Smudging is a practice common among Native and Indigenous communities that links smoke with spirituality. The tradition involves the burning of one or more botanicals—or medicines—gathered from the earth. Typically, tobacco, sage, cedar, and sweetgrass are considered the Four Sacred Medicines used in smudging.
Because smudging ceremonies involve smoke and fire, Native people's access to this practice at institutions of higher education has been limited, due in part to fire safety regulations and restrictions. The same was true at UMass Amherst until the Policy for the Burning of Material Offerings for Ceremonial, Cultural, Traditional, or Religious Observance (a.k.a. the Smudging Policy)—initiated by the Native Advisory Council and implemented in partnership with the Office of Environmental Health and Safety (EHS)—cleared the way for Native students and others to safely engage in traditional practices like smudging, offering incense, or lighting candles.
“For many Native folks, smudging is part of daily life,” says Sarah Littlecrow Russell, assistant vice chancellor for shared services and co-chair of the Native Advisory Council. “It's an act of mindfulness, it's a way to clear your space, to let go of negative feelings and thoughts, to be centered and grounded,” she explains. “It’s very much part of well-being and caring for your mind, body, and spirit.” These principles are echoed in the words of an elder from the Niji Mahkwa School that guide Indigenous inclusion protocols for schools in Manitoba, Canada:
- We smudge to clear the air around us.
- We smudge to clean our minds so that we will have good thoughts of others.
- We smudge our eyes so that we will only see good things in others.
- We smudge our ears so that we will only listen to good things about others.
- We smudge our mouths so that we will only speak well of others.
- We smudge our whole being so that we will portray only the good part of our self [sic] through our actions.
The Manitoba protocols were just one set of policies the Native Advisory Council and EHS looked at in determining how to construct the UMass Amherst Smudging Policy. “There weren’t that many universities out there that were inclusive for the whole campus community,” recalls Jeffrey Hescock, Executive Director of EHS and Emergency Management. He explains how most policies they reviewed were very prescriptive in how they allowed smudging or restricted the practice to specific locations. “UMass did have a couple of those locations,” says Hescock, “but these time-honored traditions or ceremonies may not be location specific.” After considering the limits of these policies, the Native Advisory Council asked Hescock and Russell to roll up their sleeves and start from scratch.
The result? A policy that Russell believes is likely to be “the most inclusive [in the country],” one that will serve as a benchmark for other institutions in the future.
“At UMass, we are committed to building a community where every individual feels a sense of belonging,” affirms Nefertiti Walker, vice chancellor for diversity, equity, and inclusion. “This policy is an indication of what that means in real-time and in real life. It is inclusion in action.”
Russell reflects on the historical significance of the policy, explaining that “for many years, Native American religious practices were illegal, and to this day, on most other campuses in the United States, Native students, staff, and faculty are still banned from engaging in smudging and tobacco offering practices.” In that context, this policy “is particularly powerful in terms of reconciliation.” At UMass, Native students raised with the tradition of smudging “can continue to care for their spiritual and cultural well-being,” Russell says. “For Native students who did not have the opportunity to grow up with smudging as part of their practice, this policy allows for elders and culture keepers to come to campus and teach about the Four Sacred Medicines and support Native students in connecting and reconnecting to culture and tradition.”
While the Smudging Policy is deeply significant to the Native community, Russell takes care to point out its far-reaching effect on many other cultures. “What’s special about our UMass policy is that it's very broadly inclusive,” she says. “It provides a vehicle for people who may burn incense or people who may burn candles or other things to be able to also engage in their practices of mental, spiritual, and emotional well-being.”
At UMass, we are committed to building a community where every individual feels a sense of belonging. This policy is an indication of what that means in real time and in real life. It is inclusion in action.
Along with creating a straightforward process for traditional and cultural practices, the Smudging Policy provides an opportunity for others to learn how to engage respectfully and better understand the spiritual aspects of diversity, equity, and inclusion. Not very familiar with smudging before embarking on this initiative, Hescock appreciates having had the opportunity to learn about diverse cultural practices through the process of creating this policy. “It is pretty remarkable when you look at the many different types of ceremonies and traditions and what they mean. That's what university is about: learning and engaging in different things that you may not be familiar with in the first place,” he says.
Russell commends Hescock and his EHS colleagues for their openness: “they were not comfortable with the idea of giving people permission to engage in practices that represent millennia of tradition and culture.” Instead, EHS works collaboratively with students, residential directors and advisors, and others to ensure practices can be carried out both safely and accessibly via an “iterative and interactive” process.
“A lot of institutions talk about inclusion but have policies that create barriers for people to engage in practices of cultural tradition and well-being,” says Russell. “This policy is an explicit statement that UMass Amherst is different.”
This story was originally published in November 2022.