Dorreen Yellow Bird
Grand Forks Herald
Published Wednesday, July 02, 2008
Dorreen Yellow Bird is a reporter and columnist. Her columns appear Wednesdays and Saturdays on the opinion pages of the Herald.
After traveling across western North Dakota and Montana last year, I was getting used to the brown and sparse landscape. On my trip to Montana last week,
I couldn't take my eyes off the land, particularly the Yellowstone River.
She and her tributaries were running full out — in, places over their banks. Trees were so lush and green that you might have thought it was the Carolinas
after a rainy season.
My sister, Gerilyn, and I took turns driving to Little Bighorn Battlefield National Momument in Montana. When it was her turn to drive, I stared at the
grassy land rolling by the Toyota. I would catch myself thinking about the days when I rode horseback in grasslands like these. I could almost feel the
horse stepping high with the smell of fresh green grass in its nose.
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I tried to pick out plants and birds I knew, but it was hard because I intoxicated by the beauty of the grasslands.
And coming back by way of Bismarck, I found something even more surprising, something that said North Dakotans are a caring and sensitive people. It was
a smudging room at St. Alexius Medical Center.
Of all of the American Indian ceremonies, one of the most serious deals with illness, dying and death — and that smudging room makes such ceremonies possible
in the hospital.
I saw the room when I went to visit my sister, Kaye. She'd had a knee replaced at St. Alexius, a painful but relatively common surgery. She was — as the
doctors had told her she would be — in pain after the surgery.
Amazingly, however, she started walking soon after they brought her back to her room. The nurses kept her moving that knee for the rest of her stay in the
While I was with her, we watched endless "M*A*S*H" episodes and at times while she slept, I dozed, too. And in one of our conversations, she told me about
something St. Alexius had added to their hospital and suggested I take a look.
On the first floor as you enter the hospital, there is a large solarium with a tree canopy and plenty of green plants. The room is filled with comfortable
chairs; it's a nice place to come and enjoy solitude.
On the walls are some pictures of famous American Indians. In a tall glass case is a full-length war bonnet — in excellent condition and beautiful. A plaque
says the bonnet was donated by a nun.
And off of that big room is a "meditation room," also called the "smudging room" by locals and American Indians. The room is for smudging and other ceremonies
for Indian people at the hospital, my sister said.
How does the hospital handle the ceremonies' smoke?
The doors to the room seal tightly, and in the center of the room is a big "outtake" fan for the smudge and pipe smoke.
By the way, the doors are made with an Indian design in stained glass by Butch Thunder Hawk, a Standing Rock Lakota man, I was told.
Why have a special room for Indian people? Because many Indian people believe there are special ways to help those who are sick and need healing. Praying
is done with the sacred pipe, and smudging is part of it.
The Rev. Julian Nix, chaplain of the St. Alexius Medical Center, is Assiniboine Sioux and has a good understanding of Indian culture. He, along with several
other spiritual leaders in the community, worked together get a smudging room for patients at the hospital, my sister told me.
I know how important that room is because when my brother, who had lung cancer, was in need of prayers and ceremony, his hospital made the family take him
outside in his wheelchair for smudging. Fortunately, it was warm enough — but a room for ceremony would have helped.
Many of the hospitals in the area accommodate some of the needs of Indian people. When someone is ill, the hospital's waiting rooms and the patient's room
are filled. When I was in Abbott Northwestern Hospital in Minneapolis, my doctor and the hospital staff were amazed at the number of people who stayed
with me during my procedure.
It is our strong belief that we give strength and healing to the ill person with our prayers and good thoughts. We also try to cheer them with laughter
and good feelings.
It seems to work, so special thanks should go out to the people at St. Alexius Medical Center in Bismarck.