Students invite Aboriginal spirituality into Okanagan College

When a stressed-out student walked in the doors of the Aboriginal Student Services Centre at Okanagan College in Kelowna, Dale Shackelly knew just what the young woman needed. “I asked if they had smudge here,” said Shackelly, herself a student and member of the Nooaitch Indian Band. But when she discovered there was none to be had, Shackelly began a quest to bring more Aboriginal culture and spirituality into the College.

Three short weeks later, Shackelly recalled that day to a gathering of about 60 Okanagan College students, staff and faculty members as she and elder Richard Jackson Jr. held an inaugural smudging ceremony at the Kelowna campus.

“You know when you’re over-studying and your mind gets all boggled up and filled with webs – that’s when smudging helps,” she said, before taking a small amount of dried sage, placing it in an abalone shell, lighting it, then bringing the smoke to each gathered in the sacred circle. “It clears our minds,” she said. “If I didn’t believe in the power of prayer the Nlakapmux way, I wouldn’t be here today.”

Aboriginal Access & Services Coordinator James Coble welcomes the idea of enriching Aboriginal culture on campus. “The request is coming from students to be better informed about spirituality and their culture – and that’s our job to serve and provide information through the centre itself,” Coble said.

Carla Miles, a second-year Metis Arts student, said bringing spirituality into the College will help those in need. “I think it’s a great idea,” she said. “Smudging is a bit like meditation, and the more you believe in something, the stronger power it has.”

With this commitment in place, it’s now up to the students themselves to make this experience available to anyone who wishes to take part. “You’re going to learn to do this on your own – it’s giving you empowerment to yourself,” Shackelly said. “We all know students have a rough time sometimes, so this will be a stepping stone for when you’re going through your major studies.”

Gail Smith, Aboriginal Transitions Planner at the College, said the goal now is to make sure the centre has the tools available on hand. “We’re going to learn where to pick the sage, how to dry it, and how to handle it,” she said. “I don’t know any of that, so that’s how the elders, like Richard Jackson Jr., and other students like Vera Camille, who actually put Dale in touch with me, have been helping us.”

Kathleen Marsel, events and volunteer coordinator from the Ki-Low-Na Friendship Society, was among those who attended the ceremony. She said people often forget how many Aboriginal people live in the community.

“According to the last census, there are about 800 members of the Westbank First Nation, but there are 7,000 people in the Central Okanagan who identify themselves as Aboriginal,” she said. “Having something like this gives students a sense of belonging.”