Stephen Bunn likes to smudge to start his day.

Stephen Bunn

Sandy and Stephen Bunn discuss smudging. Stephen says smudging helps him stay positive after the loss of his brother. (Ryan Hicks/CBC)

"I smudge just to make myself feel good and to hope me and my family have a good day... I use it to send prayers out and to stay positive."

The 17-year-old Manitoba teen lost a younger brother to suicide last year and he says smudging — the practice of burning traditional medicines — is one way that helps him cope with his grief. 

"It’s important to me because when I’m feeling down, I smudge myself and it helps cleanse my body and makes me think better.... Every time I see him in a dream or my mom gets a glimpse of him, we will smudge."

Bunn is in Grade 11 at Crocus Plains Regional Secondary School in Brandon, Man. 

Last November, after smudging before school, Bunn was stopped by a teacher and asked if he had been smoking drugs.

He says he tried to explain to the teacher that the smell was from burning sage and not illegal drugs.

Smudging

Sage, used in smudging, burns in a bowl in Stephen Bunn's home. (Ryan Hicks/CBC)

He continued his practice of smudging before school but soon ended up in the principal's office.

"The last thing the school told me was if I was going to smudge, then get your mom to excuse you for the day, get her to call in…. If I was to smudge, they wouldn’t want me to attend school."

Bunn said he stopped smudging after that because he felt embarrassed and ashamed. 

"I felt pretty mad and discouraged about it. I felt like I wasn’t really … accepted because of me practising my traditional beliefs."

Earlier this week he told his aunt about the experience, and she encouraged him to continue with his spiritual practice and to make a video about his experience. 

"Now that my auntie stepped in and boosted my confidence for it. When I light up sage, I just feel like how I used to feel like let’s do this and I start bringing my positive attitude back and start feeling positive again."

Bunn said he started smudging again this week and hasn't received any complaints. 

School division working with aboriginal elder

CBC News contacted the Brandon School Division for an interview and received a statement back saying officials are working with an aboriginal elder "to arrive at a solution that respects aboriginal traditions, while also ensuring a comfortable learning environment for its students."

But the school board also pointed out that it has a scent-free/fragrance-free policy: "Every effort will be made to limit exposure to strong scents and fragrances in the environment that cause discomfort or impact the health of sensitive individuals."

Bunn's mother, Sandy Bunn, said she couldn't believe the school took issue with her son's smudging.

"Dakotas, you know, we've been around for generations," she said. "For this to be still happening in 2014 … it should not be happening."

Her son said he hopes his video will encourage other students to keep practising their culture. 

"What I hope comes out of this is having aboriginal kids going out and not feeling scared to smudge and … say, like, 'I'm proud to be an aboriginal,'" he said.