With the beginning of a new year, many people look to improve their health, wellbeing and spirituality in the 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.
Brands that create this type of pre-packaged spirituality are financially benefitting from something that is 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.
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 Nation-owned businesses helps to build connection 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 Nation 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.
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.
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.