Smudging at Benefis Helps 'Open Hearts' to Recovery

As he carried the smoke of burning sweet grass to his heart during smudging, the patient sang songs in Blackfeet, asked for guidance, and prayed for the staff of the Papoose Rattler Memorial Native American Welcoming Center.

The welcoming center recently redecorated its smudging room. In some cases, smudging can be done in a patient's room, a service unique to Benefis and particularly meaningful to many of our Native patients.


Patty Vielle, manager of the Intensive Care Unit; Chris Oller and Ranae Fisher, patient advocates; and Barbara Middle Rider, administrative assistant in the Native American Welcoming Center, all do smudging, which they learned from relatives as they grew up in Native cultures.

Smudging involves burning sweet grass or sage bundles (at Benefis we only burn sweet grass​​ because the pungency of sage can affect other patients). Patients are bathed in the fragrant smoke.

"It's a quiet reflection time, and then you give thanks to the Creator. You can ask for help and guidance, and the Creator joins you on your path," Patty said. "Patients or their families can do it for themselves, or any of us can. There are many different ways to smudge, and we're here to make sure there's no need for the fire department."

Patty recalled coming in to perform a smudging for a stillborn baby.

"We got him ready for his journey north to the reservation. She needed that for him," Patty said. "It's part of a process of getting him back home."

They've seen a patient in a cast from her neck to her toes stop moaning after a smudging, a young man who weighed only 80 pounds and struggled to verbalize become calm and relaxed after the ritual. Smudging helps in behavioral and addiction treatment, too.

"They're stressed and anxious about the road to recovery. This helps ground them and lessens their anxiety," Patty said.

Ranae recalled a patient who wanted to leave treatment after a distressing phone call. He had smudging scheduled for the next day, though, and said he would wait until then to make his decision.

"He felt a lot better after and decided to stay," she said. "It opened his heart and opened him to discussion. He's clean and sober now."

The smudging and the center as a whole are part of the Benefis commitment to meeting people where they're at in a culturally sensitive and supportive way. The center offers a warm, friendly environment and a variety of services that support the traditions and culture of Native American patients and their families. The center helps patients' family members who do not have the funds or resources available for basic needs such as food, clothing, or access to a phone. Advocates also make rounds, seeing an average of 40 patients a day.