The Ethics Of Burning Sage, Explained

Plus, a sustainable alternative.

Smudge kit - Palo Santo sticks, Wildcrafted dried white sage (Salvia apiana), Mugwort (Artemisia vul...
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The past few years have certainly left many folks with the desire to rid their homes of negative energy. Smudging, or saging, has become a trendy wellness practice that folks use to cleanse their living spaces. But if you tend to poke around smudging social media circles, you've probably heard people ask, "is sage burning cultural appropriation?" If you're not Indigenous and therefore hesitating to strike a match to cleanse the bad vibes out of your apartment, here's what you need to know about burning sage.

What Is Smudging?

Smudging is an important ceremonial purifying ritual in many North American Indigenous cultures. The practice has a long and rich history that extends way before white witchy practices brought it onto Instagram feeds near you. Before smudging was popularized, it was illegal — at least, for Indigenous folks. “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 was part of those banned religious practices. Today, Native people are still fighting to be able to perform these ceremonies in hospitals. Smudging, therefore, is not to be taken lightly.

Because of all that history, when non-Native people burn white sage to "smudge" their homes or other spaces, it minimizes the cultural importance of this ritual. Instead, advocates say non-Native people can learn to cleanse their spaces in ways that are culturally and ecologically sensitive.

Is Burning White Sage Bad?

Thanks to the recent trendiness of smudging, white sage (which is used in these rituals) is in high demand. The demand has become so great that many Chumash people (of what is now Southern California) are concerned that the plant is being overharvested. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) 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. “It’s exploitative and amounts to silencing Native voices and erasing our cultural heritage,” Hopkins says.

For Hopkins, the appropriation of white 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. In other words, 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.

If you're browsing your fave place to buy herbs and look at the options for smoke cleansing next to white sage, you might find Palo Santo ("holy wood” in Spanish). But you might want to hold off on buying the next available thing. Palo Santo 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 though the tree is not yet nearing extinction, its overharvesting can put it on that path.

Smoke Cleansing Versus Smudging

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 offers an alternative to smudging for folks who aren't Native. This form of cleansing can look a bit 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. 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, the way smudging is.

If burning incense, herbs, or wood is part of your self-love practice, there are safe-burning alternatives to sage for smoke cleansing, including lavender, pine, and cloves. It's important, however, that in the process of cleansing, you're respecting Indigenous cultures and the ecosystem. That may include educating yourself and others about white sage, appropriation, and smoke cleansing; 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 other plants entirely. Being intentional about how you implement this practice in your life — and being mindful about its origins and significance — is helpful for everyone.

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