Mistaken identity clouds native rite
Mistaken identity clouds native rite
Plant burned to cleanse mind sometimes confused with pot
By Jill Callison
Published: October 31, 2007
A ritual that gave Rose Paz a peaceful close to her day now is tinged with
Last week, Paz was burning dried sage in a Native American purification
rite in her apartment when she was interrupted by police officers who had
been alerted to possible illegal drug use.
The misunderstanding was cleared up by an officer who recognized the
bittersweet odor of burning sage.
But Paz is left with an uneasy feeling and a desire to educate others so
the situation doesn't happen again.
"I was fortunate to have a police officer that knew these ways," said Paz,
an enrolled Yankton Sioux tribal member. "I was fortunate I could go up to
my (apartment) manager and say, "This is what happened." But I don't know
that will always be the case."
A common practice in Native American culture -- the burning of sage --
often is misunderstood by South Dakota's white population. The odor reminds
some of marijuana, and that mistake can create uncomfortable situations for
Native Americans practicing their tradition.
But Paz and others hope things can change.
Chad Nielsen, who was raised by traditional Dakota people in his
adolescence, said what happened in Paz's apartment can be an opportunity to
change or to allow the ignorance to continue.
Nielsen, a chemical dependency counselor and outreach worker for Lutheran
Social Services, compared the burning of sage to the incense used by a
Roman Catholic priest during Mass.
"It's a cleansing," he said. "It's one of the sacraments and one of the
medicines of the traditional practices."
The burning of sage, or smudging, takes place in large ceremonies such as
sundances and on an individual basis, Nielsen said.
For many Native Americans, it evokes warm memories.
"When you grow up and the first thing you smell in the morning is cedar or
sage from your grandparents' prayers, it's a wonderful thing to know your
home is being cleansed and prayers are being made," he said.
The burning of sage is particularly important to Paz because she didn't
grow up with the ritual. As a child, she was adopted by German Mennonites
who raised her in Brazil where they did mission work.
Sandy White Hawk tells a similar story. A Rosebud Sioux, she was adopted
and raised in Wisconsin.
As an adult, she learned the comfort that comes with burning sage, cedar or
"It's a cleansing," said White Hawk of South St. Paul, Minn. "It puts our
mind and our heart and our spirits in balance."
Some hospitals have set aside rooms where Native Americans can burn
medicinal plants such as sage and sweetgrass, White Hawk said.
"It's very helpful, especially if there's a lot of grief around an issue or
sadness or anxiety," she said. "It brings a balance, cleanses the air."
White Hawk knew of no South Dakota hospitals that offer a room for the
burning of sacred plants.
Cindy Hoy, director of pastoral care services at Sanford USD Medical
Center, said safety reasons prevent burning in the hospital.
"However, we've discovered that sage and sweetgrass that has not been
burned is spiritually significant, so we have some available should our
Native American patients request it," she said.
Some apprehension about school response
White Hawk said she also has heard of incidents where a child went to
school with the smell of sage on his clothes, and officials pulled him
aside, thinking they detected marijuana.
Bill Smith, director of instructional support services for Sioux Falls
public schools, could think of no time when the odor of sage had caused
consternation in the classroom.
"That doesn't mean it hasn't happened," he said. "But I'm not aware of any
Paz had been warned that burning sage could be misunderstood.
"There are so many times that I have heard Native people talk about, 'Oh, I
was burning sage in my apartment, and the neighbors thought I was smoking
pot,' " she said.
"Sometimes they joke about it, but there's always this undercurrent of
fear, a little bit of an edge, because the history that Native people have
had with the police department hasn't always been positive."
Lt. Greg VandeKamp of the Sioux Falls Police Department said narcotics
officers are taught to tell sage and marijuana apart, both by odor and
"Most officers, if not all, would be able to tell the difference," he said.
"When you look at it, oftentimes you can tell marijuana from sage, even
Distributing information on saging ceremonies among landlords could be
useful, VandeKamp said.
"Education is the key," he said.
Paz had a friend, since deceased, who would sew regalia for Native dancers.
When the outfits were completed, her friend would smudge them with sage.
But the friend quit doing that after her landlord accused her of smoking
marijuana in her apartment and gave her three days to move out.
Sage advice: Education key to avoiding trouble
Paz hopes to prepare information sheets on the ritual of burning sage and
other plants sacred to Native Americans and distribute them among landlords
in Sioux Falls.
Matt Nagel would welcome that. He manages Doorways, which owns the
apartment building where Paz and her 12-year-old son, Marcus, have lived
"It might not be a bad idea," Nagel said of Paz's plan. "We've never had
this as an issue before ... but these are crime-free buildings."
Paz at first thought the call to the police was made for racial reasons,
but after speaking with her building manager, she is convinced it wasn't.
Nagel doesn't think so, either. "I can guarantee there was no racial
discrimination in this one," he said.
"Knowing the tenant (the complaint) came from, I can guarantee it wasn't.
What she smelled, smelled to her like pot."
When the police came to her door, Paz said, she felt helpless. She wondered
whether she would ever perform a saging ceremony again.
But for Paz, who grew up singing "Silent Night" in German at Christmas, the
connection with her past is too important to give up.
"This is the way my ancestors prayed," she said. "This connects me to my
ancestors in a way I didn't grow up around."
Reach reporter Jill Callison at 331-2307.