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  • Writer's pictureHannah R-Reyes

Smudging Mindfully-- How to Burn White Sage Without Being Offensive

Smudging Mindfully at SandSilkSky Wedding Ceremony
Smudging Mindfully at SandSilkSky Wedding Ceremony - photo by Randy and Ashley Wedding Photographers

Smudging— or the burning of herbs— is an ancient religious and ceremonial practice used in many cultures across the globe, but the use of white sage has become ever-more visible in the mainstream commodification of spirituality practices— its important not to overlook the cultural sensitivity surrounding this First Nations ritual. Unsustainable harvesting practices is running rampant by brands and retailers wanting to make a buck off a bundle of white sage leaves, often pulled illegally from private grounds, conservation parks, and Indian land. 

But if smudging is already a part of your spiritual practice, how can you continue to do so without being offensive?

The answer is a practice we are becoming so familiar with— mindfulness

Understand The History

Cultural (mis)appropriation is a term referring to the misuse and misrepresentation of a culture’s wardrobe and style, religious rituals and artefacts, and other cultural signifiers, often by the privileged class, i.e.: white people (but any group with ruling privileges) for entertainment purposes. Most of the time, cultural misappropriation is an oversight by the guilty— there was no mal-intent on their behalf, not meaning to be offensive or insensitive. Much of the time, those acting on cultural misappropriation aren’t even aware they are borrowing their wardrobe or practice from an oppressed culture: they just come across a style or ritual that is beautiful to them, and so they take it up as their own.

The problem with this is rooted in ignorance. When it comes to smudging with white sage, we see the hipster bourgeoisie all over the world burning bundles over abalone shells before their morning meditation and yoga practice. This is perfectly fine if it helps one tap into their deeper self conscious, but its important to understand the cultural significance of white sage in First Nations religious practice. To many tribes, white sage is a sacred plant, and the burning of it is a ceremonial practice. It is meant to purify people, objects, and rooms to push out evil spirits and bad energy. Other sacred herbs are used to perform other purposes, such as sweet grass to bring positive energy, and juniper for healing. 

What’s perhaps most important to understand, is that smudging— as a part of First Nations religious practices— were illegal for American First Nations to participate in until 1978 with the American Indian Religious Freedom Act. As a result, some First Nations people may find the use of (but more likely the profit of sale) white sage offensive. 

Buy Locally From First Nations or Small Businesses

White sage is becoming widely available across all kinds of sales channels, sometimes ending up in “spirituality kits” from big-box retailers like Urban Outfitters and Sephora (via Pinrose), and sold all over the world. Instead of purchasing from these mass retailers, head to your local trading post and purchase directly from your local First Nations tribe. Or, find a small company or brand whose ethics you agree with, and who could benefit from your business. 

If you have access to where white sage is naturally grown, heading out on foot to the creek beds and hills with a small knife for harvesting your own supply can contribute to your spiritual journey. Just be sure that the land on which you’re crossing, and the plants from which you’re cutting, are not privately owned, part of a nature conservation, or on Indian land. Also, do not take more than you need for personal use— over-harvesting a plant, or cutting it at the root, can kill the plant and its contribution to the local ecosystem. 

Don’t Overuse

The wide availability of sage gives the illusion that this plant is harvested in infinite supplies. Although it grows across the deserts of the Southwest, the means in which white sage is harvested is imperative to its sustainable growth— sometimes it is grown as a crop, other times, it is stolen off private land, and lopped off at the root, thereby killing the plant. Although these days, smaller bundles are being offered at high retail prices (stuffing the pockets of business owners), traditionally massive bundles of sage are available for the consumer at lower prices in many trading posts, with profits going towards local tribes. 

Many people don’t think twice about burning the entire bundle at once, no matter what the size, or igniting huge flames to achieve large billows of smoke. This is, of course, not being mindful to the lifetime of the plant, its cultural value to several different tribes, or to the practice for which its meant. Though the bundling of sage is itself a ritual, sufficient smudging can equally be achieved by burning just a single leaf, thereby conserving the bundle for longer periods of time and use. The point of smudging is to smoke out negative spirits, not to burn the herb in pyrotechnic glory. 

Use With Intention, and Gratitude

White sage isn’t really supposed to be used just as an incense. Instead, it has traditionally been reserved for ceremonial use, part of a ritual meant to purify the self, objects or surrounding space by smoking out negative energy. Many people are adopting different styles of meditation and spirituality these days, and the exploration should be applauded! As we journey towards elevated awareness, we should consider all the ways our consumption of our different practices may affect the people and cultures we are borrowing from. 

As we ignite our sage bundle, we should take a moment to reflect upon its journey into our hands, acknowledging the plight of First Nations and expressing gratitude for the privilege to learn from their spiritual practice, and then to smoke the bundle with respect to the finite supply of the plant. This makes for an appropriate beginning to your meditation or yoga practice, setting the stage for compassion, gratitude, and mindfulness throughout the day.

By smudging mindfully, we can participate in this age-old ritual without being offensive to the cultures from which we borrow from, while aiding our own spiritual practice. It can be a beautiful way to signify any new beginnings, clearing away karma and taking a pause to be within the present moment. So go ahead, and continue to smudge white sage, and introduce it to others looking for meditation tools! Just be sure to pass along its cultural significance and educate others on how to use it mindfully, with respect to its origins. 

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