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Counseling, praying and horses are all in a day's work for Benny Smith

LAWRENCE, Kan. - Benny Smith is a real Renaissance Man. By day he is the associate dean of students at Haskell Indian Nations University, in charge of counseling.

He also teaches classes. His easy-going manner and open door policy have made him a favorite of both staff and students on the campus.

But at 5:00, when he walks out the door, he leaves all of that behind and enters a world of his own. That world, away from Haskell, is filled with family, horses and spiritualism. His balance of each has made him a role model for Haskell students and horse-loving kids in the Lawrence area for nearly three decades.

Sitting among dozens of pictures of family and horses in his office, Smith reflected on his life. "Actually if there was such a thing as a philosophy of life, I think it would be a study of wisdom, that you base what you do in life on the things that you experience, your insights and the things that you observe.

"That is really called the wisdom spirit. It helps you deal with the circumstances that are created every minute. A minute ago is gone There is a new moment now. To face changes and to accommodate changes and find out what your role is in that change, if I had a philosophy of life this is what I have followed."

Smith, a Cherokee from Oklahoma has been at the university since 1971. A favorite of students over the years, he often takes them to his home on weekends to work with his horses or just hang out. The yard of the Smith home often is filled with empty cars and pickups, some with horse trailers.

The organized chaos which greets visitors to the Smith place, pulls them into the fracas. Dogs trot out to properly welcome guests, horses whinny in the distance and often busy children are running between the house and the barn. Faces peek out from the dark barn doorway to see who arrived. No formal welcoming committee other than the dogs awaits visitors, just a hand motioning to the barn or house, depending on where the family is congregating.

Projects in the barn can be anything from a horse being shown for sale to Smith milking a goat. Often Smith is alone, riding a young horse in his arena.

Cheryl Smith, his wife, has welcomed students he brought by home for 38 years. Her cheerful greetings put them at ease, but before the greeting has finished she has turned and is off helping her grandchildren. The couple has three grown children who still help Dad out and train horses with him.

Even their four grandchildren have gotten into the spirit of things, helping clean the barn, feeding the horses and keeping Grandpa company while he rides or shoes horses. They pause in their chores to see just who has arrived and then resume whatever adventure is at hand.

Few American Indians or horse enthusiasts in the Lawrence area are unacquainted with Smith. He has either taught them, counseled them or trained or shoed their horses over the years.

He has been raising horses for years and is known throughout the community as one of the few honest "horse traders" in the area. It may be his honesty that students find so appealing.

When he shows up at a customer's home, even the flightiest horses calm to his touch. Horses that appear ready to bolt visibly relax as he runs his rough hands over them. His shoeing techniques and tools aren't standard farrier gear either. Whether shoeing a horse or trimming its hooves, Smith sits down next to them on an old metal tractor seat he made into a stool.

He contends that being down at a sitting level, is less threatening to the horse and much easier on the horse and on Smith's back. Horse owners don't understand why the horse they thought would tear the stool apart is standing half asleep for Smith, but they are grateful to have Smith calm the fears of their equine companions as he does foot maintenance.

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As he finishes work on a difficult horse, Smith rubs its head and face, speaking softly into its ear. The horse that earlier looked like a real handful, sighs and pushes its head against Smith's chest.

Even veterinarians in the area come to Smith for advice with problem patients from time to time when foot problems don't mend with traditional treatment.

"I call my horse habit a therapy. I can totally relax doing horse projects, whether it is shoeing, training or just being around horses," Smith said. "I have a small breeding program which uses about five to seven mares and I have four to six colts a year. So I have to do other things to feed those animals. Really I do it for a saneness."

His love for horses began early and many of his co-workers joke that his real job starts after he leaves Haskell. They readily concede his loyalty to the school has been unwavering and complete.

It is Smith, who over the years received the many phone calls from the sheriff's department when students are killed or injured at night or on weekends. He is often the one who had the sad duty of returning the remains of dead students to their families. He is also the one who held prayer and memorial services for students left on campus as they try to heal from those tragedies.

His spiritual side has not only comforted students and staff during times of sorrow, but has been present for happier times on campus. He blesses buildings or prays before a game or Haskell function.

Asked how it all evolved he replied, "My father was a medicine man, my brother was a medicine man, and in that kind of environment I suppose it happened by osmosis - maybe.

"It's part of life. It can't be called a religion; you can't call it faith, I don't think, because there is no indoctrination. It's really a natural thing. There are no set kinds of requirements to call it a religious kind of thing. It is a way of life."

Smith said he believes there is an innate quality to Native Americans when it comes to such spirituality. "They are spiritual. Before the advent of preaching and religious kinds of things that the missionaries brought to the Native Americans, there was innately instilled in the Native American a spirituality that adheres to the 'now,' the nature of things as they are today."

He sees a responsibility in this gift that he believes has to be handed down from generation to generation, which he is doing now for his children and grandchildren.

"They're the instrument for our existence. I feel like they are the ones that should carry on whatever it is that you can pass on to them."

Smith said he has achieved that over the years by addressing their questions of why with answers of a spiritual nature that make the children think and make them aware of their surroundings and their place in the world.

The evidence of his spiritual side can be found in the feathers and the materials he uses when he prays or blesses buildings - a translucent mixture in a simple mason jar. It is made up of roots and bark and other things from nature, Smith said.

It mimics the man who uses it - simple and clear and a part of nature.