Vox Populi: A Cleansing at Dartmouth

News subtitle

A professional observer leans into a sacred ceremony.

Medicine man leads cleansing ceremony at Dartmouth.
Medicine man Herbert Wilson, a citizen of the Diné, or Navajo Nation, leads a cleansing ceremony on April 28 in Carpenter Hall. Mabelle Hueston ’86, interim assistant director of the Native American Program, and Department of Anthropology Chair Jeremy DeSilva were among the participants. (Photo by Katie Lenhart)
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During my work as a journalist, and now in media relations at Dartmouth, I often think about myself as a professional observer watching and helping the “doers” tell their story.

It’s a dynamic I expected to find myself in again last week at Carpenter Hall.

I was there to watch, or so I thought, a Native American medicine man perform a spiritual cleansing ceremony to heal the space where the bones of Native American ancestors were once held.

The ceremony was the next step following the painful discovery of previously unknown Native remains in Dartmouth’s possession.

My job, or so I thought, as a member of the Office of Communications was to engage with any media who might attend, and to ensure the sacred rituals were not photographed.

When Herbert Wilson, a citizen of the Diné, or Navajo Nation, from Thoreau, N.M., arrived at Carpenter Hall with his wife, Leithelynn Platero, and his nephew, Shawn Attekai ’95, it was clear there would be no passive “watching” that day.

Mr. Wilson greeted us all with a warm handshake and asked us to gather round. Everyone, Native or not, was welcomed into the ceremony to not just watch, but to participate.

In fact, the very thing I was there to ensure—that there be no photos—was thrown out the window completely when about an hour in, Mr. Wilson said we should all take photos to “remember this happy memory” of the positivity we were creating together.

He was proud of his work, his people, and their traditions, and wanted to share it with us all.

Sitting in a circle, with an opening to the east, we drank healing herbal tea, and breathed in aromas of burning sage and other sacred herbs to cleanse our spirits.

Mr. Wilson told us stories of his childhood and his journey to becoming a medicine man (which he learned from both his mother and father, part of generations of medicine people).

He talked about how he worked his way up from a janitor to a utility systems operator, self-taught with only a sixth-grade education. Now retired, Mr. Wilson told us how during his various jobs in hospitals, he would share stories of his Navajo medicine traditions with patients and doctors of Western medicine.

The rituals we performed and the songs he sang were thousands of years old, perhaps. There were prayers calling for our protection and strength as well as the protection and strength of any Dartmouth community member who might find themselves spending time in Carpenter Hall.

Mr. Wilson explained that the cleansing of the space would rid the building of any lingering negative energy the ancestors’ spirits may have held on to. It would rid us, too, of that negativity in our own lives.

Jana Barnello
Jana Barnello (Photo by Ana Gil)

In the simplest, purest way, our time together reminded me of the hours I would sit with my grandmother and listen to her talk—about anything and everything—passing down wisdom and memories.

It was somber, and yet joyful. Simple and, yet, complex.

Mr. Wilson, with his soft-spoken voice you had to lean in to hear, forced you—in his gentle way—to stand still, listen, observe, and do.

The “doing” part, for me, was unexpected, but what an honor to not just watch for once.

Jana Barnello is a media relations strategist in the Office of Communications. She spent 15 years in broadcast news, including as a news anchor in Portland, Maine, and assistant news director in Syracuse, N.Y.


Vox Populi is the Dartmouth News opinion page for commentary written by members of the Dartmouth community that is intended to inform and enrich public conversation.

Jana Barnello