Burning Sage Without Knowing The Indigenous Practice’s History Is Culturally Inappropriate

·10 min read
Burning Sage Without Knowing The Indigenous Practice’s History Is Culturally Inappropriate

Let’s face it: The wellness industry has a cultural appropriation problem. From yoga to jade rolling and Ayahuasca, practices with ancient origins and, many times, deep cultural significance to the communities who started them, have become so commodified—and, well, capitalized—by New Age, Western wellness brands that they’ve lost almost all real meaning.

Take the traditional Native American practice of sage smudging or burning, for example. Its historical context has disappeared as quickly as an influencer’s Instagram Story showing you their daily smudging practice.

Today, sage smudging has become so popularized by non-Native wellness enthusiasts that chances are you’ve entered a yoga studio where the instructor has burned the plant at the end of a session to “welcome in good energy” and close the practice by “setting an intention.”

Hell, you might’ve purchased a bundle yourself from a major retailer like Etsy, Amazon, or Walmart, to sage your home—not knowing the plant’s history, cultural significance, or traditional use. I, personally, will admit that I’ve burned sage before, simply because I enjoy the smell and feel intentional while doing it. But sage smudging serves a greater purpose than allowing unknowing users to welcome #posivibes and offering stressed young professionals and city dwellers a temporary feeling of calm and connection to the natural world.

Take the practice’s linguistic roots. In the Lakota language, the word “smudging” or “smudge” is what we call “wazilia,” says Oglala Lakota spiritual leader and wisdom keeper Warfield Moose Jr. It means “to sage off” or “to use” and the practice itself “goes back to our creation stories and the relationship our people have with sage and all our plant medicines since the beginning of time,” he explains.

Meet the Experts:
Warfield Moose Jr. is an Oglala Lakota spiritual leader, wisdom keeper, and executive director of the Mita Oyate Cultural Society.

Shilo Clifford is a traditional Oglala Lakota herbalist, educator, and co-founder of Native Botanicals.

Shawna Clifford is a Oglala Lakota tribal member and co-founder of Native Botanicals.

Mary Annette Pember is a Red Cliff Ojibwe journalist and national correspondent for ICT News.

So, what’s the traditional purpose and intention behind sage smudging? Where did the practice originate? And is it ever appropriate to smudge as someone who’s not Native American?

Ahead, Indigenous tribal members and thought leaders break down the cultural significance of burning sage and share how they feel about the commodification of this plant medicine by the Western wellness industry.

What is sage smudging?

While it’s hard to pinpoint an exact date and time for when the practice originated—as Native traditions and stories are often passed down orally—Native communities have been burning sage and other dried plants for spiritual and medicinal benefits for generations.

As previously mentioned, the word “smudge” orwazilia” itself means to take the spirit of something to purify oneself or one’s environment, explains Moose, who was taught by his elders that sage was pertinent to the Lakota way of life. His people used sage to heal, not just themselves, but others, including future generations. “So, in some way, it’s not just a plant; it’s a medicine,” he says.

According to Moose, this medicine, or “pejuta” in the Lakota language, is seen as a gift from the earth, and thus must be respected and honored before, during, and after use. It’s not something you can just play with or use when you’re bored, he explains. “It starts with a prayer.” And while burning the sage, Lakota tribal members acknowledge that they’re not only taking the sage’s life but giving it a new life through burning it, he adds. “It’s like you rebirth the life of that sage, so that sage never dies, [and] it gives life to our fellow human beings.”

And while Moose admits that it’s common for sage to be perceived as a tool to “eliminate the bad” that’s not how it has traditionally been used. “We burn sage to welcome the good back into our lives,” he says. “We use it when we feel down, fearful, or even when we’re happy. It’s a way to connect to our spirit, to feel fulfilled, or whole.”

What’s the cultural significance of burning sage?

Sage, itself, is a diverse and multifaceted plant that, in the United States, grows in some areas of the midwest and southwestern regions of the country. “All tribes have their own ways of using this medicine, and there are many varieties of sage that are native to different tribes and areas,” says Shilo Clifford, a traditional Oglala Lakota herbalist and co-founder of Native Botanicals. Plus, traditionally, different species have been used for different purposes.

There’s even a sage that grows in the Badlands that the Lakota people call “women’s sage,” says Shawna Clifford, an Oglala Lakota tribal member and co-founder of Native Botanicals. That’s because it’s been used to help relieve cramps and other discomforts related to a woman’s menstrual cycle, she explains.

For the Cliffords, using the prairie sage that grows in their native land of South Dakota is part of their daily life. It is “a way of connecting with our own spirit as well as the spirit of our ancestors,” explains Shilo. “With our children, during our morning routine, the first thing the kids want to do is smudge, or they want to pray and burn whatever medicines we have,” he adds. “It really helps them throughout the day, so much so that they ask for it even when it’s not time to do it.”

What are the environmental and community concerns regarding the overharvesting of sage?

Today, sage, specifically the white sage variety native to southern California and northern Mexico, is environmentally threatened—not only as a result of climate change, but also due to overharvesting caused by an increased commercial demand.

