When Princess Lightning, 22, looks back to her youth, the Cree woman recalls lacking one main thing, especially when she was troubled — a safe space to embrace her culture with other Indigenous youth.

“There were times where all I wanted was a place I could go — a place I could go and feel welcomed,” says Lightning. “There’s many Indigenous youths out there that don’t have that, who are struggling to find a safe place, who want to engage, who want to be a part of a team, who want to be a part of something bigger.”

Now, local Indigenous youth in Calgary have that space.

On Nov. 23 at 223 12 Ave SW, Diamond Willow Youth Lodge formally opened its doors for local Indigenous youth to celebrate their culture and connect with each other and elders in a comfortable environment.

As visitors descend into the basement of the historic Community Wise Resource Centre, they’re surrounded by colourful Indigenous murals, smudging tools on a wooden corner table, windows painted with buffalos and couches that invite anyone to sit down and visit.

Youth Hub BasementWEBThe name, Diamond Willow Youth Lodge, was chosen by Indigenous youth through social media and drop-box submissions. Diamond willow trees are used to build sweat lodges, which are sacred, safe spaces for reflection and connection to the earth. The lodge is meant to represent that same connection. Photo by Karina Zapata.

Johnny Caisse, one of six Indigenous councillors who help run the lodge, is using his positive cultural experiences to help youth in Calgary.

Caisse, 26, says he joined Diamond Willow Youth Lodge’s youth council to provide leadership and cultural background. He prides himself on being culturally inclined, saying it benefitted him in the long run and he wants the same for other Indigenous youth.

“When I was troubled with things, I had a place to go, I had a culture, I had the people around me and I’m very fortunate of that.”

Also a youth councillor, Lightning joined the lodge to help Indigenous youth who feel lost. She grew up on Maskwacis reserve south of Edmonton on Treaty 6 and says she saw how hard it was for many Indigenous youths who didn’t have a safe space.

Lightning’s sister, Tyra, says she too wishes there had been a place like Diamond Willow Youth Lodge when she grew up, especially when she looks back at how suicide affected her family and her community.

“It was a whole year of having so much loss due to suicides and it was one of the most motivating things for us to want to have something like this for a space,” says Tyra. “They need that person to not feel alone.”

Youth CouncilWEB(Left to right) Tyra Lightning, Johnny Caisse and Princess Lightning are three of six youth council members. They joined the youth council in hopes of connecting Indigenous youth to their culture and helping them feel welcome and safe. Photo by Karina Zapata.

At Diamond Willow Youth Lodge, Indigenous youth with suicidal ideations will have a place to go if they need guidance from elders and peers. Tyra says it’s important for Indigenous youth at risk of suicide to be around their culture and to feel like they’re part of a team.

“So many youth have lost that connection and with that loss of connection … they don’t know who they are. Bringing that back into their lives is kind of rediscovering themselves and who they are,” she says.

The grand opening included a smudging ceremony, prayer, dancing, drumming and singing.

“This is a safe place for Indigenous youth to come, to feel welcomed, to feel a sense of belonging, to feel safe, where they can be themselves,” says Princess.

A collaboration between United Way and Pathways Community Services Association, the lodge relies heavily on the youth council to help other Indigenous youth.

“I’ve always wanted to do more for Indigenous youth out there because I know how it was and I know how it still is. I know anything we can do for Indigenous youth is always good,” says Princess.

The youth council attends meetings every month to plan events for the lodge. Caisse says the volunteer work they do comes from the heart and admits that they’re still learning.

“It’s okay to make mistakes but we’re going to make sure we learn from them.”

Diamond Willow Youth Lodge is free and open to the public from 3 p.m. to 9 p.m. on Wednesday to Friday and from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. on weekends.

Correction: An earlier version of this story which stated that the Diamond Willow Youth Lodge opened Nov. 24 has been corrected. The lodge opened on Nov. 23.

Editor: Nathan Kunz | nkunz@cjournal.ca

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