Clothes reeking of cigarette smoke? No problem. Dabbed a bit too much perfume? That’s ok. Early-morning smudging making you smell like sage? Stay home.
That’s the message that a Brandon, Manitoba high school gave one of its students, 17-year-old 11th grader Stephen Bunn. He was told by Crocus Plains Regional Secondary School officials not to attend classes because he smelled like sage after smudging at home beforehand. Though Stephen has since returned to his studies, the policy used against him remains in place, though unenforced.
The school ruling was reminiscent of middle school student Tenelle Starr’s predicament when she was told not to wear a hoodie bearing the words, “Got Land? Thank an Indian.”
For Stephen, the school district’s insistence that he was only sent home earlier this month because of their no-scent policy to protect allergy sufferers, amid complaints that the school was “unfairly and unjustly branded as racist,” is hypocritical. He said he may file a human-rights complaint.
“That’s all just a big lie,” the Birdtail Sioux First Nation student told Indian Country Today Media Network. “They let all kinds of students stink of perfume, and they have no problem with it. They’ve never enforced that rule on anyone but me.”
He even described what he called a “smokers corner” near one exit of Crocus Plains Regional Secondary School, and said that students who attend classes reeking of cigarette fumes go virtually unnoticed by authorities.
“They don’t get sent home,” he said. “I used to smoke. Every time I smoked I’d go to school smelling like cigarettes, and there was no problem. But when I quit smoking and started smudging before school, they said no.”
Bunn took exception to the school’s explanation that “the strong smudging scent draws unwanted attention to the student,” because the only unwanted attention he has experienced came from the school administration itself. Educator concerns, he said, were first expressed last November when he was asked if he had been smoking marijuana, but his explanation was accepted by the principal. On February 4, he uploaded a YouTube video about the incident.
Bunn learned the traditional sage-burning practice from his parents when he was nine years old, but after his brother died by suicide last June, smudging became a vital part of healing from the tragedy. The ritual involves smoldering dried sage and cleansing one’s body with the smoke. Bunn said it created a “positive attitude” before school.
“It helped me deal with my brother’s passing away a lot better,” he explained.
The school did not return interview requests, and Brandon School Division refused to speak to ICTMN. Instead it e-mailed a lengthy statement saying that it “actively promotes and encourages respect” of aboriginal and other cultural practices, but has to keep the environment “safe” for those with severe allergies and sensitivities.
“The school wanted to respect and support him in his spiritual needs,” the statement read. “At no time has any staff member or administrator asked a student to cease a cultural or religious practice. The Brandon School Division owes students and staff with environmental sensitivities an obligation to ensure a safe learning environment, and in order to protect them it is sometimes necessary to relocate a student who is wearing a scent within the school, or ask the student to go home.”
The district added that it is reviewing the way cultural practices are covered under its no-scent policy. Meanwhile, Stephen said, he has spoken to many students with allergies, none of whom have had any problems with the odor. Now, in the wake of widespread media attention, he said the school has not bothered him despite the fact that he never stopped burning sage at home.
“I’ve still continued to smudge, and I just act like nothing’s happened,” Stephen said. “I just go to school to learn and do what I gotta do. We’re still working on the situation with the school.”
Stephen is considering filing a human rights complaint, and he wants schools across North America to learn about aboriginal practices, including recognizing the difference between the smells of burning sage and marijuana. He also has some advice for other students who may face similar challenges.
“Just stick to what you believe in and fight for it,” he told ICTMN. “What the schools are doing is wrong. You should be able to practice your beliefs.”