Amy Shawanda is sadly aware of the frustration that comes from being unable to perform a sacred ceremony in a time of need.
Shawanda is an Anishinaabe from Wikwemikong Unceded Indian Reserve on Manitoulin Island, and a master’s student in Indigenous relations at Laurentian University. Shortly after her aunt’s death, she and her family tried to hold a smudge ceremony in the hospital’s medicine lodge room, but found it locked. When Shawanda asked a security guard to open the room, the guard told her she was following protocol and denied them entry.
“I tried to explain to her that denying the smudge ceremony is the equivalent of someone saying you are not able to pray,” recalls Shawanda. “We asked to speak to a manager who said come back tomorrow when the medicine lodge keeper will be in.”
It was then that Shawanda decided her thesis would zero in on how the smudging ceremony is integrated at hospitals in Northeastern Ontario. She will begin her research this spring and focus on hospitals in Sudbury, Timmins, Parry Sound and North Bay. The region is home to various Anishinaabe communities where smudging is a common practice.
Shawanda likens a smudge to similar ceremonies performed by Buddhist monks or Christian priests burning incense. It involves burning one or more of four sacred medicines — sage, cedar, tobacco and sweet grass.
“Each has a purpose, but in general, they cleanse, heal and purify,” she says. “The smoke and the smell has a psychologically calming effect. It signals you are in a sacred space.”
Shawanda will create case studies of each hospital’s policies, including whether they have dedicated medicine lodge rooms, how those rooms came to be, and how families’ ability to perform smudges work in practice. She will speak with those involved in creating and running the medicine lodge rooms, including lodge keepers and chaplains.
“Indigenous people, we have more hoops to jump through to access health services. There are cultural barriers, distance and language barriers,” says Shawanda. She would like her research to help bring down at least one barrier: access to smudge ceremonies.
Shawanda understands that her experience could colour her results. That’s why she has enlisted four elders, who also happen to be health care workers, to help keep her work free of bias.
She hopes to have results ready to share with the hospitals and Anishanaabe communities by mid-2016.
“The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples supports cultural traditions such as smudging as an Indigenous right and practice,” she says. “We have a right to these ceremonies and nowhere is it being honoured. I don’t want others to go through what we went through.”
**On February 2, 2016, the Council of Ontario Universities proudly launched the Let’s Take Our Future Further campaign highlighting Aboriginal learners’ achievements at Ontario universities and their contributions to Ontario’s social, cultural, and economic fabric. As part of the launch of the Future Further website, Research Matters is proud to feature five influential Aboriginal researchers from Ontario universities.