Cultural Appropriation of the Smudge
If you’ve followed me for Spiritual wellness for any given amount of time, or if you’ve taken one of my workshops, then you’re likely already aware of my stance on the Smudge: if you don’t own it or it hasn’t been gifted to you, then it's cultural appropriation and you shouldn’t be participating. Some people have expressed confusion at my statement of fact and have asked me to unpack it. Specifically, what does it mean to own the Smudge? How do you gift a Smudge? How is it cultural appropriation if Wiccans use Sage? And what can I use instead of a Smudge when you say "Go Smudge Yourself"?
As always, I start this rant with the ever-necessary clarifying statement that even though I'm Indigenous, I only know my culture and what small, beautiful pieces I've researched or been shown by others. Yes, we have many similarities, but we have many more differences and how each Nation views ownership can fall into the latter. What I can tell you, though, is that the English language and the Western worldview are minute and limited in expression and interpretation. We need to expand our view of the world first, so let’s start with breaking down the concept of ownership.
Ownership from a Western lens denotes a capitalist value. We see tricky legal frameworks as Westerners attempt to dance around concepts of ideas not being tangible things unless they earn money for the first person to claim the idea. Value is only assigned to ideas or thoughts when they are marketable or carry capital (this includes cultural capital like arts or philosophy). Still, the overarching theme in Western culture is ownership implies a physical object while making exceptions for ideas that make money and are worth patenting or trademarking to consolidate that money.
Indigenous ownership doesn't follow the same track. Forging ahead, again assuming everyone already knows and agrees we're not a monolith, I'm generalizing what I can without going into specifics for each Nation. Indigenous ownership follows different rules than Western ownership. It's stricter and requires reflection and relationship. If I tell someone a story, they don’t walk away with permission to share or retell that story without explicit permission. Art styles, colours, regalia, etc. could all be owned by a person, community or Nation. As a collector, you might physically own a piece of Tlingit art, but that specific style belongs to that Tlingit Nation and no other Indigenous Nation would dare carve it or paint it. Likewise, we might watch a Ceremony enough to know it by heart, but if it wasn’t gifted to us or we don't have permission to perform it, that Ceremony and its performance Rights belong to the Nation who owns it.
In my time confronting the whitewashing of spirituality and wellness spaces, I’ve come to notice a glaring issue that needs to be addressed immediately. There seems to be a lot of entitlement to Indigenous Spirituality and Knowledge (the world over) exhibited by many Settlers who want to display a relationship to the Land and source energy. As if their own roots couldn’t have had a link to the Land (they do but that would be confronting that they aren’t from here), and ours seems more tangible because we have fought so hard to keep it alive. But make no mistake, this co-opting of Indigenous Spirituality and Knowledge in whitewashed "wellness spaces” are forms of further colonization. These spaces, wherein Indigenous Peoples around the world should have access to our Knowledge and Medicines for healing have become trendy spaces for elites who want to seem more worldly. Or worse, they have become the shelter for those who don’t want to participate in uncomfortable conversations about colonization and their part in it all under the guise that self-care and tending to your Spirit gives you the right to say no to things that ‘harm’ you. This ignores the fact that NOT having these conversations causes further harm to Indigenous Peoples who are also being harmed by these individuals colonizing Indigenous Knowledge and Spirituality for their culturally appropriated wellness journeys. But go off sis. Care for your soul.
Coming back to ownership of the Smudge, this is a Ceremony with specific protocols put in place thousands of years ago. This Medicine has taught Indigenous Peoples how it's meant to be used, and everything right down to the thoughts we think while we Smudge are strictly managed. Of course, I’m not blind to the fact that other cultures throughout history have had relationships with this sacred plant, and I want to make it clear that the intention of this writing isn’t to gatekeep Sage or other Plants in general. It’s to rightfully guard Indigenous Ceremony against further cultural mining that’s already taken so much and given nothing back.
