A close-up photo of a white sage smudge stick bound in white string.
Advocacy & News

Protecting The Sacred: Smudging & Its Stewardship

With the beginning of a new year, many people look to improve their health, well-being and spirituality in hopes of finding healing, growth and purpose — and it’s natural to look for something to use or try out that may help things along. For some, deciding to smudge (the cleansing of a person or space by burning plant material such as sage, palo santo, cedar, sweetgrass, etc) can seem like a positive step — but there are some things you should be mindful of before you start.

Smudging is traditionally a very important and culturally significant ceremonial practice for many Indigenous People in North America. Although burning medicinal and cleansing plants can be found in other cultures around the world and throughout history, the type of smudging bundles or kits that are now widely available for non-Natives to buy is a copy of Indigenous North American sacred smoke.

Background Image: A white sage stick bound in white string sits in a brown ceramic bowl. Foreground Image: A slightly transparent brown rectangle has text on it that reads, "Protecting The Scared: Smudging and Stewardship"

Brands that create this type of pre-packaged spirituality are financially benefitting from something that’s sacred to Native Americans who, up until the 1978 American Indian Religious Freedom Act, had no recognized legal protections in the U.S. to practice their traditional religion. Native Americans have been reclaiming their culture, rights and religious freedom from the eradication that colonialism sought to impose on their Indigeneity ever since this land was stolen from them. Any non-Native company or individual that sells/uses smudging, without being educated about or sharing its origins and spiritual relevance continues to subvert the rights and stewardship of those who protect it.

For many of us, our relatives were forbidden to practice any part of our culture, and that includes burning white sage. Traditions were lost and therefore could not be passed down to the next generation. The cultural traditions that did survive only did so because they were practiced and passed down in secret. Native Americans were beaten and/or jailed if they were caught doing things like burning sage … | Dakota Fahrenkrug — Smudge and the Cultural Appropriation Issue

If you’re going to use smudging for your own spiritual wellness, you have a responsibility to make sure you’re doing it in a way that respects the original meaning. You should be educated about its source and make sure you’re not contributing to the reinforcement of stereotypes or harmful actions against Indigenous People and you must have their permission. Colonial oppression and violence, including things like forced assimilation through residential schools, had one aim: to annihilate Indigenous culture and identity in North America so that it would no longer be practised, passed on or continued. Indigenous nations have fought to regain what is rightfully theirs so the next time you buy a smudge kit, take a moment to reflect on why you want it and whether or not you’ve gone about it in the right way. And there is a right way.

A burning palo santo smudge stick rests in an abalone shell.
Burning Palo Santo photo via Pam Walker (Canva)

White sage, commonly used in smudge bundles and sticks, is being unsustainably overharvested by retailers and brands for their smudging products that limit Indigenous People’s access to it. Avoiding any product that places commodification and commercial profit before protecting sacred lifeways is the best first step. If the place you’re buying from can’t name where or how the sage was harvested or claims Indigenous People have provided them with approval, but cannot name the tribal affiliations of those that gave permission, then chances are it’s not being responsibly sold. Buying direct from Native or First Nations-owned businesses helps to build connections and dialogue about whether something is appropriate to buy, wear or use. Coming from a place of respect and willingness to learn is a solid foundation to build on but get comfortable with being corrected or called out if you step over the line into cultural appropriation.

It hurts to see our traditions, that our ancestors died and fought for, now become a trend that others are demanding to be a part of. These practices are sacred and special to us because they helped our people thrive for thousands of years and subsequently survive several brutal generations of genocide and colonialism. These practices keep us strong as we continue to deal with historical trauma. | Chelsey Luger — Well+Good

The burning of regional flora, roots, wood and resins, etc has been used in one form or another by many different cultures around the world, each rooted in very specific techniques, traditions and intentions. Using smoke from medicinal plants to cleanse, purify or pray is not the issue, nobody is saying you can’t follow common customs from your own heritage. The problem is that the mass-produced smudge kits and smudge sticks replicate something particular to Indigenous North Americans. The financial benefit from the sale of these products rarely support Native and First Nations communities and they seldom explain the pain and sacrifice it took for Indigenous People to keep this part of their living culture alive within a country that tried to obliterate them.

