How Learning How To Smudge Really Schooled Me On My Colonial Baggage

Editorial note: This piece of writing is not, in any way, a how-to, a lesson, or a teaching in the smudging ceremony. For that, you will need to seek out an elder within an indigenous community. This piece of writing deals with how, having received some teachings in and about the ceremony, I came face-to-face with my colonial baggage, and found a way to work through it.

An elder has been teaching me how to smudge while I learn from her how to make moccasins, appreciate a deeper regard for all life, and to slow myself long enough to do beading. I’m not a perfect person, and several of my faults have come to surface through this process. Many of those faults are forms of psychological baggage from my only other way of knowing the world, which was how I formerly lived. This post today is about how, in particular, learning to smudge in a good way taught me a valuable lesson about some of it.

Editorial note (2): Even the act of writing this post has taught me more about how to show proper respect to people, such as the elders who teach me about their lives and their culture. I was not unconscious of how writing about this as a white person could be extremely controversial, even as I was writing it, and as such, I have left out numerous significant details about what is taking place. I have written only about (some of) the physical gestures involved, as a way of engaging directly with what I learned from doing them. This piece, however, will be my last piece of writing that deals with my spirituality this openly. I acknowledge that there are several protocols involved (i.e., who shares the ceremony, how/when it can be shared, and what can be stated aloud or written about it with those not as intimately familiar with it) that I am still in the process of learning, if and when I am ready to receive those teachings. One of those protocols is that to learn about smudging, you need to be shown directly by a person who has the gift of teaching it to others. You cannot learn this ceremony from writing on the internet — especially not from writing by a white person who is still in the process of learning about and from it. That is not the purpose of this piece of writing, though I’m sure there will be no shortage of neo-Pagans, Wiccans, Satanists, and eclectic spiritualists who will take this piece of writing which ever way they please (primarily because they have already appropriated many of the medicines and physical gestures involved). This piece of writing is an exploration of unpacking my personal colonial baggage, much of which is shared by most white people in North America. This piece of writing is here to show other white people that they can become aware of their own colonial baggage, and begin to unpack it, instead of hurling it (consciously or unconsciously) at people of colour (especially indigenous peoples).

For those who are unfamiliar with what smudging is, first know that it is not merely a trite imitation or repetition of some ancient ritual that’s lost its meaning over centuries, but a ceremony. The meaning of this ceremony is still known, and still revered. I’m going to get to that momentarily. But first, there is a set of protocol to heed when I smudge, and while the specific reasons for specific actions is not always explained in a detailed analysis, I have learned that I just need to listen instead of listening for my turn to speak and respond with how what’s being requested of me makes me feel at that particular moment. Learning about the existence of protocol and the role it serves in ceremony has also taught me to let go of my need to assert control over things, which is a need I learned from horrific abuses. And that, readers, is exactly the first thing I realized is keeps surfacing from my colonial baggage—the importance of waiting for my turn to speak, and being able to let go of the need to say certain things.

Listening, instead of listening for my turn to speak, is a distinction I am still struggling to unpack from my day-to-day behaviour. This is not to suggest that prior to learning this distinction, that I have somehow refused to hear what other people are saying when they are addressing me, but rather that the approach I have entered conversations with is undergoing a fundamental change. Before I began to fully perceive of the distinction between listening and hearing people but waiting for my opportunity to respond, I habitually entered conversations with other people expecting the things we say to be open to negotiation. If I didn’t like what somebody said to me or I felt like I wasn’t taking the same share of the conversation as everyone else in it, I expected the right to tell them that and assert my perceptions as an individual. I could just walk away if we disagreed, and in the past year, I certainly have done a lot of walking — incidentally, walking is precisely what human beings were designed for. Whether you personally believe it was the work of a creator, the unforgiving forces of natural selection, or some combination of both, this remains fundamentally unchanged.

I saw conversation as a sort of production, and vocabulary as the means of production. I saw the vocabularies, ideas, and insights we gain (or develop further) through the “free” exchange of ideas (though not all ideas are equally valuable, thus the quotations) as the products of our conversations. If you’re recognizing Marxist language here, it’s because I am very much heavily influenced by Marxist feminism. I encourage you to take a look at how the work of a Marxist feminist helped inspire me to write what is, in my opinion, an effective 101-level breakdown of colonialism (it’s easily the most important piece of writing I have ever compiled). Back to the vocabularies, ideas, and insights I feel we all gain or further develop through conversation. They are the widgets of speech. I could go on and on about post-secondary education, labour exploitation, who exactly owns the means of production anyway, and especially creative alienation. If you know anything at all about Marxist feminism, you can do that all on your own. If you don’t, just bear with me. Vocabularies, ideas, and insights are the widgets, or various end-products, of speech.

