Sacred Medicine Garden brings traditional Indigenous medicines to an urban setting

FoodScape Calgary and the Calgary John Howard Society have unveiled the Sacred Medicine Garden, a space that brings traditional Indigenous medicines to an urban setting.

The John Howard Society is a charity that provides employment, education, housing and support to help people move away from criminal behaviour, and the garden was built outside its Calgary residence for men.

It is intended to provide a healing place for those impacted by the criminal justice system, and to celebrate and reclaim important aspects of Indigenous culture.

The garden aligns with four sacred medicines that John Howard Society clients may harvest: sage, mint, diamond willow and juniper. (James Young/CBC)

“Prior to 1970, sacred medicines and the ceremony surrounding them were actually illegal by the Canadian government,” said Heather Morigeau, the founder of FoodScape and the designer of the garden.

“So the opportunity to reclaim these practices and medicines in our communities is part of the cultural healing that many Indigenous people need to reconnect and to build community.”

The garden, unveiled Monday, also supports cultural healing through place-making, Morigeau said.

Created with guidance from elders and knowledge-keepers from multiple nations, its design carries the teachings of the medicine wheel, and aligns with four sacred medicines that John Howard Society clients can harvest: sage, mint, diamond willow and juniper.

The medicines can be made into teas, used for drum- and rattle-making and used for ceremonies that include sacred baths and smudging.

The vision

Three years ago, the garden came to Morigeau in a vision.

She is mixed Metis, Ktunaxa and settler. When she first moved to Calgary to pursue recovery from addiction, she said she realized there weren’t intentional spaces that focused on Indigenous culture and spirituality.

“It’s really important to be able to visibly see your culture celebrated in a positive way, in a tangible way, where you can connect with it, and … it’s something you can interact with,” Morigeau said.

“In Calgary, there are over 700 churches and spiritual centres, but not one of them was dedicated to Indigenous spirituality. So I feel like this is a step in that direction.”

‘It’s really important to be able to visibly see your culture celebrated in a positive way, in a tangible way, where you can connect with it, and … it’s something you can interact with,’ says Heather Morigeau, designer of the garden. (James Young/CBC)

The garden, Morigeau said, will allow residents to reconnect with their history and their culture.

And for those who are discovering it for the first time, there are people to help guide them.

“Having this garden in an urban centre makes accessing these medicines easy for people who can’t necessarily return to their homeland, to the traditional harvesting of their ancestors,” Morigeau said.

“So if they have not been able to have the teachings given to them, this is an opportunity to do it in an urban centre through elders and knowledge-keepers.

“It’ll also give them an opportunity to feel celebrated, feel that they are honoured, their culture is relevant and valued by the community.”

Never seen anything like it

To make the project a reality, Morigeau turned to Saulteaux elder Marilyn Shingoose for guidance.

They had tea, talked about it, prayed about it, and step by step, it came together, she said.

“It’s such a beautiful project. I’ve never seen anything like it, to have medicines planted on John Howard property,” Shingoose said.

“And for the clients to come and be able to use these medicines for healing, because they’re transitioning out into the public — I think it’s really good for them to have this. It’s going to really strengthen this building, and the people in it, and the staff.”

‘I’m ecstatic about it. And to see it just is so emotional. It’s so powerful, it’s great. And wonderful, and beautiful. And I think amazing things are going to come out of this,’ says Elder Marilyn Shingoose. (James Young/CBC)

According to Leslie McMechan, the executive director of the Calgary John Howard Society, it is imperative for the charity to offer culturally appropriate and respectful ways for its clients to move through its programs, and the garden is a step toward doing that.

With core values rooted in embracing diversity, and guided by principles that include restorative justice, the John Howard Society needs to embrace Indigenous culture in order to properly represent the demographic that makes up 38 per cent of its clients.

“We have an overrepresentation of Indigenous people in the prison system, and the folks that are coming out of the prisons … come here to start their journey back into the community. And we want to offer them a warm, welcoming place to begin that journey,” McMechan said. 

“And having a sacred medicine garden is truly representative of that. It’s very symbolic, literally and figuratively, for them to see that we are embracing Indigenous culture in such a way, helps them to understand that they can find a home here.”

Where the healing is

The process of creating the garden was informed by close guidance from elders and knowledge-keepers — McMechan said anything less would have been insincere.

“It never even occurred to me that it would not be Indigenous-led … it wouldn’t have felt genuine,” McMechan said.

“I can’t imagine doing it any other way, and it was very clear when we formed the committee from the get-go that the elders were going to guide us on what we should do. And we came together as one, but they led the way, absolutely all the way.

“I think it would be insulting to do it any other way.”

‘It never even occurred to me that it would not be Indigenous-led … it wouldn’t have felt genuine,’ says Leslie McMechan, executive director of the Calgary John Howard Society. (James Young/CBC)

Elder Marilyn Shingoose said she believes amazing things will come out of the project. 

The experience has been powerful and emotional for her, she said, and she hopes it is restorative for others.

“I hope they can come back to their roots, back to their cultures. Because for myself, I believe, for Indigenous [people], that’s where our healing is,” Shingoose said.

“I’ve tried different avenues, and they all helped in their own ways. But I’m grateful that I was able to come back to my culture, and just utilize it, like what I’m doing now.”

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