Skip to main content

Drew Hayden Taylor is an award-winning playwright and author who lives on the Curve Lake First Nation in Central Ontario.

In British Columbia, it seems the simple act of smudging – a pan-aboriginal act of spiritual purification in which people fan smoke over themselves from smouldering sage – has raised the hackles of at least one mother. She is burning mad and has petitioned the B.C. Supreme Court to ban the practice in her school district, saying she was concerned about the explicit religious nature of the ceremony.

There is one problem with that argument. Smudging is not really that religious. It may be cultural. It may be spiritual. But I would not call it religious by any means – no more than I would yoga or meditation. I doubt everybody who practices yoga or meditation could quote Buddhist doctrine or pick the Dalai Lama out of a police lineup.

Whether smudging does purify your mind or spirit is another matter for discussion. But smudging is a simple admission that maybe we all could use a bit of nonphysical maintenance in whatever form. This just happens to be ours. At its best, it prepares your mind for a more positive way of beginning a meeting, workshop or anything involving focus and communication. At its worst, some might consider it indigenous incense. But fear not: The smoke will not turn into elements of a Christian messiah once ingested. I hear that happens occasionally.

Related: The decades-long effort to allow indigenous communities to police themselves

Related: Revival of endangered aboriginal language empowers speakers in Yukon

Read more: First Nations, courts search for ways to use aboriginal customs and laws

This is a matter of duelling and conflicting perspectives. It was not that long ago that doing anything remotely native was highly illegal, be it sun dances, pow wows or potlatches. The law was known as the Potlatch Ban, enacted by the Canadian government in 1885 and deleted from the Indian Act in 1951.

Now, government departments and NGOs spend lots of money trying to enhance and encourage traditional native practices, such as the aforementioned smudging. Again, I would like to point out that, in British Columbia, it was an elementary school following board curriculum that has put an important focus on teaching First Nations culture, history and traditions. One might argue that smudging would be a part of this.

Those from the dominant culture, frequently referred to as the colonizers or the settlers, should try to maintain a certain amount of continuity with their proclamations. When you have been colonized, some of these things can get confusing. It is easy to lose track. It was not okay, now it is okay, now it is not again? Or is it one of these things where it is okay if native people do it, just not my kids. A cultural form of NIMBY?

We also find the sudden ban on saying "Merry Christmas" puzzling. Native people are more about inclusion than exclusion. We are happy with Kwanzaa – more power to all the people of colour – but quite a few First Nations, Métis and Inuit do still prefer to say "Merry Christmas" without being told how culturally and religiously rude they are. What really hurts is being told to go back to the country we came from.

I do appreciate this woman's position: I remember myself as a kid in elementary school, having to stand during the reciting of the Lord's Prayer and the singing of God Save the Queen. I did not really understand the relevance of either of those when it came to learning the intricacies of pie charts. We just went through the motions, like many of the kids probably did at the smudging ceremony.

It should be pointed out that, for the most part, you do not have to tell native people about the wish to avoid forced religion in buildings of education. You could say we literally wrote the book on the topic.

In fact, several books are published every year that deal with the residential-school system and its after effects. Nobody wants to see that again. But for most of us, there is a big difference between being sexually abused in God's name and having a little purifying smoke fanned in your direction.

It is common knowledge that saying "God Bless you" after a sneeze does not necessarily confirm the personal conviction about the existence of heaven or hell. Again, it is the difference between spiritual and religious. A dream-catcher is not the same as a crucifix. Sometimes a smudge ceremony is just a smudge ceremony.

I wonder if it is coincidence that a controversy of this nature has surfaced at the same time many parts of Canada are seeing a rise in the promotion of alt-right and white supremacist organizations. This is in itself odd because, to the best of my knowledge, there is no such thing as white culture in general. There is Irish culture, Finnish culture, Swiss culture, Armenian culture, etc., but no over-all, all-encompassing, total form of Caucasian culture.

If that were the case, and white culture was being promoted to undermine all others, then I could understand the ban on something so innocuous as a smudge ceremony.

Perhaps there needs to be an alt-red movement of some sort.