By demonstrating the process of smudging to Wayne State administrative representatives, on Dec. 14, the Native American Student Organization gained approval to smudge in specific Student Center rooms.

Come the beginning of the winter 2017 semester, Hilberry A and room 279 have been cleared for NASO’s smudging practices. This is an action NASO Vice President Kimberly Kleinhans said their organization has spent two years lobbying for.

Smudging is the sacred ceremonial burning of medicinal plants like sage, cedar, sweet grass, tobacco and copal – an aromatic tree resin. The practice is meant to cleanse the spirit by carrying thoughts and prayers along via smoke.

“We have events that we want to hold in the Student Center and we bring in elders, which are some of the most important people in our culture,” said NASO member David Pitawanakwat. “We shouldn’t have to take them outside to smudge. I should just be allowed, and it is at other universities.”

In lieu of WSU’s smoke-free campus initiative, as well as concerns regarding campus facilities fire suppression systems, NASO has been unable to ‘smudge’ in the Student Center.

“We would like to do it in the beginning of our meetings every other week, and then we would also like to do this when we have events, which is a couple times a semester,” Kleinhans said.

NASO representatives said they reached out to Dean of Students David Strauss, addressed the Board of Governors, and connected with the Office of Multicultural Student Engagement, before having the opportunity to meet with the administrative representatives who cleared their practices: Associate Director of Student Center Operations Anthony Carinci, Associate Director of Risk Management and State Certified Fire Inspector Bill Kemp and Facilities Engineer Duane Coplen.

“I know that we have had an ongoing conversation about this, and I think the issue that’s most often brought up with smudging, at least in my reference and the research I have done, is that it can have negative interactions with the fire suppression systems in the building,” Carinci said.

Carinci, Kemp and Coplen observed two different methods of smudging conducted in two different types of spaces.

“Even with the small rooms, I am not convinced that this is going to set off any fire or smoke alarms in any way, shape or form, so if you would like to observe it, we can show you,” Pitawanakwat said.

Kleinhans demonstrated how individuals would be smudged at the beginning of meetings with sage burned in a shell as she directs the movement of the smoke with a feather, and Pitwanakwat used a sage stick to smudge the entirety of the space – a practice reserved for special occasions and events.

Pitawanakwat said out of all of the medicinal plants typically used, sage produces the most smoke and sweet grass tends to emit far less.

“We don’t typically have these going the whole meeting. It’s just the beginning of the meeting,” he said. “Just so nobody gets the wrong idea, it’s not our intention to smoke box a room with this.”

The group first observed the smudging processes carried out in Hillberry A, a large conference room with high ceilings, and again in Room 279, a small private study/meeting space. No sensors were triggered in either room.

“Right now, with what you’re doing, I don’t believe you’re going to set anything off,” Kemp said.

Kemp and Coplen said not all rooms in the Student Center have smoke detectors, some just have ventilation/air return systems and sprinklers with heat sensors.

“The only concern would be if they used one of the rooms with low ceilings and a smoke detector,” Coplen said. “Some of the detectors are more sensitive than others. I would have to check, but in a larger setting, it should be okay. The smoke would dissipate before it reached a detector or go into the return air system.”

Coplen and Kemp agreed as long as NASO utilizes a room without a smoke detector inside nor one in proximity, they should be free to smudge.

“Ideally, depending on the impact, there would be the opportunity to move between spaces, but I think a good starting place – and this is just me speaking from my position in the student center, but I think we can identify spaces with the university fire marshal’s approval and then be able to expand those at a later time,” Carinci said. “Of course, our reservations will have to be flexible with moving other groups to accommodate the space that is needed, that would be my inclination.” 

Fire safety and emergency plans were also considered.

“Give me a plan, a procedure, something in writing, who’s going to do what you [Kleinhans and Pitawanakwat] did?” Kemp said. “Are you going to allow any Native American student to do it? Who does this? That’s what I want to know… I’m talking about igniting the flame.”

Sandra Gonzalez, assistant professor of bilingual/bicultural education and NASO faculty advisor, said the group would draft up a policy with their procedures in writing for campus administration, and it would be clear which NASO members would be responsible for the lighters used.

Carinci asked NASO to give the Student Center notice of when they would be smudging, at least for the first couple of times, so that campus officials are aware and can take precautions accordingly.

“We’ll be able to contact public safety and let them know that we may trigger the system, that way we don’t have a full-scale evacuation or response if something does occur, which it sounds like that’s unlikely,” Carinci said. “Once it becomes more standard and we go through it a couple times without having any incidents, I think we can look at having a notice in place – maybe just a reservation note in our system rather than something more drastic.”

Gonzalez said NASO could also create a sign for the Student Center to use so that people know when they are smudging and no one becomes worried if they smell or see smoke.

“Learn the building, look at the evacuation sites, know where the fire extinguishers are,” Kemp said. “Know all of our safety, fire and emergency procedures for the building.”

For now, just two rooms in the Student Center have been approved for smudging, but Carinici said he and Coplen will take the time to test other spaces in order to give NASO a list of more rooms they are are free to utilize.

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