Cree Urban Elder, Vern Harper

Story and photos by Danny Beaton |

A sweat lodge ceremony was the reason for my very first visit to Guelph around 1988. The skins in Toronto suggested that I contact Vern Harper, a Cree ceremonial elder way back, when I was looking for my culture and healing. When I look back in my mind, someone said, “Catch a Greyhound to Woolwich and Woodlawn. There is a Canadian Tire store near the corner—you cant miss it—then walk up the hill, then down, and you will see a house with a barn with horses; that is where elder Vern Harpers camp is.”

Twenty years have gone by or more since we gathered at Vern’s camp. I remember his wife Geraldine, his daughter Cody, and Lionel Whitebird who I ran into at a protest in Toronto when our people occupied Revenue Canada. Lionel had aids; he was wrapped in a colorful Indian blanket; he had lost over 100 pounds, but he came to support our struggle and show solidarity for our Native rights and culture. Lionel died not long after, but I can say he worked with Vern for many years in the prison system to help our Native brothers who were incarcerated, as many of our people are. Lionel’s wife Wanda still continues the work for our people and culture, healing and helping. Wanda was a great person, and they had a son, as far as I remember.

Thinking back to our first sweat lodge ceremony. I remember I was told by someone to bring a pouch of tobacco as an offering to Vern for his role in leading our ceremony. Bring a towel, shorts, a bottle of water, and the bag of tobacco.

My memory of Vern’s camp and sweat lodge are strong, and what happened before the ceremony was sacred, and everything before and after the sweat was sacred. Vern had several helpers who sometimes would ask us to help to gather wood or stones or to go to the stream to bring back water. At times, someone would show up with a truckload of wood or stones, which Vern taught us were grandfathers. The grandfathers had to be heated up in a sacred fire to be brought into the lodge later, and this would take hours and prayers. We would stand around the sacred fire burning on the rocks, and we were taught to honor the fire and grandfathers by putting tobacco sage or cedar into the fire with our prayers. This part of the ceremony become very important for me, as I grew up with this teaching and today I have the highest respect and love for the stones, the grandfathers, and the sacred fire. Vern taught us all that the fire and grandfathers had to be respected and honored in the Indian way of life, and that this is how he was taught by his elders—one whom I remember was Crow Dog, an elder from South Dakota.

Vern was like a grandfather, too. We were in our thirties (some of us were older, some of our group were mothers and fathers) being brought back to our culture with the help of our Native Cultural Center in Toronto or by word of mouth about this sacred place we were all at. We were like a healing family now, all of us talking about our past before arriving, our past abuse and the abuse to ourselves through alcohol, drugs, and violence. There was domestic violence growing up and the pain that never went away. We all were healing just being on the land, being out of Toronto, being near like-minded people—as many say now, we were attracted to each other in a healing way, a healing way of life.

Our first visit to Vern’s camp became a healing journey which none of us can ever forget. I kept going for several years and learned so much from Vern. There are not enough words of gratitude, thanks, and blessings I and anyone who has attended “Grandfather Vern Harper’s Purification Ceremony” as Vern sometimes called it. Vern said we were coming out clean; sometimes he would say we were reborn after the purification, and the sweat was for honoring our ancestors and the spirit world and Creation. But most of all, the sweat was a purification ceremony. We were taught how to see in a sacred way, how to walk in a sacred way. We learned to give thanks to the forces that gave us life. The ones who attended Vern’s camp were healing big, and we all were happy on the land with Mother Earth and learning to humble ourselves with thanks. Many of us became life long friends.

I remember Fernando Hernandez. He had come from Southern Mexico or El Salvador, and he had a wife Monique Mohicia. They had joined the ceremony to heal and give thanks with us. Sometimes as we all gathered up and we were waiting for late arrivals, we would sit and talk, or we would stand by the fire and make offerings until it was time to go inside the lodge. This process was a powerful healing in itself: just waiting. Vern said we were entering Mother Earth’s Womb. We all shared stories of intense discovery and pain while healing with the heat coming from the fire heating the stones. We talked about being clean for the first time because for many of us this was our first sweat lodge. We were learning to live a clean life, learning to think clean, we were cleaning our minds bodies, and spirits. Later I heard Fernando had become a famous actor and he starred in Mel Gibson’s film Apocalypto.

Many years have gone by since our first sweat. We have recovered as we all learned after the healing; we were all very wounded people at one time, maybe when we were younger. Vern always said our sweats were “four direction sweats” or “four colored” because all races of people were allowed in his lodge. Here in Toronto, these days Vern has become a great leader. As far as I know, he is the Spiritual Leader of Toronto simply because he will pray for all people, his own people, and helps anyone who needs healing or to purify themselves. Vern is recognized for his relentless work in the prison system, giving his good energy wherever he can for his people and all people. Vern’s camp is still in Guelph, and he maintains the Sacred Sweat Lodge Ceremony. Vern said he has lived 83 winters now.

I have learned over the years that all the cities and reservations across Ontario have camps like Vern’s, and all the provinces across Canada and all across North America. We have spiritual camps and elders in the prison system, public schools and universities, and suburbs where urban and traditional Native elders share our sacred culture and teachings to people who want to heal, learn, and purify. Our healing and the healing of Mother Earth must work together because Mother Earth gives us so much—in fact, Mother Earth gives us everything we as humans need to survive.

Many of our group have become urban elders ourselves because we continue the way of life our elders have taught us; this way of life was passed onto our elders by their elders, so it is now many winters, and we continue to give thanks to the natural world, the universe, the cosmos the way we were instructed. Thank you all for listening.

Vern speaks out from the Book of Elders

Courtesy of Sandy Johnson

A hundred years before the Europeans came, a Cree prophecy said a time would come when Rainbow People and the People of Color would appear and be like children. The prophecy talked about how the people would be very innocent and childlike, and that would be one of the signs for the great changes to come. This would be known as the Seventh Fire, I’ve talked to many of my uncles and aunts, and we believe the hippie movement was part of the prophecy. Maybe that’s why a lot of Indians identified with the hippie movement in the sixties.

Everyone has a responsibility to find out what they’re here for. There’s only one way you can do that: with a sober mind, through mediation and ceremony. There’s no other way that I’ve found, and it’s taken me four decades to find this out. Traditionally, Cree men were not allowed to do community work or speak on behalf of anyone until we were over fifty because up until that point our teachings instructed us to learn and listen. And when we reached fifty years of age, we would be able to say something for the people. But things have changed because of the need to teach others, and the world is out of balance. When I crawl into the lodge, I do it unselfishly. I crawl in there and think about my brothers and sisters. I think about Mother Earth, and I suffer and give thanks in the lodge. Our life here is part of a journey to the sprit world and preparation means everything. That’s why I keep my teachings simple. When I teach the children, I tell them to make life a good journey and then work to prepare your self. We must all prepare ourselves, so when our time comes, our spirit journey is a good one.