Smudging ceremony supports Sanford, community amid pandemic

Providers serving Native American patients welcome blessings and prayer ties

The four pieces of cloth hanging on a tree outside Sanford Health in Chamberlain, South Dakota, look worn, tethered, and tattered.

And that’s the point. They’ve stood the test of time and the weather for upwards of three calendar years.

Patient wants to give back

In March of 2020, at the very beginning of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, Roland St. John wanted to give back to the providers who helped him. St. John, an Elder of the Crow Creek Reservation, contracted sepsis roughly three years ago.

He spent a week in the critical care unit at Sanford Health in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, before being transferred back to Sanford Chamberlain.

He then had to call Sanford Chamberlain his home for a year and a half.

In that time, his caregivers “became family,” he said.

Now, St. John is back living on his own in an apartment in Chamberlain. He’s grateful to be alive, thanks in large part to his Sanford family, he said.

So, when the slew of uneasy thoughts and feelings came barreling in during March of 2020, St. John wanted to give back to the family members who helped him when he felt those feelings. He conducted a smudging ceremony outside of the Sanford campus.

Importance of smudging

St. John explained a smudging ceremony is very meaningful in Native American culture. It is part of a daily ritual, to keep bad spirits away, and thank good spirits for protection.

It’s often done twice a day.

“We were always encouraged to pray when we get up in the morning. We burn sage, or smudge. Before we go to bed, (we do) the same thing, to keep the bad spirits out. When you get up in the morning, you give thanks that you came through a night safe,” St. John explained.

After smudging in the morning, it’s typical to hang bedding.

“We were taught these things,” he said.

St. John said he wanted to do this for all the providers at Sanford Chamberlain because he knew there could be a long road ahead due to the pandemic.

“With the news reports, we knew the pandemic was coming. That’s why I asked to do a sermon pipe ceremony. To sage, and to make offerings to the spirits. I offered the pipe to the four directions and asked for protection for the residents, for the workers.

“This is the front line,” St. John said.

To follow the ways laid before him, St. John tied three cloths to the tree, symbolizing the daily hanging of the bedding.

‘We were honored’

Jennifer Reimer is a social worker at Sanford Chamberlain. She worked with St. John during his time at the care center and said the two have forged a friendship.

She calls him weekly. Sometimes, they’ll talk for upwards of an hour.

Reimer has said St. John has a big heart, and his desire to do the ceremony for the staff at Sanford is just one example. But she’s not the only person who calls Roland a friend. His kind and respectful disposition has made him a friend to many at Sanford.

“I think it was just his generosity of wanting to bless us and bless his family that he has built up at the care center. So, we were honored to make that happen for him, and our residents,” she said.

“Respecting their culture is very important. I am very blessed that he was able to do that, and he will continue to do it by us rescheduling and putting new flags out there to protect us and our residents,” she added.

Supporting every patient

Jessica Neilan is the community liaison at Sanford Health in Chamberlain.

She said the importance of providing culturally competent care cannot be overstated.

“I see it practiced every day from the care center to the clinic to the work we do in the hospital. Our team takes a lot of pride in learning from each other, learning from folks like Roland, and the stories he has to share and continuing their traditions and their values.

“Finding a way to tie it in with the work that we do here, and the trainings that we take part in, it’s been a privilege. The ceremony that he did, and seeing the flags still out the window right now, are great reminders of the traditions and the values that they have and that they work to instill in us, and in the work we do,” she said.

She said there’s always more to learn on how to support patients. And often you can learn the most from simply spending time with patients, like St. John.

“It makes us better. Better caretakers, better people. Better servants of Sanford, and overall in our communities and with our families.”

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Posted In Chamberlain, Community, Coronavirus, Inclusion at Sanford