Meditation & Health #4 – Spotted Lake, A Sacred Oasis in the Desert
Spotted Lake, A Sacred Oasis in the Desert
By Melia McClure
A Miracle Beside a Highway
Just west of Osoyoos, British Columbia, and now bordered by a highway, lies Spotted Lake, its millennia-old powers of healing still glittering in the sun. Sacred to the First Nations people of the Okanagan Valley, and originally known to them as “Khiluk,” Spotted Lake has been a source of physical and spiritual transformation since the dawn of history. The ceremonial cairns that surround the lake, some so ancient they have sunk into the earth and only their tops are visible, attest to the reverent search for Nature’s medicinal aid that has taken place there over the centuries. Treasured stories that have been passed down through the generations tell of warring tribes declaring a truce so that their wounded warriors could visit the lake and heal themselves. Today, Spotted Lake is protected as a culturally and ecologically sensitive heritage site, its ancient secrets unchanged since its creation.
Science calls it a “saline endorheic alkali lake,” which means it holds high concentrations of numerous minerals. It contains some of the highest concentrations in the world of magnesium, calcium and sodium sulfates, in addition to multiple other elements. Come summertime, most of the water in the lake evaporates, leaving behind the minerals – they form the striking, variously colored spots that give this gift of Mother Earth its name.
However, science cannot fully explain the power that lies within this unique phenomenon. In 1979, the Okanagan Elders and Chiefs came together to write the “Statement of the Okanagan Tribal Chiefs on Spotted Lake,” which gave expression to the beliefs long-held by the Okanagan First Nations people. In it, they wrote, “….Its medicinal powers are not to be taken lightly….its powers are above the purely physical. It contains 365 circles in various shapes, sizes and depths. Each particular day of the year. Anyone who goes to this lake will find the right circle if he seeks.”
First Nations: Harmony With Nature
The First Nations people of North America are renowned for their intense bond with Mother Earth. Their traditional way of life is to exist in accordance with Nature’s rhythms, loving, respecting and protecting the source of sustenance on the earthly plane. A devotion to balance threads through all of their cultural beliefs and practices, exemplified by the “Seven Directions” that are considered a gift from the Creator or Great Spirit. The sacred directions include not only East, West, North and South, but also the “Above Direction,” which is considered the home of the Creator and the giver of spiritual energy and answered prayers, the “Below Direction,” the celestial body also called Mother Earth that suckles human life, and the “Inner Direction” where spiritual energy lives and learns while in human form – the sacrosanct temple of the body. According to Native wisdom, the Seven Directions form a perfect balance that allows humans to live in comfort, without which our spirits would be mere wisps of energy drifting aimlessly throughout the vast expanse of the cosmos. Living in harmony with all things and all beings means allowing the heart to be the distributor of energy on our planet – bringing aliveness up from the “Below Direction” and down from the “Above Direction,” putting it in and giving it out from the heart.
The reverence that the First Nations people of the Okanagan Valley, called Syilx, hold for Spotted Lake is a manifestation of their respect for, and intuitive understanding of, Mother Earth. At the Nk’Mip Desert Cultural Centre, an architectural marvel in Osoyoos created to share the rich living culture of the local Syilx people and the wonders of Canada’s only desert landscape, Bob Etienne shares his knowledge of the lake’s healing powers with the public.
“If you gather the mud and the soil [from Spotted Lake] and put it on your joints, it will heal rheumatoid arthritis. The minerals have a healing effect, and can help with many health conditions. This lake is called ‘Chief of All of Our Lakes,’ [the most important] of the Okanagan watershed and down into the United States.”
Not only is Bob the facility manager and interpretive guide at Nk’Mip Centre, he is also a Holy Man of the Osoyoos Indian Band who performs healing rituals at Spotted Lake.
“In addition to healing people, a Holy Man also does spiritual work, which includes praying, smudging, ceremonies for people who are becoming Elders, or for people who are getting married. Before any healing work is done, prayers must be given to the Creator.”
When Bob takes people to the lake, all present make an offering to the sacred water, typically tobacco or sage, but pennies are also used.
“The lake recognizes copper, and it will realize that the people who have made the offerings are not a threat,” said Bob.
A curious historical footnote about one of Spotted Lake’s non-healing uses, foisted upon it, of course, by human beings: It was once a source of minerals utilized in the manufacture of ammunition. Beginning in the early 1900s, people began taking minerals from the lake down to the United States for the latter purpose, and the practice was continued through World War I. Such a practice was a violation of the lake’s health-giving sanctity. More recently, about 20 years ago, people again tried to exploit the lake.
