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It's not for me

Tansi Nîtôtemtik,

Smudge, photo credit:

Reconciliation requires learning and reframing what we think we know. Reconciliation requires charting a new way forward. As I’ve sought to learn more about the cultural and spiritual practices of the Indigenous peoples whose territory I inhabit, I’ve been confronted by both my privilege and the limits of what I can learn. There are things I can learn, if I’m offered the teaching, and there are things that will never be offered to me. But I have a deep desire to learn, know and understand. I am approaching something sacred. I want to use care because I don’t want to be part of perpetuating the harms that have been inflicted on Indigenous peoples.

The first time I smudged, I was at a community planning meeting representing my employer. The hosts were an Indigenous organization and began the meeting with a smudge. All they said was ‘you’re welcome to join us, or not.’ Everyone, except the woman with a sweetgrass allergy, joined. And so without having received any teaching, I smudged, and for years, I carried a sense that I had committed a harm - that I had participated in something sacred in a performative way. (That’s my Catholic catechism lessons coming out. Smudging, I would come to learn, is for everyone.)

From there, I did what I’ve always done – I googled it. It turns out, however, the internet isn’t the best place to find information on the cultural practices of Nêhiyaw people. But seeking these teachings from Elders was not something that I had the relationships to do. I didn’t know the proper protocol and most importantly, I knew at some level that there is Indigenous knowledge that is for community members only.[1]

A few years ago, at a different job, I found a primer on smudging: “General Information for Children’s Services.” The Government of Alberta, and especially Children’s Services, has been offering cultural competency training for civil servants. Which is good progress, but it's also sterile in many ways because it’s designed for the comfort and accessibility of the settler-learner.

Smudging Information, source: Alberta Children's Services

Last summer, I brought my son to the vigil ILSA organized after the discovery of remains at the Kamloops Indian Residential School in Tk'emlups te Secwepemc. There, he was offered smudge for the first time. I told the elder that it was his first time, and I asked her if she would share with him more about what smudging is. She looked at me and said “you show him.” So I did, and she was quick to remind me when I missed bringing the smoke to my head, to ask for a clear mind and good thoughts. There is no one ‘right’ way to smudge, but I had asked for guidance, and she offered it, while also reminding me that I actually did have some of the knowledge I was seeking, and that I could share it with my son.

I’m going to be learning and unlearning this for the rest of my life. I have no doubt about that. And while I work on getting comfortable with the journey, and the ways in which it is outside of my control, I remain deeply, deeply grateful for my teachers along the way.

I remind myself that it is not my right to know whatever I want about Nêhiyaw culture and ceremony. It is not my right to access and experience it despite what my settler privilege has conditioned in me. The Nêhiyaw people have absolute jurisdiction over their culture and ceremony, including the right to protect it. For many years, Indigenous culture and ceremony was criminalized. Participating in potlatch - illegal. Smudging - illegal. Powwow - illegal. It was only in 1951 that these practices were decriminalized.[2] The law stole these ceremonies from so many, while others guarded them carefully.[3] Their teachings are the Nêhiyaw people’s to protect. Protecting these teachings is the only reason they are still here.

Until next time,

Amy and Team ReconciliACTION


[1] The right to host a lodge for ceremonial sweats, for example, is given to specific people in specific circumstances, see Darcy Lindberg, “Miyo Nêhiyâwiwin (Beautiful Creeness): Ceremonial Aesthetics and Nêhiyaw Legal Pedagogy” (2018) 16/17:1 Indigenous LJ 51 at 60. The way teachings are shared or discussed is governed by Indigenous law, see ibid at 56-57.

[2] Facing History and Ourselves, “Banning Indigenous Culture”, online: <>.

[3] The Lindberg article describes sweats being held under kitchen tables out of sight of the Indian Agent, see supra note 1 at 62.

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