The Use of White Ceremonial Sage: Controversies, Lies and Exploitation

The Use of White Ceremonial Sage: Controversies, Lies and Exploitation September 8, 2018
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).
 
What about exploitation?
 
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.
About
Cyndi Brannen is a witch and spiritual teacher, a trained energetic healer, psychic and herbalist. Merging together her training in shamanism, Tarot, past life work, meditation and psychology, she teaches and writes about better living through witchcraft. She founded Open Circle Witchcraft about a decade ago now offering online courses, including Hekate's Modern Witchcraft. Keeping Her Keys: An Introduction to Hekate’s Modern Witchcraft explores Hekate from her ancient origins to modern understanding through magic and personal development is available now for pre-order from Moon Books. True Magic: Unleashing Your Inner Witch uses the magic of the elements and the three realms to activate your true witch powers and will be available later in 2019 from Moon as well. Connect with her on Facebook or at keepingherkeys.com to learn more about her teaching and writing. Cyndi lives in rural coastal Nova Scotia with her two sons where she can often be found wandering the cliffs or wild foraging plants. She lives what she teaches: fierce love, emotional courage and true magic. You can read more about the author here.
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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Excellent post.

    I have wondered as one who has no Native American ties, but who lives in a location of PA that has have had heavy Native American influence (down to towns and rivers for example being named after them), how I would be perceived for using herbs and oils that were often used by the Natives, for clearing, because that is what seems to work best for this area.

    I happened to find out about this through much trial and error.

    I am not about to stop using something that works, just because some folks are going to scream “cultural appropriation” at me.

    For all I know, using what I use, seems to be compatible (for obvious reasons) to the energies of the Natives here in the Susquehanna region.

  • Eric

    Thank you for opening up this conversation, and I hope my input, though dissenting, is received as conversation and not an attack!

    To start, I am not Native. I am an occupier on O’otham territory. But, unlike you, I know many Natives who passionately and frequently object to the commodification of white sage.

    You mention in the article that you’ve been aware of the argument over white sage for a long time- that recently, it’s been non-Natives you’ve heard the conversation from- but for some amount of time before that, it seems, you were at least aware of Natives who dissented on the use of white sage by colonizers. Yet, you mention that you don’t personally know any Natives who dissent, and seem to shift the tone at that point towards it being an acceptable practice.

    Tucked away in all of this is the acknowledgement that many Natives, themselves, do object to the practice. As somebody who’s 30 and practices with a lot of radicals, activists, and energized persons, people in my life and also on #NativeTwitter (I do love Twitter) inform my practices. And if someone says “ouch,” I say “oops.” Try it- jump on Twitter and write “Hey #NativeTwitter, is it OK for me to use white sage as a Non-Native?” See what you hear direct from prominent Native voices.

    It’s just easy for me to NOT use white sage. To, instead, use other sage, mugwort, rosemary- any of that stuff. I’m not comfortable knowing that, while I could justify using it to myself, while Patheos can justify it, when HoodWitch can justify it…many Natives don’t want me to. Using white sage doesn’t “harm none.” It harms some. So I don’t. And, in my practice, I am not comfortable spiritually with those who find that too much to ask.

    Because let’s face it, Natives were genocided by our ancestors. Their sacred environment is being destroyed. Our government is attacking them with firehoses, dogs, pepper spray when they try to defend it, right up to this day. Natives deserve better than this. It costs nothing to respectfully leave white sage alone. It’s, extremely literally, the very least we can do.

  • Raven Belote

    I’m thinking this may be a regional attitude(?).
    When I lived in Virginia, and attended Pow Wows, natives there sold different types of sage…white being one of them.
    Obviously they weren’t concerned with white folks buying and burning it.
    So, this may not be true amongst all tribes.

  • Raven Belote

    Nice post. Enjoyed it.

  • Eric

    Absolutely true- but many indigenous people do not like it, so what’s the harm in saying “oops, sorry” and burning instead, say, pineapple sage? It smells delicious on your fingers and you’ll go to sleep knowing that nobody’s upset over it.

    It’s just easier to Not than to try to whip out the microscope and find a justification for it, somewhere.

  • nikkidarlin

    I was wondering about the claims that white sage is endangered. Simply walking through the streets of Portland and peeping the abundant herb boxes throughout, I have seen lots of white sage growing quite well. I could probably grow it myself. It’s not like the white oak, for instance, which are on the brink of extinction. So I am glad you cleared that up for me!

  • Raven Belote

    I understand what you’re saying.
    I was commenting on it probably being a regional, or tribal thing.

