“All Native American students should have the right to smudge,” said Como Park High School teacher Angelina Hernandez. “We need to expand policies to protect the rights of Indigenous kids. Being denied the right to smudge is harmful. It’s a basic right. This is what our kids need. At a very basic level, it will help schools be a place that is culturally competent for Indigenous students - they need to be able to smudge.”
Hernandez was part of the National Indian Education Association (NIEA) “Head to the Hill Week” gathering in the nation’s capital during early March. The purpose was to inform members of Congress about the issues related to indigenous students and influence policies which impact them.
Hernandez leads the Braided Journeys program at Como Park High School which serves nearly 60 Native American students. Hernandez is a member of the Diné, (also referred to as the Navajo) who has a decade of experience in St. Paul Public Schools (SPPS), and a previous career providing nutrition education for the native community through the University of Minnesota.
Hernandez is passionate about her current work and rightfully proud about the improving graduation rates for Braided Journeys’ students at Como with 100% on track for this academic year. Known as “Miss Angie” by students and staff, she has built a community where kids from multiple Indigenous nations meet and gain strength from their shared experiences.
One traditional cultural practice that brings calm and confidence to Indigenous students is smudging. Smudging involves burning sacred herbs such as sage or cedar to purify or bless people, lifting away negative energy and offering participants a chance to center or ground themselves.
The ritual is standard practice in Miss Angie’s classroom at Como, but was only adopted as school board policy for SPPS last fall. Inconsistent policies regarding smudging across the state and country, or lack of policy, and frequent denial of the ritual are all reasons for the NIEA adding the issue to their lobbying efforts on Capitol Hill.
And that’s why the St. Paul Federation of Educators (SPFE Local 28) in coordination with the state teacher’s union asked Angie Hernandez to advocate at the federal level during the NIEA event in Washington.
To be clear, the SPPS policy regarding smudging is a communal activity in an approved space. At Como, it’s Hernandez’ Braided Journeys classroom. But for schools without an Indigenous program or supervising teacher, students may try to smudge in a bathroom which can cause confusion and misunderstanding.
After two days of collaboration and training with other NIEA members, Hernandez took her talking points to Capitol Hill for meetings with Congresswoman Betty McCollum and U.S. Senators Tina Smith and Amy Klobuchar.
Hernandez was grateful for the opportunity to speak directly with the policymakers. She reported that our congressional members were interested, engaged and asked questions to learn more and be better prepared to potentially support legislation.
“We talked through the barriers to why smudging is something that schools haven’t necessarily welcomed, and how we can educate that it (smudging) being a problem isn’t the case,” Hernandez said.
“I love that St. Paul Public Schools has our policy and I actually gave it to them (members of Congress.) A lot of work went into our policy with legal language, air quality control tests, and specifics that the school board could stand behind.”
Asked about the greatest takeaway from her work in Washington, Miss Angie’s answer mirrored what she wants for all her students. “I felt very heard and seen.”
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