EAST LANSING, Mich. — Michigan State University has not allowed tobacco use on campus for years, but university officials just strengthened an exception for Native Americans.
"I think changes like this are important to help campus feel like a more inclusive space for Indigenous students, faculty, staff and research collaborators, visitors,and tribal community in general," said Ellie Mitchell, tribal liaison for the Native American Institute at MSU.
Native American have always used tobacco for spiritual and ceremonial purposes. Mitchell explained that it's often used as an offering.
"If you're going to ask someone for advice, you would give them a bundle of tobacco," she said.
Tobacco use in the culture is not limited to gift giving. It is used in sacred prayers and ceremonies.
"It's very important, very important cultural practice and is a foundation within reciprocity and the community building that we're trying to engage with," she said.
In the past, if Native Americans wanted to burn tobacco, they had to submit a form six weeks in advance.
Stephanie Chau, vice president of Educating Anishnaabe: Giving, learning, and Empowering, said the updates to the ordinance allow them to submit a form days in advance or apply for a one-year blanket exemption.
"It's part of our daily life," she said. "So not being able to make those offerings or practice our cultural traditions is a hindrance to being who we are."
Chau advocated for streamlining the process, which she said took roughly two years.
"We thought there was a new opportunity with President Stanley," she said. "His diversity, equity and inclusion, importance and high level... are one of his top priorities, so we felt like it was a good opportunity to bring it to him."
Chau said the update is a big deal for the community.
"The native community that uses tobacco and sage and some of our other medicines are able to be our authentic selves, we're able to feel more safe on campus," she said.
If anyone is interested in learning more about Native American ceremonies involving tobacco and other medicines, Chau encourages them to reach out to her or the Educating Anishnaabe: Giving, Learning, and Empowering.