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The Smudging Ceremony

Smudging is an ancient and deeply cultural and spiritual tradition of many First Nations which involves the burning of one or more medicines sacred to Indigenous peoples to produce a purifying smoke. The four sacred medicines used in a smudging ceremony are tobacco, sage, cedar and sweetgrass.

Smudging allows people to ground themselves and become mindful of the tasks and interactions that lie ahead. It allows people to cleanse their bodies, minds and spirits and rid themselves of their negative energy. Smudging puts all participants on an equal footing.

A smudging ceremony is led by an Indigenous person who has a deep cultural and spiritual understanding of Indigenous protocols and ethics. It is often performed by Elders and knowledge keepers but not necessarily so. Many First Nations people start their day with a private smudge.

A smudging ceremony can also be requested at the end of an activity, meeting, or event where interactions were strained, difficult or highly emotional.

During the smudging ceremony, the Elder or the knowledge keeper prepares and prays over the medicines while everyone respectfully watches in silence. Then everyone stands and the smudger goes up to each participant with the bowl of smouldering medicines.  The Elder or knowledge keeper uses an eagle feather to waft the smoke in the individual’s direction.  The individual then proceeds to cleanse their hands, their heads, their eyes, their hearts, and their bodies with the smoke before turning so that the knowledge keeper can smudge their backs.

Smudging produces a very strong and distinctive aroma and a minimal wisp of smoke that lasts a very short time. Many have confused the aroma with cannabis. However, cannabis is never used in smudging.

It is extremely rude to speak, gesture to other participants, make faces or be otherwise disruptive during a smudging ceremony. It is also rude to scroll on phones, take pictures, film, or livestream a smudging ceremony without permission.

Smudging does not pose a health risk and does not create residual environmental toxins.  However, people who react negatively to strong smells or who suffer from respiratory conditions may want to refrain from directly participating.

At Concordia, the Otsenhàkta Student Centre is a designated space for smudging.

Lighting the Qulliq

For ceremonial purposes, many but not all Inuit light the Qulliq, a traditional seal oil lamp made of soap stone. The flame keeper uses a tool called a taqquti to keep the fire burning in a specific way. The flame produced by the seal oil is always kept very small, like the flame on a candle.

The Qulliq’s light and warmth was instrumental to Inuit survival in the harsh conditions of the Canadian Arctic. It was used to heat the igloo, cook, and dry clothing at the end of the day. Traditionally, it was a woman’s role to keep the flame burning, so the flame keeper is always a woman. Lighting the Qulliq is now a ceremony that honours the ancestors while acknowledging the role of women as life givers. It is a celebration of life and hope.

Like the smudging ceremony, lighting the Qulliq happens at the very beginning of an event and follows some of the same protocols. Participants watch in silence while the flame keeper prepares and lights the Qulliq. The flame keeper may offer some prayers and sing.

Frequently Asked Questions

Smudging is always voluntary. No one should feel pressured into participating. If a smudging ceremony is about to begin, you can withdraw quietly to another room until it is over.

Yes. If the smudging ceremony is still in progress, you can quietly join the circle. If the smudging ceremony has ended, you can approach the person in charge of the smudging and make your request. The medicines are usually kept out for a short period of time after the smudging has ended precisely for this purpose. If the medicines have been put away, you have missed your chance.

If this is your first time, just watch what the others are doing.  No one will reproach you if your performance is less than perfect. It takes a little time and practice.

No. Only in designated areas. If a smudging ceremony is planned outside of designated areas, it is best to consult with Campus Safety ahead of time.

No. There is great cultural diversity amongst First Nations and spiritual practices vary.  Many First Nations people practice Old World religions and prefer rituals associated to those belief systems. Similarly, not all Inuit practice the lighting of the Qulliq.

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