Smudging ceremony crosses line into realm of the sacred

When a school begins to talk about cleansing spirits, it's moving away from something that's strictly cultural into the realm of the sacred

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Louise McEwanImagine if a public school put up a nativity scene to teach students the Christian view of Christmas, and invited a priest to bless the figurines, the school and the school community.

Parents would accuse the school of promoting Christian beliefs. They would see the blessing as an imposition of those beliefs on their children.

And the parents would be justified in objecting. The school would have blurred the lines between culture, traditional practices and spiritual beliefs.

When a Port Alberni, B.C., school held a smudging ceremony, it did just that.

Candice Servatius, a parent at John Howitt Elementary School (JHES), is taking the school district to court. In September 2015, JHES held a smudging ceremony. A teacher told Servatius’s daughter that she must participate. Servatius maintains that the smudging ceremony was religious in nature, that the school violated her religious freedom and breached its duty of neutrality. The Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms is acting on her behalf.

The school district maintains that the smudging was cultural. It argues that the ceremony fits the mandate of incorporating aboriginal perspectives into the curriculum.

I spoke with an elder in the Kootenays about smudging. “It’s cultural, not religious,” she said. She explained that smudging was not (and is not) a universal practice. In some communities, it was practical. It cleansed the air of unpleasant odours and the smoke drove insects away. It may be that the spiritual connotations commonly associated with smudging developed over time.

Niigaan Sinclair, associate professor and acting head of the Native Studies Department at the University of Manitoba, has a different understanding. Speaking on the CBC radio show The Current, Sinclair called the ceremony spiritual but not religious. He described smudging as the taking and burning of medicines to bring them to a person’s emotional, mental, physical and, usually, spiritual side. He described bringing the smoke to one’s self as a way of committing to a relationship with the Earth.

Whether the Nuu-chah-nulth smudging at JHES was cultural, spiritual or religious, the school imposed a set of beliefs on its students. This is evident from the contents of the letter the school sent home to parents to explain the reasons for smudging.

“Nuu-chah-nulth People believe strongly that “Hii-Suukish-Tswalk, (everything is one; all is connected). Everything has a spirit and energy exists beyond the end of one school year and into the next. This will be our opportunity to … experience cleansing of energy from previous students in our classroom and previous energy in our classroom and cleanse our own spirits to allow GREAT new experiences to occur for all of us.”

When a school begins to talk about cleansing spirits, it’s moving away from something that’s strictly cultural in nature into the realm of the sacred.

A group of figurines in a stable tells a story about a baby sleeping in the hay surrounded by animals. There is nothing inherently religious about that. But blessing the scene illuminates the Christian belief in the incarnation, in God becoming human. An innocuous tableau suddenly becomes a place of reflection for Christian belief.

Smudging to cleanse the air of odours or to chase away mosquitoes falls under culture. Smudging to cleanse spirits communicates a specific set of spiritual beliefs. It crosses the line between culture and religion, between the ordinary and the sacred.

When the City of Saguenay, Que., insisted on reciting the Lord’s Prayer before its council meetings, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that the state could not use culture, heritage or tradition to justify a religious practise in the public domain.

Public schools, like other state institutions, have a duty of religious neutrality.

It will be unfortunate if this case pits two cultures against one another and hampers the work of reconciliation. This is not about whether schools should teach authentic aboriginal content. Rather, the question is how to appropriately present that content.

Schools can best support the national task of reconciliation with meaningful, well-developed curriculum. This can include presentations but children don’t have to be directly involved. Children can learn about aboriginal traditions without participating in a ceremony that blurs the lines between culture, religion and spirituality.

When JHES held its smudging ceremony, it imposed a set of spiritual beliefs. And in doing so, it breached the duty of neutrality.

Louise McEwan has degrees in English and Theology. She has a background in education and faith formation. 

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Louise McEwan

Louise McEwan has degrees in English and Theology. She has a background in education and faith formation.

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