An unlit white sage smudge bundle bound with white string rests on a brown shallow ceramic bowl.
photo via Eva Elijas

If you’re non-Native, you do not have the right to buy, wear or use important, sacred ceremonial items — it’s that simple. As I’ve said before, you can show your admiration for Indigenous People and their culture by purchasing clothing, jewellery, shoes, music and artwork, etc that has specifically been created by them to be shared, Native creators want to see people cherish their work, you can’t, however, help yourself to their spiritual identity. If you still feel drawn to smudging but you don’t have any known ancestors or family history of using it then smoke cleansing is for you. It doesn’t belong to a specific culture, can be modified to your needs and doesn’t require sacred Indigenous white sage, cedar, sweetgrass, palo santo or tobacco. You can learn how to grow, harvest, bundle and dry your own medicinal plants that are safe to burn (like rosemary, thyme, lavender, juniper, mugwort and cinnamon sticks) and use those for smoke cleansing instead — information about alternatives and how to use them is included at the end of this article.

Taking care of our spiritual health and wellbeing is a worthwhile, profoundly personal undertaking. It can be meditative, help us pray, dispel negativity and ground us in ways modern life may sometimes make difficult. It’s about forming mindful connections — which is an undeniably positive ideal to strive for — but this mindfulness must include making sure that what we use to achieve our wellness goals do not become another tool of colonialism that further perpetuates harm on Indigenous People.

None of us like being made aware that something we love doing or hold dear is actually harmful, but moving forward with more understanding and purpose is never a bad thing. When we know better, we must do better — and now we can.


Further Info:

Easy Alternatives to White Sage for Smoke Cleansing — The Balancing Path

Follow, support and share the work being done by Seeding Sovereignty, an Indigenous-led collective, working to radicalize and disrupt colonized spaces through land, body, and food sovereignty work, community building, and cultural preservation.

To begin to understand how assimilation was a devastatingly effective tool of colonial violence and cultural genocide, watch Vox’s How The U.S. Stole Thousands of Native American Children.

Take the time to watch Gord Downie’s The Secret Path, a film that uses animation and music to tell the story of 12-year-old Chanie Wenjack who ran away from Cecilia Jeffrey Indian Residential School, Ontario in 1966 and tried to walk the 600km journey back to his family in Ogoki Post. He never made it home.

Why It’s Time To Rethink Burning Sage And Smudging – Cityline

If you enjoy reading Transatlantic Notes and would like to show your support for the work being done, please consider making a small donation. Thank you.

28 thoughts on “Protecting The Sacred: Smudging & Its Stewardship”

  1. Thank you for this! It is so important to do a thing so sacred or closely linked to a traditional practice intentionally and respectfully, as those two feelings have a big impact on the ways our practices affect our lives.

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  2. This was a really interesting read. I’ve never heard of smudging before, so it was great to read about the heritage. The kits seem like bad taste, to say the least. It’s great that you shared alternatives for people genuinely interested but not wanting to exploit the culture though! x

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    1. They are definitely in poor taste and I can fully understand Indigenous People objecting to them. I know a lot of people who do want to do some kind of smoke cleansing and will likely continue to do it so I hope the less problematic options I included here will prove useful. Thank you so much for reading!

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  3. This was such an interesting post, Molly. I’ve never heard of smudging but I completely agree that it’s wholly not on to appropriate someone else’s culture and even worse, damage it. Thank you for opening my eyes to smudging.

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    1. Thank you so much for reading and being willing to learn about it all. I fully support people doing something for their spiritual health but not if it damages the heritage — or even the spiritual health — of others, especially of it’s been copied from Indigenous People, mass-produced and sold with no concern about the danage it can do.

