Is Burning Sage Cultural Appropriation? Here’s How To Smoke Cleanse In Sensitive Ways

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Smudging, or saging, has become a trendy wellness practice that some people use to cleanse "bad energy" from their homes or their space. Smudging is an important ritual for many indigenous people: An article by Indigenous Corporate Training, Inc., a Canadian organization that delivers anti-bias trainings, says that “Smudging is traditionally a ceremony for purifying or cleansing the soul of negative thoughts of a person or place,” and that it is a term mostly originating from indigenous tribes in North America. So when non-native people burn sage to "smudge" their homes or other spaces, it can minimize the cultural importance of this ritual, and have a negative impact on how the herbs are grown. Instead, advocates say non-native people can learn to cleanse their spaces in ways that are culturally and ecologically sensitive. There are lots of ways to achieve the benefits of smudging by using more ethical practices, terminology, and materials.

“It was illegal for Natives to practice their religion until 1978 in the U.S., and many were jailed and killed just for keeping our ways alive, including my great-great grandfather,” Ruth Hopkins, a Dakota/Lakota Sioux writer, tells Bustle. Smudging is part of those practices. It’s so important to certain indigenous cultures, that Native people are fighting to be able to perform it in hospitals. Smudging, therefore, is not to be taken lightly.

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Because white sage is in such high demand, thanks to this recent trendiness, the Chumash people (of what is now called Southern California) are concerned that the plant is being overharvested. The United States Department of Agriculture says that white sage has important medical benefits — it is used to cure colds and aid postpartum healing — and it’s a crucial part of the surrounding ecosystem. But some brands continue to sell white sage, despite Native communities speaking out against it. Hopkins says that this behavior is unacceptable. “It’s exploitative and amounts to silencing Native voices and erasing our cultural heritage,” she says.

For Hopkins, the appropriation of sage is made worse because the plant is often not being harvested correctly. “When using medicinal plants, it’s important that the plant is used sustainably. When we pick sage, we always leave the root and say a prayer of thanks for our harvest. This is as much a part of smudging (or saging) as burning the plant is,” Hopkins says. To explain further, it’s important to leave the root, because that’s how the plant grows back. If someone is harvesting white sage and doesn’t know to leave the root, they’re preventing more plants from growing.

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If you have used herbs to cleanse your space in the past and enjoy the ritual, you don't have to give it up in order to so in a culturally conscious way. Smudging refers to a specific healing cultural spiritual practice, but smoke cleansing can look a lot like smudging, but it’s just the simple act of burning herbs, wood, incense, or other safe-to-burn materials that possess unique cleansing properties. The smoke is then waved over the area you want to cleanse. You can smoke cleanse whatever you want, as much as you want. Some cultures may have spiritual practices connected to smoke cleansing, but the act of smoke cleansing is not inherently spiritual or specific to a certain culture, like smudging is.

Personally, I like to smoke cleanse with a cinnamon stick. It leaves me feeling spiritually focused and relaxed. And there are other materials, including lavender, pine, and cloves, that can be burned safely. Palo Santo ("holy wood” in Spanish) sticks have been getting more popular as an alternative to sage, but buying this Central and South American tree used by Amazonian tribes can also be harmful, in similar ways to sage. Palo Santo has been added to the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) list, because its overharvesting can lead to extinction, although the tree is not nearing extinction currently.

If smoke cleansing is something that makes you feel calm, then go for it! It's important, however, that in the process, you're respecting Indigenous cultures and the land's ecosystem. That may mean harvesting your own sage or other herbs sustainably, contacting brands to ask them to stop selling white sage without giving due to Native cultures, or using another material. Ultimately, being intentional about how you implement this practice in your life — and being mindful about its origins and significance — is helpful for everyone.