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Vargo Fails to Keep Religion Out of State Affairs (But Finally Hiring MMIP Liaison Is Nice)

One thing Attorney General Mark Vargo isn’t changing about South Dakota government is its inability to separate church and state. In announcing the impending hire of a liaison for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Persons cases, A.G. Vargo immersed the public event in religious trappings:

Pastor Jonathan Old Horse from Rapid City’s Woyatan Lutheran Church also addressed the gathering. “We are very honored to be here and to start on a new life chapter with our two communities with our two distinct peoples to share in these medicines and move forward,” he said.

Following the courtyard welcome that included the ceremonial burning of sage, or smudging, the Attorney General convened a meeting of Indigenous leaders from across the state to advise him as he prepares to hire the state’s inaugural MMIP liaison officer [Office of the Attorney General, press release, 2022.09.21].

Smudging is heavy spiritual stuff:

Smudging is a traditional ceremony among Native Americans and other indigenous culture that is used to purify the body, aura and energy of a ceremonial space or personal space. It utilizes the spirits of sacred plants to remove negative energies and restore balance. Remember there are many tribes and many ways to do a smudging ceremony.  Do all things with a good heart for the right reasons.

A variety of plants are used in smudging ceremonies:

  • Sage removes negative energies
  • Sweet grass attracts positive energies and sweetness
  • Cedar wards off sickness
  • Lavender brings spiritual blessing

Many tribes consider tobacco to be the most sacred plant in a smudging ceremony, as it both removes negative energy and replenishes positive energy, and connects people to the spiritual world. It can also be used as a medicine [Keepers of the Sacred Tradition of Pipemakers, “Prayer & Smudging,”, retrieved 2022.09.22].

Smudging is an act of prayer:

Smudging is something we do as part of the whole person education to show the students that what they do is a beautiful part of who they are as Lakota/Dakota/Nakota people. It can be very prayerful and medicinal [St. Joseph’s Indian School, “Spirituality and Smudging at St. Joseph’s Indian School,” 2014.08.22].

Lakota, Lutheran, Sunni, Sikh—prayer is prayer, and it’s not for the state to promote in its public activities.

But at least when he gets done promoting prayer on the public dime, Attorney General Vargo plans to accomplish a task that his impeached predecessor illegally ignored for a year and a half and didn’t manage to finish before his impeachment, even with private donations to cover the hire.


  1. leslie 2022-09-22 07:55

    for all its misuse, religion world-wide, spirituality in the Lakota culture may very well have staved of extinction from white genocide.

    I was recently bestowed an Indian name, a bittersweet honor.

    Good work Cory!

  2. P. Aitch 2022-09-22 08:18

    Congratulations, Leslie

  3. larry kurtz 2022-09-22 08:33

    Smudging evolved as pest control then became something more. The concept is simple enough; imagine seeing a horn or an antler smoking in a lightning-caused fire looking like a novel way to move burning material from place to place. Protohumans mastered fire about 790,000 years ago, after all. Smoking mixtures came with humans as they passed through Beringia. White Buffalo Calf Woman brought the pipe to the Plains cultures.

  4. Arlo Blundt 2022-09-22 20:48

    I feel that what Vargo did was very appropriate and a step forward. Finally, the AG’s office is going to move this important initiative forward.

  5. All Mammal 2022-09-22 23:55

    Mr. Blundt- I’da done the same thing, too. I would be mortified if Mr. Vargo refused to participate in the ceremony. Either I am a lousy hypocrite (absolutely) or the fact most Natives don’t call it ‘religion’ and aren’t weird about it, makes it feel alright and even natural. As long as they find our missing and bring them home, I’m down with that department doing what they’ve got to do. We need all the help we can get to do this important work. Plus, we, the tax payer, aren’t the main ones paying the tab. St. Joseph’s is. I’m biased. Sioux me.

  6. Ryan 2022-09-23 09:46

    I appreciate articles like this – Cory stands his ground on the constitutional separation of church and state despite a common trend of progressives ignoring that separation when it comes to religions other than the bible-related ones. Keep the oogie boogie out of politics and government activity altogether – it really is that simple.

  7. All Mammal 2022-09-23 11:36

    A ritual doesn’t mean religion. We still sing the National Anthem before high school basketball games. Because that is how its done. We swear on the bible in court to testify.
    The tax payers are not paying for it so St. Joseph’s Indian School can do whatever ritual they want. Religion is about a God. Smudging has nothing to do with a God or Creator. How often do schools or government workers sing Happy Birthday and blow out candles on a cake while on the tax payer’s dime? It is a ritual and it is ok to make a wish and share sweets. Good for moral.

  8. Ryan 2022-09-23 13:49

    no i suppose not all rituals are religious… but if the ritual involves purifying against something unmeasurable, or cleansing auras, or increasing or decreasing spiritual energies, or similar mumbo jumbo, it’s close enough to religion that it doesn’t belong at government functions… and to be clear, i think swearing an oath on a bible in court is also mumbo jumbo and as far as i know all courts allow a person to swear the same oath without the bible or god-talk.

  9. All Mammal 2022-09-23 18:39

    Ryan- I do totally agree with you on keeping the state and religion completely separate. I would claim the most clear and present danger to our country, if not everywhere, is the threat of religious folk. When someone has religion as a pretense, they feel exempt from the rules. That is bedlam. Bill Maher’s movie, Religulousness is not only comical, it is so dang true that its scary. And aside from admitting I am biased about burning sage, and the department being privately funded, I don’t think the ceremony held with Mr. Vargo in attendance warrants an exception any more than a graduation ceremony or singing happy birthday and blowing out candles or being a good sport and shaking hands after a baseball game. It is how people do things and it varies. I can understand where it can cross the line into full blown prayer. Opening ceremonies are a need people have to commence a new beginning. Something has to make it official. And lucky

    It would be hard to sit through the padre’s lengthly prayer and blessings and on and on before they start legislative sessions in Pierre like they do without giving the church of the flying spaghetti monster equal pray until it was clear thats not what the government is for. The church of satan made a good point too in a few religious municipalities. I love smart atheist lawyers.

  10. Ryan 2022-09-23 21:32

    All mammal I think we are close to an agreement on the principle of the matter but I still disagree with the idea that a handshake or a birthday greeting or even a birthday song are comparable to rituals related to spiritual energy. One point of this article seems to be that everyone benefits when we are clear about the line between privately held beliefs in magic and activities that are actually or apparently state-sponsored.

    and by the way, for what it’s worth, i share your admiration of the satanic church and i agree with you that atheist lawyers are great.

  11. All Mammal 2022-09-24 11:32

    St. Joseph’s Indian School raised and donated $300,000 for the department. Which was ungraciously accepted while Ravnsborg was AG.

    Energy can be measured. And obviously felt.

    It is good to wish the new department well. Any other new office in government, with or without private funding, would have some sort of commencement ceremony.

    The separation of church and state is absolutely vital. Offering wishes for good outcomes, safety and protection and other intentions by Natives look different to nonNatives. Sometimes people just get offended by the mere Nativeness of Natives and they don’t even realize it bothers them….

    I haven’t read any complaints about the ceremonies for sending off the 108th Wing, swearing in ceremonies or inaugurations…

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