BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) – Sherman Iron Shield used to sneak his son behind some elevators at St. Alexius Medical Center so he could burn sacred herbs to chase away evil spirits without setting off the hospital’s fire alarms and sprinklers.

He believes the practice, known as smudging, along with modern medicine, helped his son, George, recover from a gunshot wound to the head nearly a dozen years ago.

“My son is still alive,” Iron Shield said.

Now he and other members of the region’s large American Indian population can follow their traditions without worrying about the fire alarms.

On Thursday, the Roman Catholic hospital dedicated a $350,000 solarium and meditation room that may be used for such things as burning sage, cedar or sweetgrass, and for singing or drumming.

Tex Hall, chairman of North Dakota’s Three Affiliated Tribes and president of the National Congress of American Indians, said smudging is allowed in Indian Health Service hospitals and clinics on reservations, but generally not outside the reservations.

“I think this is the first of its kind in a privately owned hospital,” Hall said of the St. Alexius meditation room. “It’s a long time coming and a tremendous step forward for native people. I think we’ll see much better healing and recovery.”

A spokeswoman for the American Hospital Association in Washington said she did not know of any other hospital with such a room. But Amy Lee said some may have rooms generally set aside for non-Christian patients.

“Hospitals are definitely working toward accommodating growing multiculturalism,” Lee said.

The number of American Indian admissions at St. Alexius hospital increased 79 percent from 1998 to 2002, when about 5,760 of the 72,000 patients were Indians, said marketing director Nancy Willis.

Many were from the Standing Rock Sioux reservation, which straddles the line between North Dakota and South Dakota.

The meditation room, 12 feet by 20 feet, is intended for people of non-Christian faiths, or those “for whom the main chapel is not suitable,” said Sister Renee Zastoupil, the hospital’s director of pastoral programs.

John Eagle Shield, a member of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe, helped push to get the meditation room at the hospital so American Indians could practice their sacred traditions.

“We have had a lot of tribal people come here in the past who have said they were the victims of misunderstanding,” Eagle Shield said. “A lot of people were reluctant to come here.”

The room also features a window situated so Muslims can pray toward Mecca. Syed Hassan, a physician at St. Alexius, said he and the dozen or so other Muslim doctors at the hospital use the room for daily prayer.

“We are all children of God,” Hassan told the crowd of about 200 people at the dedication ceremony on Thursday. “We are more similar than otherwise.”

The hospital has published rules for use of the room. Peyote, used by some American Indian groups in ceremonies, and other drugs are prohibited, as is the “practice of any religion or act which is diametrically opposed to the Roman Catholic Church.” The hospital lists “Satanism, Wicca and Voodoo” as examples.

The meditation room has an exhaust system to suck out smoke from seashell bowls of burning sage, cedar and sweetgrass, and it is soundproofed to hush singing and drumming.

Eagle Shield said “traditional healers” can use the room to work with patients.

“The traditional healing will compliment Western healing, so we can get the best of both worlds,” he said.


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.