St. Paul Public Schools is eyeing a new policy allowing and encouraging the Native American practice of smudging — the burning of sage or other sacred herbs for healing — at schools and events across the state's second-largest district.
Native parents first began to promote the idea in 2019, and if adopted, the policy would make St. Paul one of the first public school systems in the nation to give the ceremonies its official blessing, according to a presentation to board members Tuesday.
Viewed by supporters as a way to create a sense of belonging for Native students, smudging already is in place on an informal basis at some city schools. But parents have yearned to legitimize the practice by having it enshrined in official district policy.
Duluth Public Schools took similar action in the spring.
Leonard Spears, who was a freshman this year at Johnson Senior High School in St. Paul, took advantage of the pioneering work of students there in 2018-19 to carve out space for the practice. He said smudging is a source of positive energy, and he tries to do it daily.
"It is a cleanser," Spears said. "It is a medicine for the mind."
During a smudge, an adult places cedar, sage or sweetgrass in a shell or container and lights it. The flames are gently blown out and the smoke is wafted over a person by hand or with an eagle feather. The intention is to cleanse the soul of negative thoughts, John Bobolink, supervisor of the district's American Indian Education Program, said Tuesday.
The practice is cultural, not religious in nature, and allowable in schools under the Minnesota Clean Indoor Air Act, he said.
St. Paul Public Schools has 1,223 Native American students, or about 3.7% of the district's student population. In 2019, when the parent advisory committee first proposed the smudging policy, Native students were the lowest-performing demographic group in math, with 11% testing as proficient. About 32% were proficient in reading.
For those students who struggle with test anxiety, or aggressive behavior, or who are fighting to overcome trauma, smudging could serve as a cultural remedy in support of one's social and emotional health, district officials say.
Alyssa Parkhurst, a 2019 graduate of Johnson High, said students initially smudged in a little storage office, and the practice generated complaints from people who didn't understand it. A meeting with the student council was convened, and then with the principal, and classroom space was provided during the lunch hour.
The education piece was missing, however, Parkhurst said, so students shared with classmates what smudging was about and then invited them to attend. On the first day, 50 kids showed up, she said, most of them non-Native, and many continued to return.
"It helped create a sense of community that we didn't have before," she said.
According to a draft of the policy:
Smudging can be done at an event such as a pow wow or cultural presentation, or with a student or group of students with a counselor or Indian Education staff member present.
Access to ceremonies should not be limited to Native students exclusively, but encouraged for everyone as a way to promote understanding of cultural values and differences.
Smudging should be considered voluntary.
Counselors are expected to be trained in order to receive and maintain a smudging kit, and employees at each school site are to learn about the importance of the ceremonies.
Under the timeline presented to board members Tuesday, the policy is expected to get its first reading next week and be approved by the board in August for the coming school year.
Bobolink said he hopes the policy then can serve as a blueprint for other districts to follow.