I’ve been in countless conversations in which someone at the table feels the need to demonstrate what an excess of widgets they have. I’ve been in many conversations, especially recently, in which my widgets are simply so radically different from what everyone else has ever had or been exposed to, that it’s as if I’m an import. That I am an import, and that so are all of these people with whom I’m conversing, is often one of these very widgets of mine. I’ve been very fortunate to be in many conversations where, though everyone has widgets that are distinctively their own, we all share common widgets. I’ve also been in many conversations in which I probably have a lot more widgets than the person with whom I’m talking, and when this becomes clear to me, I do what I can to share what I’ve got. And in all of these conversations, we develop our widgets. Once in a while, we gain some. Once in a really great while, we gain some letting our thoughts freely associate and form into something new, from thin air. I thought this idea of how conversations work was fairly normative. And it may very well be, for anyone with a Eurocentric colonial viewpoint.

My conversations with the elder I’ve mentioned have changed my perspective, from a habitual Marxist interpretation of the purposes of conversation (product-oriented) to an increasingly frequent attention to the specific manner in which our respective widgets are being aired (process-oriented). I’m not talking about tone of delivery here, but rather of being acutely conscious of the content of what is being communicated by virtue of the way it is being communicated, even if that way is somewhat inadequate for the content itself. Sometimes it feels like I’m translating in my head from one language to another, even though we are communicating exclusively in English. Other times, I need to pay greater attention to the things being said that exist in between the words themselves. It was this shift in my perceptions of the purpose of conversation that made me stop trying to express that inadequacy in my perception or how I might have expressed it so that I understood it more immediately — to stop judging or condemning the way in which something important is being communicated to me, because that’s my damage, not the speaker’s. It’s my damage and it comes from a life in which my experience of very territorial parenting by two extremely egocentric individuals taught me the value of arrogance over the virtue of humility. Having my every move calculated, controlled, patrolled, and punished, until I could break free and take my own life into my hands, instilled in me a deep-seated need to advance that same arrogance (and control) over other people as a way to take myself back from the baggage my parents dumped on me. It’s juvenile and small-minded. It also rather unfortunately plays a prominent role in white optics (see white optics and colonialism, part I and part II).

And this is exactly where the second thing I learned about my colonial baggage emerges from being taught how to smudge in a good way. The first time I participated in the ceremony, the elder told me that I need to put on a skirt, and she could immediately see that white Western arrogance I have literally just finished describing, as I reluctantly pulled the skirt up over my hips. She told me that women need to be modest and covered down to their ankles in front of the medicines. As I was already wearing loose-fitting pants and socks before I pulled a skirt over it all, I immediately concluded that this sounds like a colonial corruption of her spirituality with white Western sexism. It sounded exactly like Victorian-era ideas about women’s bodies that continue to persist into the present day, and which are some of the foundational principles for rape apologetics. On top of all of that, I felt like I was being non-consensually gendered in a particularly feminine way by someone who had, up until that moment, acknowledged me as Two-spirit. If you want to talk about baggage, gendering is where an unfathomably deep well of baggage exists within me; for it is because of the very same non-consensual gendering I perceived in this request, that I was subjected to incest in my natal home, raped as an adult, and ultimately spent many years trying to throw my life away, thinking that would somehow be easier than living authentically as the genderqueer I am today. To suggest this request was triggering a lifetime of trauma within me is to have already understated it.

