Reflections on an Invitation to Smudge

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I don’t identify with any particular religion. I appreciate religion and spirituality in general. I enjoy floating freely between varied religious establishments, learning from the devout, and never committing to any one religion.

Last August, I started working at a small school on Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. On the first day with students, the Lakota culture teacher arranged for each student and teacher to smudge. Smudging is the spiritual act of using burning sweet grass to clear negative feelings and attitudes.

On the first day, Chatan, an elementary-aged student, walked around holding the smudging bowl up to students and teachers without hesitation. When he reached me, the first nonnative teacher in the group, he started to lift the bowl, pulled it back, and held it somewhere between, waiting for an indication that I wanted to take part in this spiritual act. I bowed my head to the bowl; he lifted it, and the two of us met in the middle. When I finished smudging, Chatan tiptoed to the next person. In our very brief exchange, I considered what the boy may have been thinking when he approach the new wasicu (Lakota for “white person”) to smudge. While I couldn’t know his thoughts, I took a moment to imagine, considering what I knew of his culture and mine.

In my reflection, I wondered if Chatan feared I didn’t know the meaning of smudging. Perhaps he thought I wouldn’t appreciate his religion. I find that when approaching religion and spirituality with students and colleagues, a spirit of humility married to a desire for exploration provides opportunity for learning and understanding.

I don’t believe Chatan thought I was unworthy of smudging. Rather, it’s possible he feared I’d be uncomfortable, as a wasicu, participating in an unfamiliar spiritual act. Regardless, our meeting in the middle of hesitation and unknowingness symbolizes the power of understanding. Neither of us was sure of what to do in those brief seconds, but we each did what we knew was respectful of the other. Chatan offered me the smudging bowl in the most unforceful way and I bowed my head, letting him know I appreciated his gesture and wanted to participate.

When I think about the inverse of my reaction with Chatan, my mind immediately floods with thoughts of oppression on U.S. reservations and families forced to forsake their identities. Wasicus denied them the right to participate in their religious practices and instead mandated they practice a foreign religion.

As educators, it is our responsibility to know the backgrounds of our students and to ensure we use them as a means of empowerment. It is important to value diversity, to consider nonverbal communication and gestures and to seek to create a classroom environment where all students see their culture as a facet of their unique and important identities.

Chatan and I had a cultural transaction on the first day of school. I understood it would be the first of many and that I would need to be sensitive and consider the cultural context. We would meet on the middle ground; the place where each individual shares and seeks simultaneously.

Sturdevant is a writer who teaches a media class with a social justice theme in South Dakota. She also taught eighth-grade reading in Texas on the Mexican border.