St. Paul schools now allow Indigenous smudging indoors, after students push for policy change

13 September 2022

ST. PAUL — The second-largest school district in the state made a big change in the way it honors Indigenous cultures. The ritual of smudging is now allowed inside classrooms at St. Paul Public Schools.

A small group of former students of Johnson High School are the young voices who spoke up and pushed for the policy to become official. The district board of education on Aug. 23.

Smudging is the cultural practice of burning sage or other sacred herbs for healing and to cleanse the soul of negative thoughts. In part, the policy recognizes tobacco, sage, sweetgrass and cedar as traditional Native American medicines.

“It’s a way that you can cleanse the energy around you and just be in tune with your culture,” said Audrianna Wiley, who is a Johnson High School Alumni and a member of the Rose Bud Sioux Tribe of South Dakota.

On Friday morning, SPPS students and staff formed a circle, as one student walked around with the burning medicines, as each person took in the ritual their own unique way.

“We’re like a sponge. Unconsciously, we pick up on a lot of things,” said Alyssa Parkhurst, who is a Johnson High School Alumni and a member of Red Lake Nation of Ojibwe, “For me, it really helps to recenter, ground myself, to clear out an energy that’s not mine to hold onto.”

Parkhurst and Wiley are part of the group that was instrumental in making smudging and official policy within the SPPS district.

Wiley says they were informally smudging beforehand, but they weren’t able to do it in a safe way.

“We would have to go outside to smudge and especially in the winter, it would be really difficult,” said Wiley, “Minnesota winter gets really cold, so at times we wouldn’t even be able to.”

RELATED: Smudging as healing practice approved for St. Paul Public Schools

Students can smudge during their lunch hour or in their Native American studies classroom with staff supervision required. It’s a responsibility that teacher Julia Littlewolf takes on proudly.

“(Getting the policy passed) was a really powerful moment for high school students, having their voices and being able to use them,” said Littlewolf.

This ritual is an open door for any non-native students, who are curious about it, to participate.

“We wanted to educate them so they weren’t ignorant on the topic in thinking that it was something that it’s not,” said Wiley.

“To me, it’s just a form of solidarity too,” said Parkhurst.

The effort put into to making this moment possible was not just for today, but for the future.

“I’m really grateful because the students coming after me are going to be able to benefit from it,” said Parkhurst.

The Minnesota Clean Air Act protects smoke indoors if it’s part of a traditional Native American ceremony, like smudging. The SPPS district does not recognize smudging as a religious act.

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Author: Marielle Mohs

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