It all started with Dale Shackelly, a woman from the Nooaitch Band in Merritt, part of the Nlaka’pamux territory, who had a young friend stressed out by an exam.
Many of the 1,495 aboriginal students attending Okanagan College come from areas where traditional cultural and spiritual practices are intrinsic solutions to everyday life problems and she wanted to know if anyone in the Aboriginal Centre could do a smudging ceremony.
“If you do a comparison to the Bible, it’s like if you do a prayer. It’s the same thing when you’re smudging,” said Shackelly.
“It sweeps off all the negative energy when your mind gets all blocked up, sweeps out the webs.”
Shackelly learned to perform a smudging ceremony as an adult. Her family kept spiritual practices and traditions to themselves while she was in the public school system for fear she might face reprisal or ridicule.
Late in her teens, she started to learn, eventually compiling enough knowledge to serve in a leadership role on the chief’s health committee.
She was given a crystal for that endeavour and donated it to the college to help others cleanse their spirit easily.
One can tell when she talks about smudging that she’s very passionate about passing on what she’s learned to the next generation.
“What you take (from the Earth), you return and, in the process, you lift off negativity and dust out the cobwebs,” she explained. “Nothing can be taken from the Earth. It has to be returned.”
Shackelly uses beehive for those cobwebs in the brain that too much stress can create, adding a little into the buffalo sage she lights for the smudge.
Other students have also brought in sweetgrass, regular sage, the herbs and plants of their land.
With the lit dried plants—the smudge—she faces the sun and starts her ritual by addressing all four directions: east, south, west and north.
She addresses the father sky and the mother Earth, the grandfathers and grandmothers, spirit of the eagle feather and spirit of the smudge, praying the whole time.
In one hand is a feather and in the other, a small cast-iron skillet where she places the smouldering materials.
Finding sage is never a problem for Shackelly as she dries her own medicinal plants and herbs, taking the cardboard flat of a 24-can tray of pop and flipping the leafy greens over and over for a few weeks until they are dry.
Then placing the brittle sage in the small pan, she lights it in on fire and shows others how to wash smoke over ones’ body in a similar manner to those bathing in sacred water.
At the end of the ritual, she offers something back to the Earth, like a bit of loose tabacco or a cigarette.
The smouldering smudge is placed in tinfoil, later to be returned to a stream or lake or the ground beneath a sacred tree.
Shackelly and Vera Camille, a student in the business program from the Canoe Creek Band in the Shuswap, will both be performing and teaching students how to use smudge thanks to the efforts of Gail Smith, the aboriginal transitions planner at the school.
Smith has developed a lesson plan around bringing traditional practices onto campus and helped grease the wheels and set up the space where smudging will be performed beneath a particularly important tree.
The young evergreen is planted at the front of the school to commemorate the individual who held her job before she assumed the role.
Ethan Batiste is a prime example of where students can go if they can overcome the cultural adjustment needed to stay on track, and on campus, in the first few years.
Originally from the Osoyoos First Nation, Batiste was working toward a doctorate focused on indigenous studies in an interdisciplinary program at UBCO when he was killed in a traffic accident on the Westside a year ago.
The first smudging ceremony was held in his honour last month at his memorial tree.
Richard Jackson Jr., an elder with the Westbank First Nation, helped perform the ceremony to a crowd of roughly 60 people, but when the average student comes out to the space, they will be able to sit almost unnoticed with their smoking pot beside its young boughs.
Aboriginal students represent about seven per cent of the population of Okanagan College and the Aboriginal Centre, where Smith and her colleague James Coble, aboriginal access and services coordinator, are situated, ensures those students have the resources to achieve their goals.
“We’ve always encouraged bringing traditional knowledge onto the campus,” said Coble. “But we don’t always have the right students; so we’re just fortunate they’re interested in doing it.”
Spirituality on a public campus sits in a bit of a grey zone.
Where the public school system, and the college teachings, may be void of many forms of religion, describing spiritual practice in a secular, instructional environment, there are still prayer centres and rooms where faith clubs might meet on most North American campuses.
The college convocation often begins with a prayer from a member of Westbank First Nation; but for the most part, it is an environment devoid of obvious spiritual practice.
As much as this approach to creating equality opens the doors for those of every faith and spiritual tradition to learn on neutral ground, it’s at times a barrier for aboriginal students who might come from a background steeped in traditional practice.
“For students who are coming from smaller communities, coming to Kelowna can be a real culture shock not seeing people like them or being a real minority,” explained Coble.
There are other resources the students would like to see added to the Aboriginal Centre to assist those adjusting to this new college life.
A counsellor might be an asset, Shakelly said. Smith concurs.
“It’s so easy to get diverted when you’re out there promoting your culture and somebody does a personal attack,” said Smith.
For now, there is at least a way to cleanse one’s self of those negative feelings.
The opportunity to learn about and practice a smudging ceremony is open to any student who is interested on the campus, not just those of aboriginal ancestry.