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Prayer circles, creative outreach help this Oneida Nation elder sustain community

Charlene Smith
Courtesy of Charlene Smith
Charlene Smith, an enrolled member of the Oneida Nation of Wisconsin, describes herself as a “friend to a lot of people.”

A sense of community has been tough to sustain during the COVID-19 pandemic for many people. Events have been shut down, along with meeting spaces and arts groups.

But some are figuring out ways to stay connected.

Charlene Smith is an enrolled member of the Oneida Nation of Wisconsin. She’s also a retired registered nurse and a grandma, mother, sister and aunt. And she gleefully describes herself as a “friend to a lot of people.”

In ordinary times, Smith is what you would call “a hugger.”

“I'm a real huggy kind of person,” she says. “I have a feeling when I go to hug somebody, I come at them with all of these good feelings ... of healing and warmth and love. I try to pass that on to the other person. And I've had compliments, you know, from folks like, ‘Ah, man that hug was good, you know, it felt nice.’”

But COVID-19 has changed all that. “Now, it's just kind of like an elbow bump, or hand punch or something, or virtual hug or air hug, and people understand that,” Smith says.

The pandemic, Smith says, has affected her community. "I mean, we all are social animals," she says. "We definitely like to be out and about, you know — if it's at an elder gathering, you know, playing bingo or we're at a community gathering for a pow-wow, there's a lot of those that have been canceled because of the pandemic. People are doing things virtual, which is really different to attend to a virtual pow-wow."

That’s forced Smith and others to adapt. “I belong to an Oneida prayer singing group, and we haven't been able to meet either. And, but I had a friend who was in a hospital, and I took out my song book. And I sang her a song over the phone, she goes, ‘Charlene that was so nice. I feel so much better. You know, just to hear somebody singing to me,’" Smith says. "I don't have the best voice, but I did OK, you know, that time.”

“When I tell people, you know, that I'll keep them in prayer, or I'll pray for them, or I'll send them a text ... people are very much appreciative, very appreciative of the fact that someone's thinking of them that way,” she says.

Before the pandemic, when someone was ill, the Christian prayer circle group would gather around and put their hands on the person as well as each other. “Then all of that prayer energy goes to that person, so be it for healing for whatever reason: mental, emotional, physical, whatever kind of [need they're] trying to deal with. Issues of an addiction or just troubling times, that that could be the in-person kind of prayer circle that would occur," Smith says.

Smith says stopping those circles because of the pandemic has left a kind of void and an absence of camaraderie and sending spiritual strength to each other.

She wants to bring their intertribal prayer singing group to the doors of people laid up at home. "So, my idea was, why don't we do a serenade, like us able-bodied people go and sing at their doorstep. You know, let's everybody bring out your books and let's sing together. You know, they can open their door and sit by the door we can sing together that way," she says.

The group includes members of the Oneida, Menominee, Apache and other nations. They sing tunes like "Amazing Grace" and "Joy to the World" in Native languages. Throughout the pandemic, when people have been able to gather safely outdoors, Smith has turned to another tradition for comfort.

It’s called “smudging,” which Smith describes as “like a blessing with smoke.” Smokes can have the four sacred ingredients — cedars, sage, sweet grass and tobacco.

“So they'll make up like a little fire on that and use the eagle feather, and send that smoke over your body, and you take that smoke, and you wash yourself off. Some people will take and put that smoke to one part of their body because that's where they hurt the most or that's where they want to heal the most. So smudging is good," she says.

Smith says smudging is aromatic and has a spirit-lifting effect. “People just love the fragrance of a smudge,” she says, "and it really lightens the spirit around people too, they feel like they've been blessed.”

Smith is counting another blessing — she's living together with her sister for the first time in 50 years. And the two of them know how to keep busy.

"For us beadwork, doing any kind of craft, you know, that is an outlet for sure. And so if we can help somebody else, we'll make up a quantity of items and donate it to another function," she says. "We feel good for that, then, to see our items out there, and somebody else's getting the pleasure, the enjoyment of receiving that gift. So, we like to do that."

Smith says people talking to each other is really a lifesaver. "People have to air out their concerns to one another and know that they're not alone in this, and they're not the only one that feels this. But that's the way you need to feel sometimes in that isolation," she says.

Throughout this pandemic, Smith has exemplified the message that physical distancing does not have to mean social distancing.

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Maayan is a WUWM news reporter.
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