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Mistaken identity clouds native rite

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  • Robert Schmidt
    http://www.argusleader.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20071031/NEWS/7103103 43/1001 Mistaken identity clouds native rite Plant burned to cleanse mind sometimes
    Message 1 of 1 , Nov 1 6:16 AM

      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
      since September.

      "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.
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