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Reconsidering Smudging with White Sage

a bundle of white sage rests on a shell on a bedside end table

White Sage is an at-risk plant and smudging white sage a form of cultural appropriation. Non-natives may want to reconsider this smudging practice!

a bundle of white sage rests on a shell on a bedside end table

 

Many, many years ago, a friend gave me a bundle of white sage for smudging. I had recently moved, and she, knowing I was into energy and spiritual things, though I would be interested in smudging my new place to remove negative energy.

But after I thanked her, I stuck the bundle in a drawer.

And there is sat, moving with me several times, boxed up with the candles and incense.

In the meantime, Instagram and Pinterest and Blogs started having a prominent role in our lives. Spirituality, witchy things and woo-woo started to move from cluttered new-age shops on side streets to the mainstream.

Smudging started to become a thing.

Local stores started to sell sweetgrass, palo santo, and sage sticks, right next to earrings and coffee table books. Trendy stores like Anthropologie and Urban Outfitters included sage bundles in “witchy starter kits” and “home wellness bundles”. You can even find it at stores like Walmart!

For spiritual people and those interested in wellness, smudging started to seem as common of a daily task as brushing teeth or walking the dog.

But still, my unburned bundle stayed wrapped in its original packaging, deep in a drawer. And while I was curious about it and the smoke it would produce, I didn’t burn it. I was unsure about it, and I never felt comfortable to use it.

 

Then, I attended a woman’s gathering where sage was smudged EVERYWHERE. All the other women- these bohemian, beautiful, spiritual and worldly women- seemed comfortable with it. I thought back to my own bundle of sage, buried in that drawer. When I came home, I had FOMO. I questioned that maybe I can’t be a spiritual person, or really call myself a witch, if I didn’t smudge with sage….and felt that finally, perhaps, I should light it.

I lite the bundle, intending to smudged myself and my room, clearing the way for the transition between summer and fall. But as soon as the smoke started to curl and fill the room, it felt wrong. I quickly snuffed the stick out, and have not relit it.

Why I Don’t Smudge with White Sage

As a European, I don’t think it’s appropriate for me smudging with sage.

Sage, along with tobacco and sweetgrass, is a sacred herb of the Indigenous people. It is used for cleansing and for prayers, as part of a larger deeply rooted medicinal and spiritual understanding. Ones that are reinforced with teachings passed down through generations, not picked up from the trendy boutique store down the street.

I think part of the reason I never had an interest in burning the bundle of sage was that I had no ancestral memory of it, no past relationship. White sage grows in my current home -it’s native to the southwestern United States and northwestern Mexico. But, it’s not a plant that grew in my ancestral homelands, my people did not practice the prayers and ceremonies that the sage has evolved with.

a collage of two pictures- close up of white sage and a hummingbird visiting a white sage flower

photos from Las Palitas nursery

Smudging with white sage is a form of cultural appropriation.

Stores, companies, and white individuals are commodifying sage, taking it out of context and profiting from this Indigenous spiritual practice.

Up until fairly recently, smudging was a practice that Indigenous people were not allowed to practice- part of the laws that outlawed religious and cultural activities- efforts to make the native people more “white”. Why should Europeans get to use these Indigenous ceremonies, when we have no right to them? Understanding that we have had the privilege to pick apart a culture and adopt the bits we like, but not facing the consequences of the same actions of the very individuals we steal from, is the start of decolonization.

I have no right to bless my home- which is standing on stolen Maidu land, built from timbers stolen from Pomo, Ohlone or Sinkyone land, with the herb that is sacred to the people that were stolen from. 

I don’t claim to be an expert in cultural appropriation. I am just starting my own process of decolonization.

close up of purple sage flowers

photo from Marisa Pfenning

So when is something appropriation and when is it just appreciation?

Our world today is filled with a swirling pot of different cultures and practices- there is no longer any “pure” culture, we all take a bit from someone else. What about other things we enjoy that have also been pulled from cultures not our own? It’s something I’m still exploring. I think the problem comes from when white (ie, privileged) people take a little bit of other’s culture, twist it into their own liking, ignore the big picture or the past, and use it like that. And make a profit off it. And in the case of sage, only look at the fun, “light and love and manifesting and wellness” side of it.

White sage has been tended by Indigenous people for centuries, and they had a relationship with the plant.  Most white people using the herb today have little to no relationship with this- having purchased the sage at a store in a cellophane bundle. Out of context and removed, can one have a relationship with a plant or an herb like that?

I have read articles from some Indigenous people saying that sage should not be used at all. Some say that the problem is only when smudging is done completely separate from the ceremony and spiritual practice.

White Sage is an Endangered Plant

White sage, Salvia apiana, grows in the southern coast ranges and into the inner mountains of California and Mexico- it’s a classic chapparal plant. It can also be grown in a garden and likes sunny dry slopes, almost gravelly soil and no extra water. But most of the sage sold in the cute little bundles is not garden grown, but gathered from the wild.

To quote the esteemed La Palitias native nursery:

“This is one of the sages used in sweat lodges in the past and apartments in the present. Most of the stuff sold in the upscale trendy places was ripped out of the wild; whole hillsides stuffed into an old van and driven to San Francisco or Seattle or even New York so people can experience something. Well, the hillsides of southern California do not need the experience; go burn old socks or something to experience what the hillsides are experiencing. If you do buy one of these burn sticks, may your soul go with the smoke. Curse on you. (Especially the lady that called up protesting the curse.)

The popularity of smudging has caused overharvesting, so much that S. apiana is now considered an at-risk plant. White sage essential oil, which takes tons and tons of plant material to produce, is also a contributor to the decline.

If you do choose to smudge with white sage, consider growing your own. Spend time with the plant, getting to know it. Or, buy from individuals whom you trust are ethically wildcrafted. Turn your smudging into a ceremony, create a ritual that comes from the heart- not just something you’re copying from the internet.

Smudging is a North American Indigenous practice of burning white sage, but using smoke from aromatic plants for spiritual, medication or ritual is something that is shared by almost every culture, throughout the world. Intead of smudging with white sage, consider using the herbs that your ancestors used. 

You can find a list of European smudging herbs in this post.

a bundle of white sage rests on a marble bedside table

Back to my White Sage

So my experience in smudging with white sage? It wasn’t coming from a place of spirituality or from having a relationship with the plant. It was simply because it was something trendy to do, something that I felt that I was supposed to do because that’s what everyone else was doing. In a recent conversation about this on Instagram, someone left a comment that I think is very poignant: “popular culture isn’t culture”.

So what will I do with my bundle of white sage, now knowing I won’t burn it? I haven’t decided. I think I’ll untie the bundle and the crumble the sage along the path that I walk for my nature self-care, returning it back to the earth in the most sacred way I can think of.

Additional Reading:

 

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