At nine years old, Arizona Cardinal-Burns had a big smile, was silly and fun — but also was an old soul.
“Even prior to her sickness, she just had the personality like a little old granny that loves everybody. She was that person with a lot more energy,” said Arizona’s mother, Sharice Cardinal.
“She enjoyed bike riding, she enjoyed dancing, powwow was one of her favourite things to do. We travelled near and far for powwows every year since she could walk.”
In October 2020, the little girl from a town near Edmonton was diagnosed with an aggressive terminal glioblastoma brain tumor and told she had only six months to live.
Chemotherapy wasn’t expected to do much beyond extending her life a couple of months, so the family opted to not do chemo in order for Arizona to enjoy the time she had left.
“Her health started to decline more towards Christmastime, and then after that it just sort of got worse and worse.”
Cardinal wanted her daughter’s last months alive to be memorable.
“She saw things she has never seen before, she spent money that she never spent before, she had a lot of fun,” Cardinal said.
A large parade went by her house in Morinville for Halloween, actor Ryan Reynolds sent Arizona a video message, and her family took her on the trip of a lifetime.
“She was always a really happy kid, really sarcastic and after her diagnosis, she started feeling more sickly, it started to affect her mental health. She wasn’t used to not being able to get up and go play.”
The little girl’s family is from Alexander First Nation, located about 45 minutes northwest of Edmonton in Sturgeon County. To take Arizona’s mind off her illness and help lift her spirits, the family turned to her culture.
“When she was diagnosed, her first expressions and thoughts were, ‘I want to go to ceremony.'”
The sweat lodge is an ancient ceremony. It’s not clear when the practice started, but it is generally considered to have been utilized since time immemorial.
Speaking with Global News at the First Nation, Cardinal said participating in the sweat lodges, night lodges, sun dances and powwows boosted her daughter’s mental health.
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Every community has different traditions and ways of conducting rituals, but for many Cree First Nations, sweat lodges are sacred places where physical, spiritual, emotional and mental healing takes place.
Intense heat is generated by steam from pouring water on hot rocks, which is meant to encourage a sweating out of sickness and negative energy, cleansing the body, mind and soul. Prayers and ceremonial songs are usually incorporated along with traditional medicines and various healing methods.
Cardinal described it as a deeply personal experience.
“She would come here sad, and kind of sick of what she was going through. And then when we left, she would be like, ‘Can we go get a slush?’ And be so happy and back to herself.”
Arizona died on Feb. 6, just four months after her diagnosis.
“She passed away in her sleep very comfortably, and all of her grandmas and aunties were there, and ended up staying the night,” Cardinal said.
“It was beautifully sad, but a beautiful way for her to go.”
The family wants to honour her love for ceremony. Arizona’s uncle André Bear is raising money through a GoFundMe in her name to finish a turtle lodge for children and youth on Alexander First Nation.
“I really loved Arizona and I knew that she loved ceremony,” Bear said.
“I think every child has a right to know their culture and know who they are.”
The community likens the structure to a hospital or health-care centre: a place where ancient traditional practices and medicines are used, and where traditionally recognized Indigenous doctors or elders conduct ceremonies for people seeking healing.
“Three decades ago, Arizona’s great grandfathers had come together to build a ceremonial and spiritual foundation with a vision to reach their children, grandchildren and future generations,” the description on the GoFundMe said.
Fred Campio is a spiritual leader and has been working on completing the lodge. He said it will be able to fit two sweat lodges inside: one will be large for groups, and smaller space for one-on-one use.
“It’s going to be built in the form of the turtle. The significance of that is, we had a vision to bring back a lot of the origin stories and teachings of our people, and use it as a home for many Indigenous ceremonies,” Campio said.
“Arizona was very key and we wanted to embark on this with her in mind, because it keeps her alive in our space.
“It’s sad and it hurts she is gone — but we know she is not gone in terms of the spirit with us. I really believe that she is still helping us.”
So far, concrete has been poured and framing is done, with the roof nearly completed. That work happened via community donations and volunteer work over three years.
“Arizona would always question her uncles and everybody, and be like, ‘When are you guys going to get this done?’ She was so eager for it to be done,” Cardinal said.
Fundraising is now underway to complete the roof, walls, floors, have a waterline connected and eventually pave a road leading up to the turtle lodge.
The hope is to complete the lodge by summer, providing a space for consistent community programming for children and youth who are seeking a safe place to learn ceremony.
Through her grief, Cardinal can find comfort in how many lives Arizona touched.
“Even though it was a horrible experience, she also brought a lot of light to people,” Cardinal said.
“I know she is close by, I can feel her presence.”
— With files from Karen Bartko, Global News