White ceremonial sage is used by thousands to cleanse and protect. While the practice of smudging with a white sage bundle originated with specific indigenous nations, it’s use has become widespread. However, there are many controversies, lies and the issue of exploitation to consider when using it.
Purification through smoke using various types of sage locally available to practitioners is found across cultures and for thousands of years.
In our time, we can access plants and ways to use them from around the planet. This poses questions that ethical practitioners should consider before adapting “outsider” botanicals and methods of use for their own purposes. Perhaps there is no better example than the widespread popularity of smudging with a white ceremonial sage bundle.
“Smudging” to describe a specific method for purification with a white ceremonial sage bundle outside of the North American indigenous groups where this method comes from is a relatively new term in the Witch World and our associated allies in paganism and spirituality.
Sage has become such a hot topic over the past couple of years. However, the appropriateness of using indigenous style smoke purification by non-indigenous people has been discussed for as long as I can remember.
I was introduced to the practice as a teenager. I had a close friend who was Mi’kmaq whose family used it. I also babysat for her extended family when she couldn’t. Sage smudging was a normal part of their lives, and I came to view it as such.
I have had many opportunities in the 30 years since to participate in First Nations (Canadian term; US term is American Indian) activities, ceremonies, rituals and professional meetings. Smudging with sage is often done in these situations. Even in professional meetings, often female members of the representative Nation start things off by offering to smudge participants with sage. Please note that the Nations doing the sage smudging often have adapted the practice from the ones where it originated.
Is the use of white ceremonial sage by outsiders a form of exploitation?
Personally, in my three decades of experience, I have never had a First Nations person tell me it is. I’ve often had (usually female) members give me home grown sage bundles for my private use. In contrast to this, I have heard many non-indigenous people say that it is cultural appropriation. In my experience, these self-appointed cultural gatekeepers often have idealized, but unrealistic views of indigenous people. They also often have had limited interaction with them. Speaking for a marginalized group that you are not part of is a slippery slope towards racism.
There is also this persistent lie that all indigenous people smudge with sage. Believing this to be true is definitely exploitative and racist because it demonstrates a lack of basic understanding for First Nations diversity. It reeks of white privilege: mysterious “savages” are all the same.
Another lie that has made the rounds is that certain types of sage, particularly white ceremonial sage (salvia apiana), is endangered. My friends, it is NOT. The white sage you buy is typically a crop and not wild harvested (unless it says so).
In a perfect world, the indigenous tribes of the US southwest where I believe the practice originates would be making loads of money from the popularity. While some First Nations peoples are definitely selling white ceremonial sage in bundles as smudge, there is no widespread benefit to the originating tribes OR to indigenous peoples across North America. Why? First, because exploitation has always been the name of the game by a certain class of white people (mostly men) when it comes to indigenous peoples. Second, because it would be impossible to compensate the right group or individuals. Where would we send our money?
Honestly, adaptation of another culture or groups’ practice is not always exploitation. It’s healthy growth. If we didn’t learn from others, then no learning would occur.
Witchcraft has always been about adaptation and I hope it always will be, although the current climate often stymies collaborative sharing and natural progress through cultural and group interactions.
White ceremonial sage in a bundle is a gateway botancial. It’s incredibly easy to use and understand. Plus, it’s highly effective. I have recommended it to beginning witches countless times over the years. I often tell people to cut off the strings and burn smaller pieces. There is absolutely no need to burn the entire bundle as it comes. Clip off the burnt ends so you can use it entirely. Don’t waste it by burning just the tip of an entire bundle.
Learn how to make your own bundles from plants readily available to you. Progress in your use of smoke and the element of air by creating your own incenses that are appropriate to the task at hand.
I recently asked about fifty witches what objects they used in spells, less than half reported using botanicals. If you want to progress in witchery, learning how to use plants beyond burning a purchased bundle of white ceremonial sage is required. I always have it on hand, but only use it when it is appropriate. Sage comes in many varieties beyond white ceremonial bundles, so I keep a few different types around. It is definitely great for purification. Because it is so easy to use, I’ll burn some when I need to cleanse something in a jiffy.
Sage is part of Hekate’s Ancient Garden, although the variety would have been very different than white ceremonial. I’ve kept Greek sage as a garden and house plant over the years.
Responsible use of white ceremonial sage bundles is not a bad practice. Using it once and throwing it out, unless it becomes contaminated with miasma, is stupid. And if the bundle is deconstructed initially then whatever piece that gets contaminated can be disposed of by securing it in a brown paper bag, topping with vegetation (like spoiled veggies or funky leftovers) and placing the entire thing in the compost. Plant matter, including sage and other botanicals, doesn’t belong in the garbage bin (unless that is your only option).
Over-reliance on burning white ceremonial sage bundles can be a sign of lazy witchcraft if the practitioner can’t be bothered to learn more about it and herbalism in general.
I think we all need a good understanding of sage as witches, it is one of the primary herbs of our craft. In both the courses I teach and both my books, there are sections on the use of sage. I leave the specific variety up to the practitioner to decide.
Part of the bigger problem is that many people want a quick fix with little required effort. A white ceremonial sage bundle, easy purchased and used, definitely fits that description.
If you want to focus on exploitation in modern witchcraft and spirituality, I recommend advocating for the ethical mining of crystals and stones. Most of the mining of them is conducted by indigent workers, especially children. The mines often destroy the local ecosystem. But nobody likes to think about that. Instead, people like to cling to an untrue racist image of the “noble savage” burning sage to ward off all types of evil. That is a romantic vision compared to the brutal reality of crystal mining.
The take away message is this: think about what you use in witchery.
Be respectful of the plants and other objects used in your magick. Honor those who harvest them if you haven’t done so yourself. Take the time to understand herbalism and the occult use of plants. More importantly, connect with the spirits of the botanicals you use. Listen to the plants. They have much to teach us. I believe that white ceremonial sage was given the profound assignment of bringing magick to the masses. I honor it for doing so, but I do not advocate for the overuse of it.
Research it’s meaning, how it is sourced and who is making the profit. When you can, use things you find or make yourself. Don’t be a lazy witch who relies on magick provided by the UPS delivery guy.
And remember this: You are the only necessary ingredient for any and all forms of magick.