Smudging: An Issue of Ethics and Sustainability
Have you ever scrolled past a social media ad with an image of someone burning a smudge stick of White Sage with the caption reading something like, “Say Bye-Bye to Bad Vibes With This Smudge Kit”? Though seemingly harmless, to many people, this type of marketing can in fact be offensive as it overlooks sustainable, ethical, and cultural awareness of a deeply sacred and spiritual plant and tradition.
These days, smudging is trending on social media and “Cleaning Space Kits” can be bought in most new age shops in America, and even at your local Walmart. Like most things that are taken mainstream and commodified, the sacred White Sage plant used in the Native American smudging ritual is often taken out of context and used inappropriately (like on the back of a toilet, used to cover up people’s #2 smells). While most of us have good intentions, it’s important to take a step back and examine our actions and the bigger picture.
What exactly is “smudging” and where did it originate? In the United States, smudging ultimately has come to refer to burning plants like White Sage and Sweetgrass, and it’s most often borrowed from Indigenous and Native American traditions by non-Native folks with little to no understanding of their ways.
To respectfully and responsibly burn plants, or use any plants, incense, or herbs for that matter, we should first consider the sustainable impacts on the plants and Earth, as well as the cultures these traditions come from. It’s important to educate ourselves on the cultural significance of smudging, so let’s take a look at its history and origins; plants commonly used in smudging; bio-regional aromatic medicine; and sustainable and ethical ways to burn plants.
History and Origins of Smudging
Technically, the word smudge means to “make a smoky fire”. But the term smudging is most often used today to refer to the smudging ceremonies of Native Americans and other Indigenous peoples, where herbs that are considered sacred medicines are burned as part of a ritual, spiritual ceremony, and/or for energetic cleansing, or as a physiological medicine or air purification. Indigenous and Native people have many words for smudging, including Atisamânihk (Cree for “at the smudge”) and Nookwez (Ojibwe for “smudge medicinally”).
Burning plants in these ways is a practice that originated in antiquity, and is still performed in different ways in many other traditional cultures around the world as well. Purposes for smudging can vary for each Native tribe and nation, and even more so for different cultures in other parts of the world.
The ritual burning of plants is used for many things, such as spiritual and theological beliefs, energetic and spiritual protection, blessings, to resolve conflict between two parties, for peace, spiritual health, physical health, purification of body and soul, mental clarity, cleansing negative energy, times of crisis, ill health and death, and so much more .
According to old Northern European folklore, dark spirits come out during the “Twelve Nights of Christmas'' between December 25 - January 6. Traditionally, during this time there were four “smudging nights'', in which people burned herbs in their homes and stables to protect against evil influences . These smudging rituals, originating from Pagan cultures and later performed by Catholic priests, were used to ward off demons and to evoke the rebirth of the sun after dark days .
The folk magic of the Celts included the act of “saining”, which is similar to smudging. These practices were performed mainly to remove influences of negative spirits from people, places, objects, and livestock, and symbolized purification more than energy cleansing . Saining has been commonly practiced using fire, water, or smoke from burning herbs or wood .
Plants Commonly Used for Smudging
There are many aromatic plants around the world that have been traditionally burned over the ages in these ways. We’ll name some of the most heavily documented here, but there are many others that have been used throughout different cultures over time.
In Native American cultures, the practice of smudging most commonly includes the sacred aromatic plant medicines of Sweetgrass, White Sage, Sagebrush, Cedar, and Tobacco, but can also include Sagebrush, Pine needles or resin, and Juniper. In Northern Europe, the four smudging nights involved burning the herbs Mugwort, Juniper, Milk Thistle, and Fir resin . In Scottish saining rituals, the berries and needles of Juniper are commonly used . In Australia, the “smoking ceremony” performed by Aboriginal peoples for generations for cleansing most often called for Berrigan, or Emu bush, and Eucalyptus. The smoke of Palo Santo wood has been long used by Amazonian medicine people in similar ways, along with Copal resins from various species, which is extensively used from Mexico to South America in many culture's spiritual practices.
White Sage, Salvia apiana, is the most well-known plant used for smudging today. In recent years it's use and publicity have skyrocketed. You’ve likely seen it in the smudge kits at Urban Outfitters, across many influencer’s social media pages, and even for sale on Amazon.com. Over the past decade this plant has been capitalized on exponentially, which has caused a lot of controversy.
Due to commodification, White Sage has been over-harvested, and is currently on the United Plant Savers At-Risk Species List . Sometimes permits are issued for commercial harvest of economically valued plants on public lands, but it’s not possible to get a permit for White Sage. However, due to its popularity and high demand, the plant is most often harvested illegally, frequently by undocumented individuals desperate for work. In 2018, four people were arrested for the illegal harvest of 400 pounds of White Sage in North Etiwanda Preserve in California . If you purchase White Sage, there’s a good chance you’re supporting illegal activity and over-harvesting, unless you know that it’s from privately owned lands, or grown on a farm, of which there are only a few of.
Not only does over-harvesting disrupt the native plant ecosystems, but it also negatively impacts the animals that rely on those plants for food, as well as the Native and Indigenous people that depend on it as their sacred medicine. Indigenous people have been calling for the end of the commodification of White Sage for many years , and it’s important that we listen.