    Personally, I feel we all share the tribe of humanity. Earth gives us all these herbs for our use.
    No one owns them.
    They’re a gift to us from her.
    I believe many natives have this teaching, that we’re all one family…different colors…one family.

  • We actually share the same opinion. If you read the entire article, you’ll discover that I advocate for the responsible use of sage and suggest that there are many other botanicals to use.

    I am, of course, talking about my experience. Just like you wrote about yours.

    There is no denying the genocide of our First Nations. I also reference exploitation in my article.

  • I think you are a responsible and ethical practitioner. In my experience, adapting practices from other groups with this approach is not exploitative.

  • Thanks. If it did not work or caused issues, I would certainly find something that would be more “appropriate” in all ways. It just seems that with the “heavy Native American influence” here (the energies being pretty strong) that the method I use seems to be the most appropriate.

    Perhaps this is a bit off topic, but earlier in the year there was a Native American pow-wow just outside of this town (in town, but right outside in a park area). This was apparently the first time it was held there which kind of surprised me, so if what I do helps all around, then good.

  • Wolf

    I’ve always been hesitant of using white sage as smudge, but for other reasons. It sets off asthma attacks in some, including me. And the first time witnessed a burning sage bundle dropped into an abalone shell, my gut reaction told me this was wrong on an elemental level, dropping Fire into Water. I won’t tell anyone else not to do it, but I won’t do it.

    I prefer to grow my own magical and culinary herbs, and if smudge seems appropriate (rarely), I bundle and dry my own stems and leaves, choosing the appropriate herb for the work to be done.

  • persephone

    The only time I used white sage was because it was sold to me by an indigenous person. It didn’t work with me. It felt off. I tend to stick to blue sage.

    But, although I am basically Northern European, my first ancestor came here on the Mayflower, and all but two of them came over during the 17th century. I have to think that, though I’m not indigenous, my ancestors blood has been here for centuries, nearly four, and that some of this earth has worked its way into us.

  • Badgergrl

    I was just going to recommend this article to you, Eric, but you’re already here. I think you’re right that if it hurts even a few and it’s perfectly easy to switch to another herb then that’s what we should do.

  • Rasha Ayla Wyndsong

    “Sage is part of Hekate’s Ancient Garden”

    Do you have a list of plants and herbs that would be found or used from Hekate’s Ancient Garden?

  • Sol Seeker

    There is literally NO practice you can engage in that doesn’t hurt “even a few” though…

  • Sol Seeker

    Yes!! I 100% agree with this post. I am not Native myself, but I live in Utah where there is a very large Native population and I have many friends from several different tribes. I have been gifted both white sage and cedar bundles from multiple of my Native friends and in each case, the gifter was happy and excited to share part of their culture with me. I sometimes buy it at the Native American Trading Post (and yes, that is the actual name of the establishment) which is owned and operated by a local tribe. The first few times I went in to buy sage, they even offered a demonstration and instructions on how to use it properly. White sage and several other varieties also grow wild here – in abundance. On some stretches of highway, you could just pull over onto the side of road and harvest as much as you can carry – sage fields for days!! I personally don’t find it inappropriate to use something that grows almost literally in my backyard. This land may not always have been mine, but it is now and will be for the foreseeable future and I strive to work in harmony with all the plant and animal life around me, as well as with the other people I share corner of the globe with (even the Mormons, haha). While I absolutely do not condone exploitation, I do believe there is a case to be made for the ethical use of these plants. I think the appropriation argument is bit of a slippery slope. As a white girl, most people would think it perfectly acceptable for me work with runes and to call on Odin or Freya, for example, despite the fact that I have absolutely no Scandinavian blood in my ancestry. Yet, it is frowned upon for me to use a plant that I live alongside and by now have cultivated a deep relationship with. To me, that just doesn’t make any sense. There are always going to be people who protest growth and change – always, and no matter what. But society cannot remain static. Part of the issue with the US is that it is such a new country (relatively speaking) that that horrors and atrocities that we have committed still weigh heavy in collective memory (and please don’t take this to mean that I think this makes anything acceptable or okay – I don’t). But we must remember that similar horrors and atrocities were committed by damn near every country that currently exists (and many that no longer exist too). Genocide and slavery are (unfortunately) not unique to the United States but in many countries those things occurred so far back in their history that many have had the benefit of time to help heal those wounds and move on to form their current societies. As Americans, we are still undergoing this painful process and looks as though we will be well into the future. It might sound hokey or “fluffy” but I do believe that these arguments often serve to reinforce an “us vs. them” mentality which divide us even further.