The Complicated Ethics of Burning Sage and Smudging: Is It Cultural Appropriation?

sage burning cultural appropriation
Image by Karolina Grabowsk on Pexels

Burning sage bundles or “smudging” is big business for affluent white people. But it comes at the expense of Native communities.

Sage, Salvia officinalis, is one of the most interesting, storied plants in human history. A perennial evergreen shrub of the mint family with soft, gray-green leaves, produces blue and purple flowers. The sage plant is native to the Mediterranean region but has grown across the Americas for ages. The leaves produce an earthy, musky scent that’s concentrated when dried.

It’s been valued as a medicinal and spiritual herb across the Americas for millennia. And, in recent years, it’s been commodified and appropriated by the Western ‘wellness’ sect.

But burning sage is more than just a Febreze alternative; sage is renowned and respected all around the world for its clearing and purifying properties. It’s tied to traditions and religions, particularly in Native American cultures.

Traditional sage uses

Ancient Romans valued sage for its healing benefits. The Chinese would trade four pounds of black tea for one pound of French sage. Charlemagne deemed it so important it was planted on German Imperial farms. And in the Americas, it was valued as a great healer and protector.

It’s also widely revered for its unmistakable flavor. Here in the U.S., it’s practically synonymous with Thanksgiving. And that’s quite the irony as the holiday celebrates the land stolen from Native Americans.

But we don’t just eat sage on Thanksgiving. Many of us have taken to saging or smudging our homes and bodies to root out unwanted energy or “evil spirits.” Perhaps it’s leftover well-intended hippie habits of the 1960s, but its more likely part of the growing commodification of “spirituality.”

Modern appropriation of sage smudging

“If you’re feeling stuck, negative, sluggish, or perhaps as if a spirit is following you around like a creepy ex-boyfriend…it may be due to some bad energy in your field. Stuck energy can gather like unwanted guests at a house party. The most effective way to combat an energy traffic jam is smudging,” shamanic energy medicine practitioner Colleen McCann told Goop.

“Smudging can clear your emotional, energetic, mental, spiritual, and physical body—as well as your environment (home, office, or other physical space). It helps tackle any bad juju you sense looming, clears the energy in your field, and allows you to start anew.”

But Native Americans say this commodification, especially of sacred white sage, is offensive.

“Smudging sage has nothing to do with the magical room-cleansing nonsense sold by uninspired capitalists,” writer and activist Taté Walker, told Fashionista. Walker is a Mniconjou Lakota and a citizen of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe.

“Speaking for myself and what I’ve been taught about my Lakota culture, sage is a critical component within Lakota medicinal and ceremonial knowledge,” Walker says. She adds that not all Native tribes use sage. “Smudging is very specific to prayer, so you can burn sage without smudging and you can smudge without needing to light sage on fire.”

Sage’s complicated backstory extends beyond just cultural appropriation. According to Bianca Millar of the Wendake reserve in Québec (she’s half Huron-Wendat and half Scottish), the use of sage and other cultural activities was banned in Canada in 1876. That ban extended more than fifty years, and more than 100 in the U.S. Then, in 1978, the American Indian Religious Freedom Act restored the ability for Native people to use sage medicinally.

The sage trade

Picking white sage in the U.S. is illegal in wildlife preserves and public land. But the practice persists. There’s even a “white sage mafia.” In 2018, four people were arrested with more than 400 pounds of illegally harvested white sage taken from the North Etiwanda Preserve of Rancho Cucamonga, California.

Much of the sage sold in the U.S. is coming from illegal harvests like this, despite brands promoting their sage as being ethically sourced. A Google search for “ethical sage bundles” returned nearly nine million results.

Walker says buying sage also defeats the purpose of the plant’s medicine—many Native Americans say sage should be gifted, never purchased. “

Sure, sage is available to buy, but I think you’re canceling out the healing properties and innate ‘good vibes’ you’re going for by perpetrating unsustainable capitalism and Native erasure,” Walker says.

“It’s not something you buy; it’s something that’s given to you,” the Native American Tongva elder, Julia Bogany, told Vice, a year before she died.

She said sage was historically picked by hand and prayed over to give thanks, and today’s commercial harvesting is “rushed and violent,” often done with pruning shears or hacksaws. “This land is our church,” Bogany said. “It’s like if I walked into church and took the holy water. I would be taking something from God’s house.”

Should you sage if you’re not Native American?

The short answer: probably not.

If you’re growing sage in your own yard, or you’re friendly with someone who grows it, then making your own bundles from that sage isn’t going to do much harm. But don’t purchase it, especially if you don’t have firsthand knowledge of where it’s coming from.

Bundles with “ethically sourced” labels warrant a deeper dive into verification. Burning a sage bundle you bought from Amazon won’t remove the “negative energy” of the former tenants in your three-story walkup, especially if it was stolen from protected plants.

There are other best practices, too. “Like, we don’t believe you should light your smudge or your sage with a lighter. We believe that the butane in lighters kind of kills that medicine, so you should use matches.” 

Millar also says blowing on the sage bundle is ill-advised as well. She says the traditional practice involves using a feather to fan the flames. And don’t do it if you’re drunk or high. It should always be done when sober.

Alternatives to sage

What if you still feel a need to clear your home or your life of “bad” energy? We do live in complicated times and both plants and rituals can help reset us. And it’s true, a strong scent like sage can serve as a reminder of your intention. But there are other plants that may be helpful in the same way.

Rosemary, lavender, or mint are all great olfactory stimulants that can be used to change your mood. And you can use them fresh, no burning required. These grow abundantly across the U.S., often in yards. Trimming these plants is easy and can brighten up rooms.

Essential oils or scented candles can do the same thing. So can a simple meditation or even writing down your intention and tacking it to your refrigerator. Nothing changes the energy of a space like a good old-fashioned hand-written reminder that it needs changing. And like sage, the written word is as old as time, too.

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