Indigenous youth gather for Sacred Beginnings

Sacred Beginnings participants and guests drum and sing. Photo: Anglican Video
Published June 17, 2024

About a dozen young people convened at the Sandy-Salteaux Spiritual Centre in Beausejour, Man. from May 6 to 13 for the second national gathering of Indigenous youth known as Sacred Beginnings.

Organized through the Anglican Council of Indigenous Peoples, Sacred Beginnings provides an opportunity for Indigenous young people between the ages of 15 and 25 to gather in community and learn about their cultural traditions. The first Sacred Beginnings took place in 2023 at the same location. Non-Indigenous speakers and youth participants were also present at this year’s gathering.

Many of the young participants came from northern Indigenous communities in Saskatchewan and Manitoba. Over the course of the week, they heard from Indigenous and non-Indigenous speakers alike, including National Indigenous Anglican Archbishop Chris Harper and Bishop of Brandon Rachael Parker.

National Indigenous Anglican Archbishop Chris Harper (at left) and Bishop of Brandon Rachael Parker (second from right) speak to the circle. Photo: Contributed

During their time in Beausejour, the youth studied seven traditional teachings alongside gospel-based discipleship, acquired knowledge in suicide prevention and enjoyed activities from singing and drumming to making moccasins.

Fire keepers offer guidance

One youth attending for the first time was Carey Bell, 16, who heard about Sacred Beginnings from his mother and travelled to Beausejour from his home community of Montreal Lake Cree Nation.

“I figured I’d tag along since it’s a once-in-a-lifetime trip,” Bell said of Sacred Beginnings, adding, “It was pretty nice. I liked it.”

The sacred fire burns. Photo: Heather Jenkins

A highlight for Bell was being with the fire keepers—those designated with maintaining the sacred fire that burned symbolically throughout the week. The sacred fire is a tradition in many Indigenous cultures that has represented a means of connecting with the Creator and the natural world and facilitating transformation.

Keynote speaker Tim Barron lit the sacred fire and taught participants some songs. An addictions counsellor and one of the fire keepers present, Barron is a member of Four Sacred Hearts—a group of former gang members who travel to schools in Winnipeg and Manitoba First Nations to share their own experiences of trauma, healing and resilience for youth who may not have role models. Barron often speaks about his own involvement in gang violence, which led to a jail sentence before he turned his life around.

“The fire keepers were the chillest because I got to talk with them and they were pretty straightforward with what they had to say,” Bell said. Through his conversations with the fire keepers, he said, Sacred Beginnings helped him let go of anger he felt.

“I don’t know if that’s a good or bad thing, but it feels good,” Bell said. “I was able to hear the fire keepers’ stories about how they had a downfall and how it all went wrong. They told me this just to keep me aware, so this doesn’t happen to me, and I was able to come back just a little bit more happy, a little less miserable.”

Sacred teachings, traditional skills and suicide prevention

Along with lighting the sacred fire, the first day saw the national Indigenous archbishop speak on identity, respect and the importance of both at Sacred Beginnings.

Each day, youth learned about one of the Seven Sacred Teachings, which have been adopted by many Indigenous peoples as a guide for relationships among people and between all of creation. The teachings can have different meanings depending on the clan and are each commonly associated with an animal.

Over the course of the gathering, youth learned about the teachings of humility (wolf), truth (turtle), courage (bear), love (eagle), respect (bison), wisdom (beaver) and honesty (sabe, an Ojibwe word referring to a mythological giant). The Rev. Vincent Solomon, urban Indigenous ministry developer for the diocese of Rupert’s Land, spoke about the seven teachings and connected them to the Bible.

Participants display moccasins they made. Photo: Anglican Video

Two days of Sacred Beginnings were devoted to suicide prevention. Participants took part in one-on-one conversations with suicide prevention worker and grief recovery specialist Dorothy Russell-Patterson and her husband John Patterson.

Dixie Bird, lead coordinator of Sacred Beginnings and a suicide prevention worker for the Anglican Church of Canada, said the subject was particularly relevant  for some participants who had experienced a suicide in their community a week before attending. She and other frontline workers helped facilitate talking circles.

