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No-smudging rule at North Dakota school's powwow prompts backlash

No-smudging signs were posted at the University of Mary’s annual Mid-Winter Powwow, an event that took place Sunday, Jan. 15, in partnership with the United Tribes Technical College.

No smudging sign posted during the Mid-Winter Powwow at the University of Mary over the past weekend. (2).jpg
This sign was posted at the Mid-Winter Powwow held Sunday, Jan. 15, 2023, at the University of Mary in Bismarck.
Submitted photo
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BISMARCK — Signs barring the Native American practice of smudging at the University of Mary's weekend powwow created an online stir, with some saying the policy was a violation of religious freedom.

The University of Mary's policy of no-smudging indoors was a longstanding one because of concerns about fire alarms being set off by smudging, said Carmelita Lamb, associate dean of the university’s Liffrig Family School of Education and Behavioral Sciences.

“It is a little heartbreaking that something as small as a sign would make everyone feel so badly. We do have some smudging on campus, but a powwow is a social event and not a ceremonial event,” Lamb said.

Smudging is practiced by a variety of Indigenous groups. It generally involves the burning of sacred herbs, sometimes to cleanse a person or place.

The no-smudging signs were posted at the university’s annual Mid-Winter Powwow, an event that took place Sunday, Jan. 15, in partnership with the United Tribes Technical College.

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Lamb said the Mid-Winter Powwow was a time for people to break out of winter isolation, see friends, listen to music, put their regalia on and dance. “It was just a matter of safety because of fire alarms being sensitive. We don’t allow any vaping or cigarettes or any of that, with a risk of setting off alarms,” she said.

Tom Plenty Chief, a member of the Mandan, Hidatsa, Arikara Nation and president of Medicine Butte, a nonprofit group at Fort Berthold, said the news that smudging was not allowed during the powwow disturbed him.

“I would think in this day and age with religious freedom and equality and the Freedom of Religion Act of 1978, I would think an institution of higher learning that is funded by federal dollars would recognize the fact that Native people or any people have their own culture and their own ways of prayer, so it should be nondiscriminatory,” Plenty Chief said.

Leander “Russ” McDonald, president of United Tribes Technical College, said he attended the powwow, but didn’t see the no-smudging signs. After the event, someone shared an online post with him about the no-smudging policy.

“We could probably visit about that and see if there are any opportunities to work with this in the future. A lot of us Natives want to do that because it puts us in the right frame of mind. It’s a spiritual lock and helps everything go good,” McDonald said.

The University of Mary does allow smudging in certain spaces on campus, and as a Native American herself, Lamb encourages the practice.

“In the future as we move forward with powwows, we will make a special effort to participants that if they wish to smudge we will provide them an environment they can do that. We embrace that,” Lamb said.

“Nobody came to me to ask for smudging. We would have welcomed them and provided them a safe place for that to be done and not trigger smoke alarms,” Lamb said.

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Online comments related to the no-smudging policy at the powwow claimed the practice was no different than Catholic priests walking down an aisle swinging incense burners.

“I’ve been to Catholic Mass before and I believe they burn frankincense and that is a variation of smudging. If they don’t allow Native American people to smudge during a Native event, then why allow that during their Mass? It’s something to think about,” Plenty Chief said.

A similar situation at the University of Michigan prompted the university recently to change the smoke-free campus policy to allow smudging, as long as requests were made in advance.

C.S. Hagen is an award-winning journalist currently covering the education and activist beats mainly in North Dakota and Minnesota.
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