There is a rich history of the Greeks and Romans using Sage medicinally and in beauty products, and Egypt also has a history of using Sage in their embalming process. Sage was first introduced to Northern Europe by trade with Mediterranean cultures in the Middle Ages (that immediately tells you it wasn’t an ancient practice for European pagans or Wiccans, but I’ll continue). Its most prominent use on that side of the pond came in the form of tea. And while I will concede that, yes, other cultures outside of Turtle Island burned Sage (Romans burned it believing it would impart wisdom, Egyptians also may have used Sage as incense), the Ceremony of the Smudge IS Indigenous to Turtle Island. Sage Smudge cleansing IS Indigenous to Turtle Island.
“But North American Wiccans Use Sage!?”
Upon Colonization, those who carried plant Knowledge and understood how our Earth Mother offers healing came across the Atlantic alongside their colonial peers. While they were prosecuted as witches for daring to connect to the Land, Water and source-energy, it's important that we don’t conflate that prosecution with the intersectional marginalization and genocide of the millions of Indigenous Peoples who dared to live in connection to the Land, while also being brown, Indigenous, and “in the way.”
I don't point this out to downplay the slaying of women accused of witchcraft. It is, and remains to this day, a tragedy that Western society should be ashamed of. I point this out only because this spiritual prosecution is often a straw man argument made to distract or shame those of us who point out that those "witches" still settled this region, appropriated Indigenous Knowledge and participated in the racial prosecution of Indigenous Peoples they stole from. Modern-day Wiccans now purchase plastic-wrapped "Sage smudge bundles" placed mere feet from sex toys at Spencer's, light the Medicine when they’ve had a bad day, wave the Sage around, perhaps mumble a prayer, and then call this smudging.
Make no mistake, this is cultural appropriation. It’s the dominant culture deciding which parts of Indigenous culture are acceptable and worthy of use because they are marketable and trendy to “new age" spiritualists who don't want to unpack their relationship to colonization. The same cultures who brought the Smudge also bring LandBack and blockades to raise awareness for our MMIWG2S. We bring Matriarchy and egalitarianism, but it’s interesting to me how only our spiritual practices that Settlers can easily bastardize in their own homes are the acceptable parts of our cultures. Most notably, the parts that don't involve an Indigenous body.
But the Smudge does involve an Indigenous body. It involves an Indigenous body because it's a Ceremony that is owned by Indigenous Peoples. There are disciplined steps that are passed from owner to owner as the Ceremony is gifted, and it can only be gifted by an Indigenous person who owns it. I'll go a step further and say that it also has to be an Indigenous individual gifting only the Smudge or cleansing Ceremony that their Nation uses. For example, I would never perform or gift a cedar brushing cleanse. That's something my Nation doesn’t do, so while I've been bushed I'll never brush anyone down without that Ceremony and all its protocols being taught and gifted to me.
If my telling you that you can’t use the Smudge makes your hackles stand up, I invite you to search yourself for some answers. Why do you feel entitled to an Indigenous Ceremony? Why is Indigenous Medicine the only Medicine you're interested in using? What did your Ancestors use? I also want to remind you that online magazines that claim Smudging is cross-cultural while citing no research sources are not adequate research to prove your Ancestors also burned Sage. Dig deeper.
Spiritual cleansing is still necessary, regardless of which Medicine you use. If you’re partial to smoke, incense is fairly ubiquitous, as is a general source of fire (candles, campfires, etc.). If smoke isn’t the reason you gravitate towards the Smudge, and you just want the cleansing powers, Water is the most universal cleansing Medicine I've heard of. Plunges, baths, dunking objects, drinking moon Water, etc. Water has an endless list of cleansing powers. She is easy on the lungs, unlike smoke, and relaxes the lizard brain.
Never underestimate the power that Water has to wash away the bad energy we store in our bodies. Even the processes that our bodies use to help us regulate include Water - tears & sweat. Obviously, it doesn’t contain that same mysticism and marketability that apparent Indigenous Spirituality has, but that’s the point I'm trying to make. Spiritual cleansing isn’t a trendy habit or even something that can or should be sold at a store. These are our cultures, and the less sellable parts of our cultures are still fighting to survive cultural genocide. So while it might make for a beautiful witchy aesthetic on your IG or your TikTok, I urge everyone to consider that sometimes beautiful things are just meant to be observed.