Accessible Indigenous ceremonies in Winnipeg like winning the lottery, Torontonian elder says

Elder Melanie Marsden says participating in accessible traditional ceremonies in Winnipeg on Saturday was a longtime coming.

Marsden, 59, is a registered social worker who traveled from Toronto to be part of the All Spirits Gathering — an event that offered accessible water, pipe and full moon ceremonies at The Forks on Saturday evening.

At one point in her life, Marsden was told she “would never be able to participate in ceremony” because she’s visually impaired, according to a news release for the event.

She said Saturday felt like a reclamation of her entire life, in a ceremonial way, and also compared the experience to winning the lottery.

“It’s very hard, sometimes, for people to understand that people that have the gift of blindness are capable people,” said Marsden.

“So, finding someone that is willing to show you how to be in ceremony, what are the traditions, what are the protocols, when do you do what and teach you that it’s really hard to find people like that.”

‘We’re all part of the community’

Ceremonial accessibility goes beyond physical necessities, like ramps for easy access as well as navigation guides, but also includes making people with accessibility needs feel welcome and included, she said.

Marsden pointed to her own experience of being told to come to ceremonies when all the event information was online, but she doesn’t go on the computer often or use the social media platforms where the information was.

“There’s ASL here today, and these things for you may seem like, ‘Well, of course there’s going to have that,’ but that’s not been my lived experience,” said Marsden. “So for all of these things, I’ve personally had to fight for a long, long time.” 

“And that’s why I chose to fly from Toronto to Winnipeg…. to do a full moon ceremony, which I’ve never done, and to participate in the water ceremony.” 

Two people stand together.
Marsden said the experience felt like she was reclaiming her whole life in a ceremonial way. (Randall McKenzie/CBC)

Saturday’s gathering opened with a prayer at 4 p.m., followed by pipe and water ceremonies, a feast, before finishing with a full moon ceremony.

The event came in light of National Accessibility Week, said Melissa Graham, executive director of the Manitoba League of Persons With Disabilities. It was also a collaboration between many different community organizations with the hope of making traditional ceremonies more accessible moving forward.

Graham also said she hoped Saturday’s event could help stakeholders think about how they can do a better job of bringing together Indigenous people and those who have disabilities, saying that bridge “takes a while to build.”

She hopes the gathering Saturday could help dispel any myths people may have that they can’t participate in traditional ceremony because they live with disabilities. 

“Often times in the disability community, we get in our own bubble and we don’t think about ceremony and how important that is for so many people in our community,” said Graham. “Very often, Indigenous communities and people who face accessibility barriers overlap.” 

“I think this is a really good step on a journey of figuring out how to work better together, because we’re all part of the community.”  

A woman in a wheelchair.
Melissa Graham, executive director of the Manitoba League of Persons with Disabilities, hopes the All Spirits Gathering can help dispel any myths that people living with disabilities cannot participate in traditional ceremonies. (Randall McKenzie/CBC)

And as Marsden looks ahead to her 60th birthday Tuesday, she said sharing her story is important so ceremonial organizers consider event inclusion as a priority. 

“I’m not sure why it’s taken me to go to Winnipeg to actually participate in a sundance ceremony, and participate today in a full moon ceremony and a water ceremony,” said Marsden.

“But I do know it’s about attitudinal barriers, and…. if I can do it here, then I can do it wherever people need me to support them.”