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'Coming together to exchange ideas and love': DL woman travels to Australia for Healing Our Spirit event

Julie Smith, center, in yellow, stands proudly with other presenters and participants during the Parade of Nations at the Healing Our Spirit Worldwide gathering in Sydney, Australia last month. Smith is a Detroit Lakes resident, White Earth Nation descendant, and newly minted professor who has a passion for empowerment of indigenous people worldwide. (Submitted Photo)1 / 7
An Australian Aboriginal man, left, greets a Maori leader from New Zealand, right, during the opening smoke ceremony, or “smudging," at the Healing Our Spirit Worldwide conference in Sydney, Australia in November. (Submitted Photo by Thosh Collins)2 / 7
An Aboriginal Tjapukai Tribe member demonstrates how his people make instruments. (Submitted Photo)3 / 7
Buuja Buuja Butterfly Dancers, of the Aboriginal Wiradjuri tribe of New South Wales, perform at a Dance Rite festival at the Healing Our Spirit Worldwide gathering in Sydney, Australia at the end of November. (Submitted Photo by Thosh Collins) 4 / 7
Julie Smith flashes the peace sign with a member of the Aboriginal Tjapukai Tribe at a village near Cairns, Australia. Smith and 10 other Native Americans with the Oregon-based Native Wellness Institute spent a day at the village to learn about the tribe's languages, traditions and daily lives before heading to Sydney to present at an international conference on indigenous people. (Submitted Photo)5 / 7
Julie Smith, center, in the rainforest near Cairn, Australia with two of her fellow travelers, LoVina Louie, left, and Theda New Breast of the Native Wellness Institute. (Submitted Photo)6 / 7
Julie Smith, center, with her co-presenter at the conference, Blackfeet Nation vision keeper and healer Theda New Breast, left, and another participant, Doreen Lovett. Smith and New Breast spoke on the topic, "Enhancing Cultural Humility through Educational Cultural Immersion Experiences." (Submitted Photo)7 / 7

Julie Smith was wide-eyed and smiling as she walked around outside the International Convention Centre in Sydney, Australia, late last month.

Proudly donning her Native American jingle dress — a bright yellow, black and gold outfit that she painstakingly crafted herself over the course of a year — she could barely hear its tinkling over the din of the crowd.

A descendant of the White Earth Nation in Minnesota, she was surrounded by folks both foreign and familiar to her: indigenous peoples from all over the world. From Australian Aborigines to Canadian Ojibwe, they were all there for the same reason she was — to share their stories, celebrate their cultures, confront their challenges and nurture their spirits at an international gathering called Healing Our Spirit Worldwide.

Amidst all the excitement and newness in that moment, Smith's ears perked up at the sound of a familiar tune. A small group of Ojibwe women whom she had never met before were seated together outside the convention centre, dressed in their traditional garb, singing a song close to Smith's heart — a drum song she had sung many times at the full moon ceremonies back home in White Earth, the "Strong Women's Song."

Smith stepped right up to the singers and joined in, the bells on her dress jingling to the beat. The women welcomed her with open arms. When the song was over, they all talked and laughed and got to know each other, and even exchanged gifts as a show of mutual respect and appreciation.

This unexpected cultural exchange was just one of numerous unplanned expressions of kindness and commonality that Smith experienced in Australia, a place that she says "zapped me with love."

"Every day was amazing," she says of her time there. "That's all I can say."

Smith visited the country Nov. 18-30, traveling with a group of 10 other Native Americans from around the United States, all of them leaders of the Native Wellness Institute, an Oregon-based nonprofit organization devoted to the well-being of the Native community.

The group arrived in Australia a few days before the big gathering in Sydney, so they had some time to see other parts of the country and meet with local indigenous people. They flew into Cairns first, and then spent a day at a nearby village talking with members of the Aboriginal Tjapukai tribe. They learned about the tribe's language and customs, and the tribe learned about theirs.

They went to an Aboriginal film festival, and watched an Aboriginal dance competition. They toured the rainforest and went snorkeling in the Great Barrier Reef. They threw boomerangs. They relaxed. They met over coffee every morning to discuss their delights and despairs.

Through it all, Smith says, every move they made was "grounded in gratitude." There was an air of peace, healing and positivity.

That only amplified as the trip's main event got underway. Designed to promote indigenous empowerment through the international exchange of information and ideas, the Healing Our Spirit Worldwide gathering was three full days of celebration and education. There were parades, tribal dance-offs, traditional music and ceremonies, along with presentations by more than 200 indigenous speakers on topics ranging from youth suicide to domestic violence, substance abuse to racism.

The Australian Aborigines and American Natives share similar histories of genocide and colonization, Smith said, "so their trauma is very similar." The gathering was about "highlighting and showcasing how other indigenous people around the world are healing — healing themselves, healing communities. It was really about coming together to exchange ideas and love."

Smith and her traveling companions from the Native Wellness Institute were all presenters at the gathering. Smith, who just earned her PhD in counselor education from North Dakota State University, spoke on a topic closely related to her dissertation, "Enhancing Cultural Humility through Educational Cultural Immersion Experiences." She co-presented with Theda New Breast, a Blackfeet Nation vision keeper and healer as well as Native Wellness Institute board member.

Cultural humility is a term that Smith prefers over the more frequently heard "cultural competency." The latter means you have knowledge of another culture because you've read about it, she explains, while cultural humility is the kind of knowledge that only comes through firsthand experience — by getting to know someone from another culture, for example.

"If you're culturally competent, you can think with your head about what you know about a culture and it trickles to your heart," she says, "but when people immerse themselves in other cultures, it opens up this heart space to be able to connect with anybody different than you, sitting across from you. It puts the heart first."

Smith believes cultural humility is the key to increased tolerance, compassion and understanding between people — something she'd like to see more of in the world, including her hometown area of Detroit Lakes and White Earth.

The event in Sydney was a mass practice in cultural humility, but Smith believes meaningful progress can start with any one person, anywhere in the world. Her goal now is to continue to be one of those people who makes the world a better place, traveling the world and spreading a message of hope and healing wherever she goes.

"Healing Our Spirit Worldwide starts with the core of the person, then it gets to your kids, then it gets to your family, and then it gets to your community — it's this ripple effect," she says. "But it has to start with ourselves. I think that was my biggest takeaway from Australia... I feel like I came back really strong in the purity of living in the here and now, and this gratitude I feel, I want to bottle that up and share it with my friends and my family and my community."

In the coming weeks, Smith will be giving presentations about her travels, and the concept of cultural humility, for the local Rotary Club and at Detroit Lakes High School. She also plans to visit Roosevelt Elementary to read children's books about indigenous people to students there.

"I really want to just promote that idea of getting to know people not like yourself," she says.

For more information about the Healing Our Spirit Worldwide event, visit

Marie Johnson

Marie Johnson joined the Detroit Lakes Tribune as a reporter and magazine editor in November 2017 after several years of writing and editing at the Perham Focus. She lives in Detroit Lakes with her husband, Dan, their 4-year-old son and toddler daughter, and their yellow Lab.

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