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  4. This was a really interesting read, thanks for sharing this! I haven’t heard of smudging before so it was very insightful to learn about the heritage of it all, and the importance xx

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  5. I’ve been smudging in my home since the day I bought it. I find that it makes me feel better about bad jo-jo. My husband doesn’t believe in any of that but I am an avid believer in clearing the bad vibes.

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    1. I definitely believe in it and I’ve used smudge in my home too but only when it has been gifted to me so I avoid buying anything that may contribute to the overharvesting/consummerism that then impacts Ingigenous access to it. I’m now switching to smoke cleansing so as not to appropriate something so sacred to Native American and First Nation People and using my own plant/herb blends as I don’t want to create bad vibes while trying to clear them (a number of Indigenous friends reached out to let me know how it impacts them — hence this post). Thank you so much for stopping by!

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    1. Thank you for reading — I really appreciate your willingness to learn about it, etc. I think taking care of our spiritual health is very important but not at the expense of Indigenous People (or any other group). I’m so glad you found this useful!

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  6. Sorry if this sounds a bit dumb, but what’s smudging mean in this context? Also, I didn’t know there was more than one type of sage, so I’m guessing the other cultures outside of the Americas that burn it in a similar way are using a different kind of sage?

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    1. Smudging is the burning of dried plants and herbs that are part of sacred and important ceremonial practices for many Native American and First Nation People. It often forms part of prayer or the cleansing or purification of a person, object or space. The herbs or plants often come in tied bundles or sticks and the practice has been copied by mass-production companies to sell spirituality to non-Natives. As it’s large beauty and wellness companies that are doing this they are over harvesting white sage (the most commonly used variety of sage used in smudging bundles) which is reducing the ability of Indigenous People to have access to something that is integral to their culture. White sage is native to the southwestern U.S. but there are other varieties grown in other areas and other countries which are then used in ceremony and prayer (which also need be respected and not used as part of mass-production). Elements of Indigenous culture are being picked over and sold, removing all context and ignoring the awful history of how Native American and First Nations People almost had every part of their lifeways taken from them. I hope this helps answer your question (thank you for asking it)?

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  7. When I first started interacting with the new age scene in my home state, a lot of white folks had hopped onto the smudging bandwagon and were gleefully imitating Native American rituals – and it always felt off or wrong to me.

    European witchcraft and paganism have long had their own traditions when it comes to smoke cleansings or burning of herbs, and those aren’t closed practices, so I don’t understand why so many white people feel the need to appropriate or disrespect indigenous rituals and rites.

    As far as I’m concerned, smudging is a CLOSED PRACTICE and I don’t even use that word when I’m doing smoke cleansing.

    Thanks for your blog post and bringing more light to this topic. I hope that more non-indigenous people take this to heart and leave practices that are not for them alone!

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    1. Exactly! Spiritual health and cleansing or purifying is not available to buy or just copy from another culture’s sacred practices. Imitating what you think Native Americans or First Nations do as part of their ceremony and prayer (which is not widely shared and kept as a sacred lifeaway among their communities) won’t do anything. It is so very disrespectful to assume you can just buy it and use it.

      I agree with you that smudging is a closed practice. There are other things that are more appropriate to do. Thank you so much for sharing your experiences and thoughts!

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  8. What a fascinating post, for a start I had no idea when I bought a smudging kit for use in an apartment which never felt like home and it was suggested that I cleansed it. Having got the smudging kit, I was never drawn to use it (maybe the universe was sending me a signal don’t use it?) We moved house and problem solved. Except that somewhere is a bundle of sage that I bought! I now know better. Thank you.

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    1. I do think the universe works in ways we may not realize and maybe it was letting you know not to use something store bought. I’ve used smudge but only when it was gifted to me by a Native American friend as they had made it and I felt extremely honored. It has more meaning that way. Thank you so much for stopping by and sharing your thoughts.

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