Spence began to learn more about Indigenous culture—a spiritual path sometimes referred to as walking the Red Road—by talking to elders and participating in traditional activities like sweat lodge ceremonies. Although he still struggled with the anger and addiction issues that had dogged him in the past, he felt a renewed sense of purpose in life.
“As soon as I started following the Red Road, all of those negative things gradually went away,” he said. “It lifted my spirit. It made me look at myself as a different person.”
Spence says his newfound spirituality inspired him to make positive changes in his life. He completed his high school education, and when he was offered a chance at parole, he took it seriously. If he re-offended, he knew he might not get out again.
“I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life in jail,” he said. “I didn’t want to be that 60-something-year-old inmate playing that, ‘I’m a tough guy’ role.”
Life on the outside
Life outside of prison was difficult for Spence. He was living in Fredericton, New Brunswick, far from his home in Manitoba. He began to have panic attacks and worried that he wouldn’t be able to adjust to his new surroundings.
He asked his parole officer for help, and said he wanted to participate in more Indigenous spiritual activities. That’s how he met Chris Brooks, an Indigenous spiritual counsellor and former prison guard—and a man who Spence says helped him turn his life around for good.
Brooks belongs to the St. Mary’s First Nation, a Wolastoqiyik community in Fredericton, where he offers spiritual counselling and leads traditional practices like sweat lodge and pipe ceremonies.
“It’s a belief system that is old, and it’s simple,” Brooks said. “I look at it as a simple way to live your life in a good way.”
Spence started to regularly participate in ceremonies with Brooks and other elders at St. Mary’s, and he found that over time he was able to let go of his demons.
Today, he is living a new life. He’s now a counsellor himself, helping people the way Brooks helped him. “I don’t want to say I’m 100 per cent ouf of the woods, I still deal with a lot of anger and issues, but I handle them in the best possible way,” he said.
“If I got to talk to myself 10 years ago and say, 10 years from now you’re going to be a treatment counsellor, you’re going to be engaged to be married, you’re going to have a beautiful family and you’re going to be sober, and you’re going to be clean, and you’re going to be in a better place than you are now—I would have told myself you are lying.”
Walking the Red Road
Brooks worked for more than 20 years in Canadian correctional facilities. And in the early years, he had a very different view of the inmates.
“In a maximum security environment, the inmates don’t talk to you, and you don’t talk to them,” Brooks said, recalling his early years as a prison guard. “So my view towards offenders was, ‘They’ll never change, they’re the scum of society.'”
He also had his own personal demons. He was an alcoholic, and like Spence, didn’t know much about his own Indigenous identity. But his curiosity was piqued when he noticed elders regularly visiting the inmates at the prison where he worked.
“One day I stopped and talked to one of the elders and I asked him, I said, ‘Why are you doing this?'” Brooks said. “And his reply was, ‘Because I care.’ And that’s sort of how it started for me.”
Indigenous spiritual practices
In order for Brooks to become a spiritual counsellor, he had to prove himself.
“To earn these things, to be a pipe carrier, to be a sweat lodge keeper, you have to go out into the bush to find yourself spiritually,” he said.
That means spending four days out on the land, fasting all the while, without taking any food or water. The practice is based on the symbol of the medicine wheel, which is divided into four quadrants to represent the spiritual, physical, mental and the emotional.
“When you’re out fasting, you’re weakening yourself, depriving yourself mentally, physically and emotionally to gain spiritually,” he said.
Brooks did these fasts about once a year, he said, each time with a different goal. The first time, he was praying for a person close to him. The second, he was preparing to be a pipe carrier.
Ceremonial pipes are used for healing and prayer, and are smoked by the pipe carrier on others’ behalf, Brooks said.
“A pipe is medicine that we use. It represents life. The stem represents male, and the bowl of the pipe represents female,” he said.
“If maybe somebody in your family was ill, you would come to me and ask me if I could smoke my pipe for your family member, and I would do that for you. While I’m smoking it, I would give thanks and pray for you, and your family member.”
During another fast, Brooks was preparing to be a sweat lodge keeper. A sweat lodge is a low, dome-shaped structure heated by hot stones, used in traditional cleansing ceremonies. The shape of the structure is meant to evoke the belly of a pregnant woman, Brooks said.
When you enter the sweat lodge, “You sort of get to go back in time, to our beginning as human beings. And we get to go back into the womb of our mother,” Brooks said.
A fire is lit outside the sweat lodge and used to heat the stones. They are brought in seven at a time, which Brooks said represents the seven grandfather teachings of humility, wisdom, love, courage, respect, honesty and truth. As water is poured on the hot stones, the dark lodge fills with steam.
“You’re going back into the womb of your mother to reconnect with yourself, and reconnect with mother earth as well,” Brooks said. “It represents a new beginning.”
Traditional ceremonies like these can offer a deep sense of meaning to indigenous inmates struggling with their identity, Brooks said.
“I think connections with people is a big thing. Learning about our history, learning about our culture, learning about our ceremonies and what they can bring,” he said. “Colonization destroyed a lot of our ceremonies. The Indian Act, for example, outlawed them—if you got caught doing it you could go to jail.”
“I tell people, Aboriginal spirituality is not a religion,” he said. “It’s just how you live your life with harmony and balance with creation.”