The Ethics of Smudging
Colonization of the Americas repressed, destroyed, and sadly, in some cases, eradicated the spiritual traditions of Indigenous peoples throughout North America. In 1876, the Indian Act was passed in Canada, which broadly outlawed Indigenous religious and cultural activities, including smudging . It was amended in 1951 to allow for religious and spiritual ceremonies, however the Indian Act still remains in effect today and controls many aspects of First Nations peoples' lives . In the United States, it was illegal for Natives to use White Sage until 1978 when the American Indian Religious Freedom Act was passed .
Yet, to this day, many Indigenous and Native peoples still have trouble practicing smudging, with bans on it put in place in some cases by landlords, government buildings, public spaces, and schools .
These facts highlight some ethical questions of smudging by non-Native folks. The burning of White Sage by non-Natives has been said to be an example of cultural appropriation, which is defined as "the adoption of elements of one culture by members of another culture" . It is especially harmful when Natives are being persecuted for their own smudging traditions, but non-Native folks are able to freely do so.
So where do we go from here? Due to the sustainable and ethical implications of burning White Sage, it’s a good idea to explore other alternatives. Since almost all cultures have burned aromatic plants for centuries, and there are so many botanicals to choose from, there are many alternative ways to practice respectful smoke cleansing.
If you are a non-Native, your ancestors most likely burned their own local aromatic plants in some way to ritually cleanse energies, homes, property, people, or livestock. It can be very empowering to discover and connect with your own ancestral aromatic plants and traditions and a great way to show respect for Native traditions, while taking the strain off of wild White Sage populations. Scent has a memory that’s embedded in our consciousness and awakened through aromatic plants, therefore, it can help you reconnect with your ancestors and heritage in profound and mysterious ways.
Bio-Regional Aromatic Medicine
Another sustainable and ethical solution to this dilemma is by working with your local aromatic flora instead of White Sage. Discovering and learning about the native plants growing around you, also known as Bio-regional Aromatic Medicine, can be an empowering way to deepen your connection to the plant kingdom and to nature. Explore your local flora and research which ones can be safely used for aromatic medicine.
If you choose to wild-harvest, make sure to check the status of the local plants to confirm they’re not endangered or at-risk. The most sustainable method of wild-harvesting is right after a windstorm, when fresh branches, leaves, or needles can be found on the ground and collected without taking from a living plant.
Growing your own aromatic plants to use for smudging is also a great alternative, especially if you already have a special relationship with White Sage and want to continue to use it sustainably and ethically. Tending to an aromatic plant garden is a great way for you to personally connect with plants on a daily basis and take the strain off of wild plant populations.
How to Smudge With Respect
Since White Sage has been increasingly over-harvested over the years, often illegally, and since Native Americans have requested that non-Natives stop commodifying it, we strongly advise not to wild harvest it and avoid buying it. If you do buy it, look for companies that are Native and Indigenous owned or make sure it is a cultivated source, and not wild-harvested, even if the label says “sustainably wild-harvested”.
Some aromatic plant alternatives you can use in place of White Sage include Sagebrush, Garden Sage, Rosemary, Bay Leaves, Lavender, Mint, Lemon Balm, Wormwood, Mugwort, Juniper, Cedar, Pine, and Tulsi. There may be other plant alternatives in addition to these depending on the region you live.
There’s no shame in being wrong, only in refusing to learn. As Brene Brown says, “I’m here to get it right, not to be right.” As a non-Native person myself, I can’t be a spokesperson for Native people, but I continually try to educate myself to learn how to grow and do better.
It is likely that this article may stir up some conflict, but it's important to look at the facts and check in with ourselves and communities of conscious-minded folks to make sure the practices we incorporate into our lives are beneficial to all, and do not cause harm to plants or people. By no means is this article meant to tell anyone what to do or not do, but to simply offer the facts and allow people to decide for themselves what feels best to them. Please feel free to share this article.
As a re-cap, here’s some ways we can practice respectful smoke cleansing:
- Explore the incense traditions of your lineage
- Learn about your local aromatic flora
- Start an aromatic plant garden
- Find sustainable alternatives to burning wild White Sage
- And always consider the sustainable and ethical impacts of your actions.
1. Robinson, A. (2018). Smudging. The Canadian Encyclopedia. Retrieved from https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/smudging
2. Rätsch, E, & Müller-Ebeling, C. (2003). Pagan Christmas. Inner Traditions. “Sacred Nights, Smudging Nights, and Incense”
3. Scott. (2020). Saining not smudging - purification and lustration in Scottish folk magic practice. Retrieved from https://cailleachs-herbarium.com/2019/02/saining-not-smudging-purification-and-lustration-in-scottish-folk-magic-practice/
4. Leopold, S. (2019). What is going on with White Sage? United Plant Savers. Retrieved from https://unitedplantsavers.org/what-is-going-on-with-white-sage/
5. Defino, J. (2019). It’s time to rethink the ‘trend’ of burning Sage on Instagram. Fashionista. Retrieved from https://fashionista.com/2019/11/burning-sage-cultural-appropriation
6. Indigenous Foundations. (2009) The Indian Act. Retrieved from https://indigenousfoundations.arts.ubc.ca/the_indian_act/
© 2022 The Northwest School of Aromatic Medicine. All rights reserved.
*The statements above have not been evaluated by the FDA, and are for educational purposes only. This article is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease. This article should not be taken as medical advice. Please consult your physician before you use this information for health purposes.