Life begins and ends with the ocean

Rhonda Lee McIsaac

As a nation entwined with the Pacific Northwest coastal waters, Haida are acquainted and accustomed to the power of the sea. Salt water provides life here through each tide. The ocean is bountiful and spiritual in its creation and the benefits are magnificent for all who rely on its natural beauty and soothing nature.

Three Hlɢ̲aagilda Haida have started their own practice of cleansing or bathing, connecting with the ocean in powerful ways, just as Haida always have. After talking with Kuunajaad Jenny Cross, G̲uud Yuwans William Russ and Kindu Aus Sue Gladstone, a few commonalities surfaced.

All of the strong community members featured in this article have been practicing ocean cleansing as a way to connect with the spirit of Haida Gwaii. They describe endless personal benefits from saltwater baths in the vitamin rich sea: physical strength and increased immunity, mental clarity and wellness, and emotional healing and resetting. They also all shared a message of wellness for the water and the world.

Kuunajaad Jenny Cross

“I believe it was 2006 when a group of us did a first community ocean cleanse,” describes Kuunajaad Jenny Cross at her kitchen table gazing out over X̲aana K̲aahlii Skidegate Inlet. Big rollers agitate the shoreline and the surge has been known to move boulders on top of each other in its force.

“It was after a four day fast at the Dead Tree Longhouse,” Kuunajaad recalls. “Pete Thompson was there, Sue Gladstone, Denise Thompson, Ruth Gladstone, Marsha Forest, Vern Williams, Terry Russ … there were a bunch of us who went out there to raise awareness about drugs and alcohol in our communities. So, we went and did a fast.” This began a journey of fasting, wellness, and eventually ocean cleansing for Kuunajaad.

“… there were a bunch of us who went out there to raise awareness about drugs and alcohol in our communities. So, we went and did a fast.”

For the past 13 years, she has continued to cleanse in this way. “I feel that ocean baths are a very important part of cleansing your body, mind, and spirit. And also, for cleansing away any unwanted negative energy that might be clinging to your body.” Kuunajaad shares more about the personal benefits she has experienced since she started cleansing, “Going into the ocean helps lighten my spirit. There is just something about it when you go into the ocean and you come out and just feel a lighter energy about you.”

Despite the chills and shivers it elicits, soaks in the ocean can strengthen the immune system. This is also something that Kuunajaad has noticed as a benefit to her cleansing swims. She also describes how she used ocean water baths to heal after foot surgery. After five months of recovery time, and when her cast was finally removed, Kuunajaad entered the ocean with a walker for support. She offered prayers to each of the four directions followed by a gentle dunking. “It was so freeing,” she says shaking her body as if recalling the cold sensations while sitting in the warm comfort of her home.

Not only does the saltwater keep her body, mind and spirit healthy, there is a sense of commitment to ensuring the health of the ocean for future generations. To do her small part, Kuunajaad places tobacco and traditional food offerings on a cedar plank in the ocean. She enters with prayer of protecting for the surrounding waters of Haida Gwaii.

“The ocean provides an abundance of seafood and for our well-being,” she explains. “Therefore, we must respect the ocean and keep it sustainably for the future.” These ocean cleanses are very refreshing, extremely rejuvenating and this sense of overall wellness is what it’s all about for Kuunajaad.

Guud Yuwans William “Willie” Russ
Guud Yuwans looks centred walking into the surf. PC CHN/Rhonda Lee McIsaac

G̲uud Yuwans William Russ takes cold showers to build strength and tolerance almost every single day, and he hops in the ocean once a week. “Cold water almost every day helped me to be able to handle this past winter’s weather even better. It was very beneficial,” he said as he sat warming up in the truck after his cleansing swim at HlGaa K’yaahllna Balance Rock beach on an icy Taan Kuu.ngaay January afternoon. “It is a rite of passage and has become a regular practice,” he says.

Guud Yuwans is a therapy aid at the Haida Gwaii Hospital where he works with long-term care patients by providing exercise programs and quality of life activities and programming with them. “I teach them and help them with exercise routines and support programs that increase quality of life and activities.” He also works at the Hiit’aɢ̲an.iina Kuuyaas Naay Skidegate Youth Centre as a youth worker.

“I was planning on not going swimming this past summer but the youth convinced me. I lived in the ocean outside the Skidegate Youth Centre,” Guud Yuwans recalls. At the hospital and with youth in the village, he does important community work and he credits his strength and wellness to his cold ocean swims.

Speaking from his personal experience, Guud Yuwans advises, “It’s really great exercise. I felt like I didn’t have to work out so much because I swam all summer long. I stayed healthy for basketball without putting so much pressure on my body and joints. I just feel stronger, physically, when I swim in the ocean. It’s hard to put it into words.” Guud Yuwans pauses and states, “It just feels like the right thing to do. I’m healthy and strong because of it.”

He goes on to say, “I believe it helped my health as I was diagnosed with arthritis in my back and diabetes as well. I feel healthier than I ever have in my whole life,” and then cautions that those who want to start ocean dips take small steps and get acclimatized to experience the most benefit.

“I say prayers for the planet, prayers for loved ones.” Guud Yuwans continues on to describe how the water helps to release bad feelings and rejuvenates and resets the body and mind. “I just let the water release all that. I have released anger … this has helped me become more of a man. Doing this type of healing work helps connect you to other brothers and sisters. It is just really great work,” he says of his routine.

“I say prayers for the planet, prayers for loved ones.”

Kindu Aus Sue Gladstone

Kindu Aus Sue Gladstone, Haida Cultural Coordinator at the Skidegate Health Centre, has also started a routine of maintaining spiritual, emotional, and physical wellness through ocean cleansing. She is very clear to mention that the advantages of the ocean do not only come with full immersion. Simply being at the beach can come with really powerful benefits.

Looking at an old photo of herself, Kindu Aus talks about the feeling of sand squishing between her toes and tells of how she has enjoyed ocean cleansing and soaking in the rewards of the sea at the beach.

She describes that those called to do so can dunk four times to the cardinal directions, which adds a spiritual connection. Cold water shock will give way to calmness. “The air seems colder than the water after some time,” Kindu Aus says. “Swimming out into the water until your toes do not touch the sand is freeing. Turning back to the shore brings a sense of accomplishment and fills the heart. Prayers of thanks and love slip through the lips with each forward stroke.

“You don’t always have to go all the way in to get the benefits though,” she says. Kindu Aus describes that she gets significant spiritual benefits from her time walking or sitting on the shore. Oftentimes, just sitting by the water – breathing in the fresh ocean air and succumbing to the melodic sound of the waves can help to get rid of sickness and create a sense of wellness.

If done daily, weekly, or even once a year, ocean cleansing can be a source of strength and rejuvenation. Whether you jump in for a swim, stand in the ocean spray by the shore, or wade in the shallows of the intertidal, the benefits are immense. Go on, the ocean is calling!

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