Smudge quest continues

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STEVENS POINT, Wis. – Native students at the University of Wisconsin – Stevens Point have had to get through a lot of red tape – or in this case, white tape, some say – in order to fight for the right to smudge in their dorms.

As Indian Country Today recently reported, the charge on the issue has been led by graduate student Rory Griffin, Menominee, as a result of misunderstandings he and other Native students have faced when practicing aspects of their religions.

An administrative decision has now been made on this issue, and it isn’t exactly of the sort that Griffin and other students who have faced discrimination after practicing smudging were hoping.

During a recent meeting with a fire marshal for the state, Griffin and others were told that fire codes prevent burning of any kind in dormitories. The marshal said that despite the American Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1978, he was uncomfortable with allowing the lighting of sacred medicines used in smudging, due to the possibility of fires.

Candles, incense burning, and cigarette smoking are no longer allowed in the halls for the same reason.

Given the information, administrators decided to offer permission for students to smudge outside the front and back of the dorms. They will also be allowed to smudge down eagle feathers and carry smoke into their rooms.

“It’s a step backwards, and I am disappointed,” Griffin told ICT in a new interview. “But we’ve been told that there’s nothing we can do because of state and federal fire code laws for residence halls.

Griffin is now setting up meetings with Native students and administrators at higher education institutions in other states where smudging is believed to be allowed in dorms.

His hope is to use the information he gathers to convince members of the Wisconsin Legislature that there is precedent for recognizing and protecting smudging in mainstream, public school systems.

While Griffin views the fire code decision as a setback, he is also keeping positive.

“This is the very first time this has been done on any campus in the University of Wisconsin System,” the natural resource management major said.

“I am very excited for the future of our campus because we are now raising visibility on our concerns, and we can now try to get better policies adopted on other campuses.”

Native students are also pleased that administrators are exploring designing a room somewhere on campus that will be ventilated and will not pose a fire hazard. Students will have regular access to the room, including after school hours, to perform religious ceremonies.

Sharon Cloud, director of the institution’s Native American Center and an advisor to a campus Native student organization, said she has been impressed by the activism of Griffin and other students. She noted that in her nearly three decades at the institution, issues over smudging have arisen at least three times, but this is the first time students have been so forceful in making administrators listen to their concerns.

“I think this is a big step, and they’ve come a long way.”

Cloud, a member of the Oneida Nation of Wisconsin, is currently in the process of gathering data on how many current Indian students at the institution practice smudging. She said that the name collection will help administrators be in contact with students who wish to use the planned private room and to alert them of future decisions on smudging.

Cloud added that there still needs to be a lot of education for non-Natives on what smudging is and for Native students on how to do it properly.

She said, too, that she worries that some Native students have gotten so caught up with fighting for what they believe is right that she worries that their education could be affected.

“I’m always supportive of students to keep on trying. … but I don’t want them to put so much time and effort into it that they’re going to lose track of doing a good job in school.”

The emphasis on smudging became a hot issue on campus earlier this year after a freshman Native student was made to feel uncomfortable about smudging on campus.

In October, the institution’s student government passed a statute making clear that the federal government protects indigenous culture, customs and religious practices as outlined in the American Indian Religious Freedom Act.

It also noted that some Native students smudge as a part of their religious practices, and called on the university to uphold federal law by supporting safe spaces for all students.