Sage Opinion: Why I Support Smudging as Part of Our Community
I had the privilege of attending the Law Students’ Society (LSS) meeting on Wednesday, January 27 to discuss passing a motion*** that would make an optional smudging ceremony part of LSS meetings.
This issue first came to the school’s attention after Sheida Rezapour and Nika Farahani published an opinion piece in Juris Diction detailing their support for the motion. The issue gained further traction after Jonathan Nehmetallah posted a rebuttal on the Queen’s Law Facebook group. As a result of the ensuing controversy, the LSS meeting was the best attended of the year.
At the meeting, Jason Mercredi, the Aboriginal Student Representative for the LSS and one of the originators of the smudging proposition, moved to strike the motion. I thought that showed immense integrity and a spirit of consensus building in the face of something that could have become needlessly heated. The motion was struck and the issue was put to rest.
Still, I believe that the smudging motion should have passed. I had prepared arguments in favour of the motion to voice at the LSS meeting, but since the motion was struck, I felt that it would be appropriate to reproduce them here.
The opposition’s argument primarily hinges on what I believe to be a fallacious conflation of the terms ‘religion’ and ‘spirituality’. If smudging were indeed religious, I would agree with those opposed to this motion since that would unduly favour one faith-based belief over another.
However, from the sources I have consulted, particularly the 2014 Smudging Protocol and Guidelines from the Aboriginal Education Directorate of the Manitoba Education and Advanced Learning Department it is apparent that smudging is not ‘religious’, but only ‘spiritual’.
According to the Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance, “Many followers of Native American spirituality, do not regard their spiritual beliefs and practices as a ‘religion’ in the way in which many Christians do. Their beliefs and practices form a integral and seamless part of their very being.” This demonstrates that there is no hierarchical structure in at least some First Nations belief systems. The praising of a deity is not the goal of these practices, but rather ascertaining one’s own individualized relationship with the immaterial.
Merriam-Webster defines “religion” as “the service and worship of God or the supernatural,” a “commitment or devotion to religious faith and observance”, “a personal set or institutionalized system of religious attitudes, beliefs, and practices”, or “a cause, principle, or system of beliefs held to with ardor and faith”.
While the same dictionary defines “spirituality” as “sensitivity or attachment to religious values”, it also defines it as “the quality or state of being spiritual”. The “spirit” has multiple definitions, some relating to the supernatural but most relating to “the immaterial intelligent or sentient part of a person”.
Therefore, the main difference between “religion” and “spirituality” is that religion necessarily contains the presence of a hierarchical belief presided over by some kind of metaphysical deity.
However, spirituality can relate to belief in a deity but can also relate to the intangible essence of our being that is not beholden to any particular belief structure or faith in a higher power.
Since smudging falls into the ‘spiritual’ category and does not espouse beliefs about a certain deity or hierarchical structure, it is an acceptable practice that can be included in legal, governmental or educational procedures.
According to the 2014 Smudging Protocol, “Many First Nations share the concept of ‘mino-pimatisiwin’, which means ‘good life’ in both Cree and Ojibwe. Implicit in this is the understanding that all of life is a ceremony; that the sacred and the secular are parts of the whole; that people are whole beings (body, mind, spirit, emotion); and that ‘mino-pimatisiwin’ is achieved by taking care of all aspects of one’s self.”
This document essentially states that the secular and spiritual can co-exist without controversy and that spirituality need not include belief in a deity.
Additionally, in a 2012 article entitled “Secular Spirituality: An Oxymoron?” the author puts forth the concept of “secular spirituality,” which allows for the practice of spiritual acts without advocating any particular religion. This version of spirituality is about allowing the individual to find inner peace rather than emphasizing a relationship with a deity. While the notion of ‘secular spirituality’ is wholly distinct from the concept of ‘mino-pimatisiwin’, they both demonstrate that it is possible to engage in spiritual acts without prioritizing one belief system over another.
This leads me to believe that just because something is spiritual does not mean it is necessarily religious. I understand why one would think that spirituality and religion are synonymous considering that religion’s focus is on inducing spiritual experiences; however, it does not mean that a spiritual act cannot later become divorced from its religious origins. Take Yoga, for example. Yoga has its roots as a branch of philosophy in Hinduism and is first mentioned in the Katha Upanisad, a Hindu philosophical text.
The Yoga that many people in the West practice today, however, seeks to encourage the same sense of mindfulness and awareness, but is undeniably separated from its religious precedents. It is about cultivating a sense of oneness with your surroundings and is not bound to any particular systemic devotional religious purpose. It is definitely spiritual, but most decidedly not religious. Like Yoga, smudging can be used in contexts to invoke the metaphysical, but it also can be used outside of those contexts as well.
The opposition’s argument is also based on the premise that our legislative and educational systems are actually free from any rituals that could be construed as spiritual. Then what, may I ask, is the ritual of graduation for? It’s not necessary for getting a degree, but we persist in performing this ceremony for the same reasons that someone would engage in a spiritual activity: to increase mindfulness, become more aware of one’s environment, and acknowledge one’s own personal growth.
Why do we say “your worship” and bow to justices of the peace? Why do we sing national anthems? Why do we lower our heads in silence on Remembrance Day? All of these are rituals we perform that are derived from Western, secularized practice and are designed to increase awareness of surroundings and encourage mindfulness toward our peers and the physical space we occupy. In other words, they are spiritual acts.
Law is perhaps one of the most spiritual endeavors in which one can participate. It is our society’s way of codifying a generalized version of morality, which is intimately connected to the proliferation of the human spirit. Through our legal procedures we unwittingly live out the concept of “mino-pimatisiwin” every single day. Our entire lives are dictated by the theatre and ceremony of the courtroom and the office. All of these procedures are designed to promote civility and societal peace and by extension, inner peace. Thus, our Western system is replete with acts than can be considered spiritual.
Since we already incorporate spiritual acts derived from Western tradition into our everyday affairs, I believe it is appropriate to include the same type of act but from a First Nations perspective in our communities. Hence, smudging should be allowed to take place before LSS meetings as a way to emphasize the inner peace of our student body and as a way to incorporate First Nations cultural practice into our predominantly European system of procedure.
This small gesture will hopefully be a step in the right direction toward reconciliation which will result in societal peace, and hence, inner peace.
***The wording of the motion under discussion was “that ten minutes prior to the start of all LSS Council meetings, a voluntary smudge will be offered.”
Alex Hood (2L) is a contributor to Juris Diction.