“I had to take on what we learned that morning and help this group talk about their loss and their grief of the suicide that they just had a week prior,” Bird said.

Then, she said, organizers “softened it a little” with activities teaching drumming and songs, beading and moccasin-making as well as games, often accompanied by music and laughter. Bell describing making the moccasins as “super fun.”

Non-Indigenous Anglican youth join in

Two non-Indigenous young Anglicans took part in these activities. Robyn Sulkko, a recent graduate from the University of Ottawa who lives in Thunder Bay, Ont., and Heather Jenkins, an undergraduate student at the University of Waterloo, are both members of the Primate’s World Relief and Development Fund youth council. Each was invited to attend Sacred Beginnings for four days.

The presence of non-Indigenous Anglican youth was a change from the first Sacred Beginnings in 2023. “It was really good to have them be with us for those four days,” Bird said, noting that four is a sacred number. In many First Nations, the number four is associated with the medicine wheel relating to the cardinal directions—East, South, West and North—and the sacred medicines of tobacco, cedar, sage and sweetgrass.

Sulkko, 24, said it was an honour to attend and learn skills such as drumming, beading and moccasin-making. She also stressed the emotional impact of hearing people’s stories.

“As someone who isn’t Indigenous, just to hear firsthand some of the very extreme, severe trauma that young people and non-young people are experiencing in their communities, ultimately because of colonization and the harm that they’ve experienced … I am very grateful to have that shared with me,” Sulkko said. “I want to hold those people’s stories closely and remember them and continue to follow the lead of Indigenous people in this work of reconciliation, within and outside of the church.”

Both Indigenous and non-Indigenous guests joined youth at the gathering. Photo: Anglican Video

Jenkins, 18, highlighted the positive atmosphere that characterized many of the activities at Sacred Beginnings.

“It was a new experience that I went into not really knowing what to expect and it was super cool,” Jenkins said. “I really enjoyed meeting everyone and just listening … It felt like a very supportive and friendly environment. Everyone was cheering each other on when we were making our moccasins and all that. It was just a happy place to be.”

Next Sacred Beginnings potentially set for 2026

On day four, the youth travelled to the Winnipeg neighbourhood of The Forks for a day off. Largely left to their own devices, the young people went shopping, checked out museums, went to the movies and dined together at the Feast Café Bistro, an Indigenous-owned restaurant that serves fare such as bison and bannock.

After their excursion, the youth returned to Beausejour and heard from more speakers in the following days. Bishop Isaiah Larry Beardy, suffragan bishop for the Northern Manitoba Area Mission in the Indigenous Spiritual Ministry of Mishamikoweesh, discussed Pitching Our Tent—an initiative to support the mission by partnering with local community organizations—and shared traditional oral stories and legends.

Games and laughter were in plentiful supply at Sacred Beginnings. Photo: Contributed

Residential school survivor Lisa Bird spoke about how her culture helped her on her healing journey after this experience through sweat lodge ceremonies for prayer and healing, among other things. Yolanda Bird, a suicide prevention worker for the Anglican Church of Canada, led a workshop about survival on the land—showing youth how to prepare their meals inside, wrap them in aluminium foil and then cook them outside.

The Rev. Cheryl Kukurudz, executive assistant to the bishop and dean in the diocese of Brandon, led a workshop on journaling. Dixie Bird described the exercise as “really soothing and therapeutic in its own sense, because it was about writing how you felt.” On the final day, youth held a closing Eucharist and watered a tree before doing a site clean and departing for home.

Looking ahead, Bird said Indigenous Ministries has expressed interest in holding the next Sacred Beginnings in a different region, such as the diocese of Qu’Appelle or the diocese of Caledonia. She also said the next gathering may take place in 2026, with Sacred Beginnings potentially held every two years going forward.


  • Matthew Puddister

    Matthew Puddister is a staff writer for the Anglican Journal. Most recently, Puddister worked as corporate communicator for the Anglican Church of Canada, a position he held since Dec. 1, 2014. He previously served as a city reporter for the Prince Albert Daily Herald. A former resident of Kingston, Ont., Puddister has a degree in English literature from Queen’s University and a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Western Ontario. He also supports General Synod's corporate communications.

    [email protected]

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