2017 Great Northern Canada Writing Contest Winners

above&beyond, Canada’s Arctic Journal, is proud to bring our readers the stories chosen as winners of the 2017 NorthWords Great Northern Canada Writing Contest.

This year, Amélie Aubrey-Smith of Fort Smith, Northwest Territories, receives First Prize for Water Flows North: a short story about a young man’s search for direction and home.

Libby Whittal Catling is runner-up for her story My Sweat Lodge Prayers, about coming to terms with who she is in this world.

New sponsor for the writing contest is Down to Earth Gallery, donating cash prizes of $500 to the winner and $250 to the runner-up.

Judge Barbara Miron is a retired college instructor who has spent 30 years teaching, editing and encouraging writing in northern communities.

For more information on NorthWords, visit northwordsnwt.ca.

Libby Whittal Catling

My friend invites me to come and pray beside a strange altar of buffalo skull and tobacco. This is her culture and ceremony not mine but she makes me feel welcome and tells me it will help me reconnect with my ancestors and myself. Doing exactly as she says, I crawl into the dark sweat lodge clockwise, finding my place among the other women.

My old Hudson’s Bay blanket, wrapped tight around my hips against the early winter cold, becomes my seat on the floor made of fresh-cut spruce branches. I lay my good-luck charms in front of me. I slip a cherished rock, a heart shaped chunk of abalone from a pouch of beaded, tanned caribou hide. Each is so full of memories my heart breaks every time I hold them.

Outside large rocks glow red in the bonfire. With his pitchfork, the Fire Keeper pushes them through the door. Every new rock rolled into the small pit dug into the sand at the centre of the circle radiates more heat. So dangerously close it takes my breath away and I shrink back until I touch the walls of the small round hut. The Fire Keeper does this four times during the two-hour ceremony.

The other women begin to sing songs I’ve never heard, and though I try to hum along, the fast, unfamiliar beat throws me off. My damp drum tells me it does not want to play. Thunk, thunk, thunk. I bow my head and just listen until the hypnotic chanting pauses and we begin to pray. Each woman praying in her own way, including me, as we go around the circle.

My friend sprinkles sage and sweet grass and pours water onto the red-hot rocks. In the dark, I feel the heavy fragrant steam billow around me. The flesh inside my nostrils feels scorched with every breath I suck into my lungs. I taste salt as sweat drips from my nose onto my lip. I imagine spirits rising from the red rocks. A mirage? A hallucination?

In the gloom, I mumble prayers to nameless Gods. The Ones I feel in the trees and rocks as I travel and the Ones who speak to me through the wild animals and this ancient land. I shout to my brother in the wind I hear blowing across the flaps of the sweat lodge. I appeal to my grandmothers and grandfathers. “Make me a strong woman!” Life is harder than I imagined and I need strength.

Hands held high, I speak and feel powerful with my two talismans clutched in my palm as if each is a gateway to the world of the spirits I want to connect to on this day. I do not beg in weakness but stand before my Own Ancestors as a daughter claiming her birthright. I am no longer unclear who I am or who I am praying to. I believe in them. They have always believed in me.

More heat, more steam, more prayers; my dress is dripping wet with sweat and my eyes are blurry from the smoke and tears. My eyes dart to the light that peaks through the thick coverings of our rough tent. I feel claustrophobia rising. Too dark, too hot, I can’t breathe. I crawl to the door trying to control the panic. Struggling to pull up the thick covering, I lift it just enough to stick my face out. The Fire Keeper stares at me. Cold air pours into my lungs. Breathe deep. Be calm. Focus. Stretching out my tongue to catch a snowflake, I re-connect to reality.

Feeling guilty for disturbing the others trance-like state, I crawl back to my space, humiliated but the fear is gone. The end of the ceremony comes quickly, four rounds of the circle done. The tent door opens and the Fire Keeper welcomes us into the cold grey dusk.

In the days after visiting my friend’s sweat lodge, the experience continues to haunt me. Even though it was not my culture or my ceremony it has brought me to an understanding of who I am on this land.

I learned in the sweat lodge it is ok to pray to my own gods. It is ok to connect with my own Celtic Grandmothers and Grandfathers, who live on forever in my genetic code, the Ones who, with great hope, looked to the future for me. Those who have gone to earth, whose water, dissipating upon death, quench my thirst now. Every day I drink from them.

I am all my Ancestors and they are me.

Libby Whittall lives with her husband, wolf hunter Roger Catling, in Reliance, Northwest Territories, 270 km from the nearest road system. As the only inhabitants for nine months of the year, they enjoy the quiet.

Christmas 2014, Libby released a northern children’s book, The Twelve Days of Christmas in Fort Reliance, illustrated by Alison McCreesh. In March 2017, she released The Mundane and the Holy, a compilation of her newspaper columns.