Indigenous students at Western University can now take part in smudging ceremonies inside their dorm rooms across all nine campus residences – including on a new Indigenous-focused residence floor.

A smudging policy was implemented this fall, approved by fire and safety officials, after the Indigenous Services department held focus groups asking students what they would like to see on a more inclusive campus.

"We asked them: 'When you walk into an Indigenous community of living, what would it smell like?'" said program coordinator Sean Hoogterp. "Their reaction was that it smelt like burning sweet grass or sage."

Grace Swain

Grace Swain is a first year business student at Western University. (Hala Ghonaim/CBC)

Students can smudge during orientation week, special ceremonies and whenever they need a spiritual connection inside their dorm rooms – with the permission of their residence manager.

Grace Swain, a first year business student, is well-acquainted with the practice – which includes the burning of sacred plants including sweet grass, sage, tobacco or cedar inside an abalone shell.

"This is an excellent way to be proud of your culture," said Swain, a Swan Lake First Nation woman. She's among eight students taking part in a new pilot, living on an Indigenous-focused floor at Delaware Hall.

"I always want to learn more, and go to more ceremonies and smudging ceremonies. So coming to this residence has really connected me a lot more to my [roots]."

Delaware Indigenous

Delaware Hall became the first student residence with a dedicated Indigenous-focused floor for students. (Hala Ghoanim/CBC)

Inclusive housing

The university's Housing and Indigenous Services departments introduced the pilot project, designed to help self-identified Indigenous students stay connected to their culture, while in the comfort of their own dorm rooms.

Last year, there were about 450 self-identified Indigenous students in Western's undergraduate and graduate programs.

This year, eight Indigenous first year students are living at Delaware Hall, which is closer to Indigenous Services and nearby valleys.

"Nature is important for us," said 17-year-old Swain. "Everything is originated through taking care of the earth and surrounding yourself and submerging yourself in it … Its really amazing to look out your window and see all this nature because you feel even more connected."

Swain, who is also partnered with an Indigenous roommate, meets with elders every two weeks to learn about tradition, language and history. She said the new relationship has supported her throughout her studies.

"They talk a lot about our values and they're very supportive in my life in what I need. If I'm stressed out for exams they're very accommodating and will help [me with] distress," she said.

"They're very rooted in making sure [my] values are there."

University College renovations

Western University in London, Ont. Delaware Hall is the first residence to have an Indigenous-focused floor. (Colin Butler/CBC News)

Beyond the pilot

After Swain completes her first year, she wants to apply to become a residence staff member at Delaware Hall to work on the Indigenous floor. 

Western University is also expected to bring in more students next year, both Indigenous students and allies, to live and learn together.

"[Non-Indigenous people] want to learn more and they want to know more and I think that's very important because ... there are [lots of] stereotypes and misunderstandings," said Swain.

Hoogterp said recruiting staff are already out on blitzes across the province – including in London at Saunders and H.B. Beal secondary schools – advertising the growing program.