“There was a group of people who came here, put a hose in the lake and sucked out two million gallons of water and soil,” said Bob. “They trucked it down to the United States and got the minerals out of it. While they were on their way back we found out about it, and we gathered enough people to totally encompass the lake. So just by holding hands we stopped that action without violence. So as a result, the federal and provincial governments and all of the Indian bands up and down the valley got together, and through cooperation we [the Syilx people] got our land back.”
Spiritual Purification: The Sweat Lodge
An ancient element of First Nations spirituality is the ceremonial steam sauna known as a sweat lodge. It is a re-enactment of our existence in the womb, and symbolizes the womb of Mother Earth. It cleanses the body, mind and spirit. Those participating in a sweat lodge must remove all accessories before entering, in remembrance of the fact that they entered the world without material possessions.
“In our area, men and women sweat separately,” said Bob. “When we’re in there, it’s like being in a mother’s womb, it’s nice and dark. When we come out, there is a feeling of being reborn. You get a totally new mind, and with it you get new feelings from us Elders and Holy Men who do the teachings in the sweat lodge. We use tobacco and sage. So every springtime, I gather enough sage to last me all year. It’s a really powerful plant.”
In keeping with the idea of rebirth, of emerging into a fresh dawn of new thoughts and feelings, a sweat lodge faces the morning sun. To create steam, 17 rocks are heated until they are red-hot and then doused with water. Each sweat lodge consists of four rounds, and four rocks are used per round. The extra rock is included as an offering to the Creator.
The first round is a prayer for the Creator, the second is a prayer for all that is feminine, the third a prayer for all that is masculine, and the final round is a prayer for the self. The second and third rounds include prayers for ancestors, though such honoring can occur throughout. Six colors are used during the ceremony, each to offer veneration: The color red honors the red race or First Nations people, yellow offers respect to all Asian people, black is used in honor of the black race or African people, white is a show of respect to Caucasian people, green symbolizes reverence for Mother Earth and blue, considered a sacred color, honors Father Sky – the Creator or Great Spirit.
A sweat lodge is yet another example of the wisdom of Native people, their ability to purify themselves and connect to the Creator, to their ancestors and to each other. It is a beautiful ceremony that facilitates profound transformation and gratitude, and dramatically demonstrates that a return to the womb of the Divine and a rebirth into a positive self are always possible.
Cherished Creation Stories
A strong belief in reincarnation is a hallmark of Native spirituality.
“We absolutely believe in life after life. I’ve seen many examples of this. Once, I saw a young woman who looked and moved just like a deer. She had to have been a deer in another life. It’s a gift to see something like that.”
Being caretakers of our planet, then, is not only about protecting it for future generations, but remembering that, through reincarnation, we – and our ancestors – are the future generations. First Nations people believe that the responsibility of nurturing and protecting Mother Earth was given to us by the Animal People that inhabited our planet before we did.
“A long time ago the Animal People declared, ‘There’s going to come a poor race of people who won’t know what to do. They have no claws, they have no fur, they can’t hunt. They’re a really poor people,’” said Bob. “So the Animal People, at that time, had the Four Food Chiefs. They had Bear, Bitterroot, Saskatoon Berry and Salmon. And the Four Food Chiefs decided that they had to help this new race of people. So Bear stepped forward and offered his life. And from Bear, we get the fur, the claws, the meat, we get everything that we use to help ourselves. All four of those Chiefs offered their lives for our benefit.”
Gratitude for the sacrifices of the natural world is an essential part of Native culture, as is respecting everything that has come before. So, too, is an understanding that the animal and plant worlds harbor deep insight that oftentimes eclipses that of humans, as illustrated by the following North American Native fable:
The Creator gathered all of Creation and said, “I want to hide something from the humans until they are ready for it. It is the realization that they create their own reality.”
The Eagle said, “Give it to me, I will take it to the moon.”
The Creator said, “No. One day they will go there and find it.”
The Salmon said, “I will bury it on the bottom of the ocean.”
“No. They will go there too.”
The Buffalo said, “I will bury it on the Great Plains.”
The Creator said, “They will cut into the skin of the Earth and find it even there.”
Grandmother Mole, who lives in the breast of Mother Earth, and who has no physical eyes but sees with spiritual eyes, said, “Put it inside of them.”
And the Creator said, “It is done.”
First Nations people have been telling their stories for thousands of years. May we all now hear their message of love.