For the Cliffords, the overharvesting of sage has been disheartening and only further proves that many buyers are disconnected from the sacred plant and the traditional rituals associated with it. In the Lakota tribe, “we’re taught that a plant has a spirit, and when you don’t have respect or use it in the wrong ways, they will disappear,” says Shilo. Many people and companies are looking to capitalize on sage. “They have a ‘more is better’ perspective and treat it as a product instead of a medicine,” he adds.

Shilo explains that the Indigenous medicine wheel philosophy teaches that when one takes from the earth (i.e., harvesting), one must give back by replanting or replenishing the plants tenfold.

Their company, Native Botanicals, is rooted in that philosophy—taking care of the planet to ensure the sustainability of future generations. “The Lakota word is ‘tokata,’” explains Shawna. “We replant the sage because our children and our children’s children will need these medicines one day.”

While the unsustainable gathering of sage is of grave concern to Indigenous communities, for Moose, the overharvesting of the sacred plant isn’t inherently a Native versus non-Native issue. He believes that all human beings have a responsibility to care for the environment. “There is no time for exclusion,” he says. “Every human being needs to take responsibility for their actions when it comes to caring for the plants and medicines. It’s important because one day the plants will save us from ourselves.”

How do Indigenous people feel about the commodification of their practices?

In 2019, Red Cliff Ojibwe journalist Mary Annette Pember wrote an article for Beauty Independent detailing Native peoples’ concerns regarding the appropriation and commoditization of smudging. “For Native peoples, the impact of the uninvited application of their cultural practices cuts deeply…The adoption of smudging is another in a long line of colonial predation of Native nations that have seen nearly everything—their lands, languages and cultures—taken from them in the name of progress and civilization…it’s the final insult and a sign of disrespect to see their practices tossed into the great blender of upscale trendiness,” she wrote. These sentiments still hold true for Pember and other Indigenous folks.

When you purchase sage from Walmart, the plant is stripped of all its meaning and power, Pember tells Women’s Health. Sage’s meaning is centered in place and community—it’s a matter of faith. By cherry-picking certain beliefs and rituals from Native American communities shows “a real lack of concern and a real entitlement,” she says.

People are making up their own rituals and ideas about how sage should be used, adds Moose. “When sage is misused and commercialized like that, it takes the spirit and medicine out of the plant and turns it into a thing.” Because non-Natives just pick and choose what to take from our teachings to use to their advantage, he continues, elders fear giving away knowledge of the plants.

For the Cliffords and other Native peoples, the appropriation of their Native beliefs and practices is nothing new. Lakota tribal members have seen this movie play out before, where people come in and take over our ways of life—whether it’s missionaries or the boarding schools, says Shilo.

To see a part of their culture once threatened by assimilation efforts become a mainstream trend just further rubs salt into an ever-growing wound.

Watch to learn more about the history of Native American Heritage Month:

As a non-Native, is it ever okay to smudge?

After learning about the cultural significance of sage and hearing the perspectives of Native peoples regarding its commercialization, you might be wondering if this is a call to toss your sage bundles for good. But, before clearing out your ritual space, consider your intentions behind why you wish to burn sage and other dried plants of environmental and cultural concern, like palo santo. Then, turn to the communities where these practices originated and learn from them.

Through their company Native Botanicals, the Cliffords hope to serve as a resource for all people with a sincere desire to learn about the traditional practice of sage smudging. “From my own personal experience, when you want to keep someone out of something, they’re going to find a way to do it anyway,” says Shilo. So the Cliffords’ philosophy is that “if we show them [non-Natives] the correct way to engage with these plants, they’ll have the respect and be able to incorporate the practice into their lives how it’s supposed to be—how it was taught to us,” he adds.

Adopting a new practice outside of your culture requires research and a willingness to learn. “I don’t think there’s one simple answer to the debate [of appropriation versus appreciation] and the commodification of spiritual practices,” explains Shilo. “But I guess I would say that we always welcome people as long as they have respect and reverence, and as long as they’re willing to put in the work.”

For Pember, the issue speaks to the broader public desire for spiritual health and wellness. “I believe that many people who adopt these practices are thinking, ‘Well, I need some spiritual health. I’m not feeling good,’” she says. “But sometimes what we want isn’t always what we need,” especially when what one wants causes real harm to oppressed communities and the natural environment at large. In her view, the adoption of these traditional practices by non-Natives does not hold as much consequence as it should. Here’s the thing: Ultimately, people will do whatever they want, but “I would never allow those people to smudge me,” she says. “Those things are just too important.”

While their may not be any immediate consequences for the adoption of practices that are not one’s own, one has to accept that if they do partake in traditions that are of deep cultural and spiritual significance to a community they are not a part of, without knowledge of its history, that they are, in some way, appropriating that culture and its practices—period.

So, if after reading this, you do decide to burn sage, in addition to learning more about the ritual’s history in order to honor these traditions, consider purchasing your bundles from a Native-owned company dedicated to taking care of the plant and replenishing it for future generations to enjoy.

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