language has power: on smudging and appropriation

First things first. I'll tell you what I am and what I am not.

What I am is a cis black queer femme healer; I am not an a Native/Indigenous person, nor have I been trained by an Native/Indigenous elder.

As such, I'm fully aware that what I say may be inaccurate and just plain wrong. I do write this post for my own self-reflection and to invite other non-Indigenous practitioners of various traditions to do their own self-reflection about the ways that they practice.

So, what is smudging?

Well, like I said I'm not an Indigenous practitioner nor have I been trained by an Indigenous elder, so the only correct answer to come from me should be - I honestly don't know. What has been indicated, by various Native folks, is that smudging involves very specific kinds of ritual, herbs, times, and knowledge that varies.

Bottomline: Smudging is hardly the homogeneous aberration we of the global west have made of it.

Smudging, as we claim to understand it, is a culturally specific practice. Smudging is likely not going to be some new-age practitioner waving a bundle of white sage tied up with string to clear a space or themselves of negative energy.

White Sage (salvia apiana), native to the Southwest

White Sage (salvia apiana), native to the Southwest

To be clear, using the smoke from burning herbs to clear energy or move it, is historically global, and in a lot of faiths is still actively practiced. From burning incense to straight up burning bundles of herbs, this is a practice that has been identified in multiple traditions across the world.

I just wonder if we can be honest about the power of words, the power of naming, and the power of capitalism and privilege that relies on watering down entire people's traditions, memories, and spiritual technologies for its own deification and profit.

Plainly, must you call what you do smudging? Or that herb bundle a smudge stick? Why? Why is a word that causes pain so important to hold on to?

Smudging as it is commonly used, especially in North America, is in fact referring to our idea of what Indigenous practices are. Are we being accurate? The answer here is almost always no.

The amount of access and exposure we have to divine and spiritual examples is unprecedented... I do mean to prompt pagans to stop and consider that not all we stumble upon, or are exposed to, is ours to adapt, or use – even when we credit its origins.
— Witches, Pagans, and Cultural Appropriation, The Anchor and the Star

An argument I've seen around is that "smudge" is an English word and as such it can't be appropriated from Indigenous peoples. Again, let's get real about the power of naming and the kind of world we live in. It's like claiming that because Two-Spirit is an English term, non-Indigenous queer folks can use it about themselves with carte-blanche (spoiler alert: you can't). Same goes for words like Spirit Animal, Tribe, and Totem.

The better analysis may lie in condemning pan-Indigenous terms created by non-Indigenous peoples- not as a means for us to hold on to what does not belong to us, but instead respecting the words' use by the peoples it holds historical and cultural weight for.

Safety Rule 1 of not being a cultural appropriator and being a better ally:

Has the culture/tradition you are 'appreciating' indicated in any way that you should stop?


Particularly if you hold more privilege than the people whose lived experiences you are 'appreciating'.

If your first instinct is to think of a way to keep doing what you're doing, examine why it is so important that you have what you want despite the pain it's causing someone else.

I'm not exempt just because I'm a person of color who has also experienced appropriation of my traditions. Too often we forget that the oppressed can be themselves replicators of oppression somewhere else.

Appropriation has impact.

Not the least of which, for example, is the disappearing wild white sage plant. We did that. Which materially means that the Indigenous peoples who may have had open and free access to a plant sacred to their practice might now not be able to access it or have to pay more and more to have it.

[EDIT: To clarify...white sage isn't going extinct, but the free access to wild white sage, that is white sage growing in the wild, that access is dwindling for the peoples that used it as medicine. It may not be extinct for us, but inaccessibility for those who have always had it is its own form of extinction.]

lalobaloca sage.jpg

"There is nothing healing about using plants that are nearly extinct taking away ancestral plant allies to the Indigenous Peoples (Chumash, Kumeya, Tongva +++) that have build connections with this medicine for generations... Nothing healing on harvesting plant medicine that is struggling to survive in this capitalist colonial nightmare... Nothing cleansing about abusing plant medicine. Nothing sacred when we are treating plants like a band aid for colonial consumerism. Nothing self-caring when we burn huge sticks without understanding that maybe the weight we feel inside is not “cleansed by smoke” but by looking at how we connect to greater than human beings. I’m also learning and I’m sure many of you didn’t know about this either, let’s make sure we educate ourselves and each other! There are so many other plants and barks that grow in abundance we can burn y’all! "

So beyond asking, is our practice appropriative, we need to ask, is my practice appropriative and/or unsustainable?

If the answer is yes, then we are back to messy square one.

Make a shift

  • Intentionally name your practice. Clearing, smoke cleansing... hey, maybe even find out what it is called in your tradition. Using herb smoke as a sacred or just plain everyday practice is pretty global; a little research could reveal some wonderful medicine from your tradition.

  • If you must use white sage, grow it yourself or purchase ethically cultivated (grown not haphazardly wildcrafted) white sage.

  • Use something else. Some alternatives to white sage smoke for clearing and cleansing keeping in mind that you should always do as much as you can to seek out herbs grown from ethical cultivation and sourcing, no matter the plant:

    • Rosemary

    • Mugwort

    • Cedar

    • Thyme

    • Basil

    • Lavender

    • Garden Sage (salvia officinalis)

I don't claim to have all the answers, and I don't pretend to be where the buck stops on this issue. These are my always evolving reflections on the issue. Personally, I don't use the word smudge for what I do with herb smoke simply so that I can have some delineation in my mind and for others.

Additionally, if you are up to the labor, please feel free to call me out on something I said here that just compounds the issue.

ETA: I’m slowly updating this post to include resources and more conversations on this appropriation in the woo community.

edited 06/27/2019