. “I grew up the wrong bloody way after that. Me and my brother, if anyone picked on him, I’d be there to clean up whatever … It’s hard to heal when you’re always looking out for your family.”
As a young man he picked up the bottle, got in trouble with the law, and frequently got into fights. His voice grows louder as he remembers being charged with two counts of assaulting a police officer when he was 17 when some officers confiscated some booze he and his friends were drinking and called them a racial slur.
“Nobody was safe when I was pissed off and drinking … Now I’m sorry for what I did. But don’t laugh at us. Don’t make fun of us.”
As Head speaks of the experiences from his youth, it’s like there’s something building inside him. While he says he hasn’t drunk in more than 20 years, and is more connected to his roots and culture than he was as a teen, he says he can still have a short fuse.
The words “dirty Indian” still trigger him, to the point where he’s gotten in fights as an adult when they’re directed toward him.
“When somebody says something racist to me I blow the f— right up and I can’t help myself,” Head says. “It’s like a switch … A lot of us are hurt and broken and don’t give a s— anymore. And that’s what the world needs to know about residential schools. We were pushed to our limit. And damn it, we were pushed so hard and we’re so frustrated, that when we push back, it’s dangerous.”
The residential school not only affected him, but his family, his friends, his community. He estimates he’s lost about 50 people to suicides, drug overdoses, alcoholism and violence.
When asked why he doesn’t live here anymore, he purses his lips and stares off into the distance.
“I got tired of seeing death.”
He says he’s working every day to get over the trauma from his past.
But he admits he’s not sure if that work will ever be complete.
“It’ll probably stop when I’m gone,” Head says, his gaze cast to the ground.
“I’ll finally be OK.”
A large tent, set up as a gathering place for community members on James Smith Cree Nation, is kindled with hundreds of candles and the sound of drumming and song.
Chief Burns takes the stage, urging his community to come together and stand strong in the aftermath of this tragedy.
He speaks of the impacts that trauma, drugs and alcohol have had on his community, and says he hopes he can serve as a positive role model for the youth.
“I don’t drink, I don’t do drugs. I don’t even smoke. But I picked up a lot of weight during COVID,” he says as he pats his belly to peals of laughter.
It’s a brief moment of levity at this sombre time, with the feeling of grief, but also relief, still palpable in the room as tears give way to smiles and long embraces between the people affected.
The chief encourages community members to take part in traditional teachings to strengthen their spirit during this difficult time.
“There’s so much emotion going on right now from the pain that happened. Anger. We’re broken. So as a collective we’ve got to work together to fix that,” Burns says. “And that starts with going to ceremony.”
He adds that he asked all levels of governments today for three things: to establish their own tribal policing; additional supports for mental health and addiction; and more specifically, a treatment centre on the First Nation.
Former chief Eddie Head next takes the stage. He calls the incident that shook his nation a “wake-up call.”
The accused brothers were his nephews.
“How do you tell your sister they’re not going to see their sons again? How do you tell them that?”
He says in a conversation with his sister, the mother of the accused, he told her “the community does not hate you.”
He encouraged her to come home.
“She said to me ‘They’re going to pick on me, I don’t wanna go back there. I feel like I’m not a part of there because I destroyed the community.’
“And I said no you didn’t. You made us stronger, in being together.”
As people raise their candles in memory of the dead, he urges those who are grieving to find forgiveness in their hearts, a message that the chief echoes in a conversation with the Star.
He acknowledges the men who are accused of perpetrating the crimes in his community were likely suffering from trauma as well.
“We’ve got to forgive those people,” Burns says. “We’re forgiving people. How are we supposed to heal if we don’t forgive? All of those things squished inside our stomach, we’ve got to release them. And give them back to the Creator.”
Omar Mosleh is an Edmonton-based reporter for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @OmarMosleh