Regardless, I felt that the ceremony itself was of a higher priority than the well of feelings the request that I wear a skirt unearthed in me. I recognized immediately that the way I was feeling isn’t her fault, and this wasn’t the time to start a conversation about it. I removed all my jewelry and wrapped it in a hanky, doing as I was told to cleanse it in the smoke of the medicines she was burning for the ceremony. We smudged the elk leather I would be using to make my moccasins. She taught me to cup the smoke into my hands and spread it over my hair, then into my eyes, then to let it creep into my nose as I spread it over my throat in an upward motion. She told me that if I need to cough, to not hold it in, because what I am doing is letting the medicines into my body to purge it of negative energies, emotions, and thoughts. She used a feather to gently push the smoke over my chest, arms, abdomen, legs, and feet, down one side of my body and up the other. She asked me to turn around and she repeated the same gesture with my back facing her. I tried to smell the smoke for as long as it lasted as she ritually purified my body. She then told me to say “Aho,” which she said means “I hear you.” When we were done the ceremony, she began teaching me to make moccasins. I felt inadequate and like I was being a constant source of frustration, but I learned that she was simply concerned that she wasn’t teaching me clearly enough. I was relieved that this is what was going on, because I was able to follow her just fine — I simply didn’t want to disrespect her.

I went home that night, still feeling queasy, a little shaky, and uncertain about the smudging ceremony and if I had shown her the respect she deserves, or if I had screwed it up with my stumbling through the steps of the ceremony. It wasn’t long before I did a similar smudging in my own home, at the end of a very stressful couple of days, to emotionally re-center myself. And another one when I finished using found feathers, fur, and deer hide, to make ritual objects for the first time with my own two hands. And after that, it became a regular event I used to emotionally and psychologically realign myself and just let go of stress. But as I confessed to my two roommates (active adherents of another spirituality that shares many similar rituals and symbols), I felt uncomfortable wearing a drape over my body because of all the baggage it brought up. And so, I hadn’t been doing exactly as I had been shown to do.

The elder—who I now consider my chosen family—smudged with me a second time. I wasn’t shaking this time as I cupped the smoke over my hair and into each eye. She told me to cup smoke over my ears too this time. As I spread more smoke over my face and throat until I felt like I was in the space in my head where I needed to be for its remainder, she explained to me that I am smudging my eyes so that I see in a good way, smudging my ears so that I hear in a good way, smudging my throat so that I speak in a good way, and smudging the rest of my body so that whatever I do, it’s done in a good way. She told me when I say “Aho” that I am not praying to her, but to my higher power — whoever or whatever that may be, it is between us and that has nothing to do with her — and she told me to say it louder. Chills ran through me as I said it a second time, and the ceremony was complete.

I remember telling her a few moments into the ceremony that I really do take this ceremony seriously and it is not a joke to me. I recognized almost instantly that I wasn’t being asked and needed to keep this kind of outburst to myself during the ceremony. I recognized that here I was, once again, being arrogant like a stereotypical white Western settler. I let go of it as she smudged my body and said as little as I could for a few moments afterwards. This is when she started talking at length to me about the deep spiritual and traditional ceremonial protocol in pow wows. She talked to me about Two-spirit people and acknowledged me as one of them. I started to cry, because somewhere inside me in that moment, I began to realize how selfish I had been being about my colonial gender-related baggage. I had been clinging to it as if it were a safety anchor instead of trusting my elder to show me how to smudge in a good way. I had also turned the condemning gaze of white optics onto the ceremony itself, in an exact reflection of the colonization of her ancestors by invading, judgmental Europeans. But indigenous cultural traditions like smudging survived and are still intact, despite several successive acts of genocide against them.

Suddenly, later that night, a latent memory of a woman’s words in the beginning of a drum ceremony spontaneously resurfaced in my mind. An indigenous woman asserted that a woman’s body is undergoing its own powerful ceremony when she is on her moon — so powerful that it would easily overwhelm a drum ceremony — and so they ask that women do not participate during that time, and that it isn’t because women are thought to be “dirty” or spiritually unclean. I suddenly realized that as someone who is Two-Spirit, my body is in a perpetual ceremony. If anything, this is why the elder asked me to cover my body from my waist down to my ankles. It felt horrible to realize the initial mistake I had made. Realizing its place within the greater scope of the culture helped resolved the crisis within myself of even having all this baggage, to at last let it go, and resolve to do everything in my power to never do it again.

This is the purpose of smudging (there are still many more reasons, but these you can and should learn directly from an elder). It is providing medicine to the spirit of a person’s being (whether you think of that spirit as a literal metaphysical aspect of every human being or as a metaphor for their emotional complex). It is realigning everything material and immaterial within oneself, so that they are once again inseparable and functionally indistinguishable. It is fully immersing into the traditional teachings that were passed on to this elder by her elder. It is showing my deepest respect to her family to do it right — to do it in a good way.

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