5 Ways To Do Better with Smudging

Note: This article has been edited from its original version, which appeared on WITCH magazine.

I want to start by saying that I have no damn business writing this post. It's appropriative. And it's also true that white people, especially New Age white women, are a lot more likely to read the work of other white women, and I have a bone to pick with the casual use of the smudging ritual. I'm willing to hear challenges and apologize for the endless taking from First Nations that my people have been doing for three hundred years. This post is an attempt to do what's right, to the best of my knowledge and the knowledge given to me.

I learned smudging from elders teaching Lakota and Chippewa ways (who themselves were actually Choctaw, Chickasaw, and Cherokee), and in one form or another, smoke cleansing has become a regular practice for me. As there are more than 500 First Nations tribes, there will of course be variations in the traditions and tools used in smudging, but the most commonly seen tools in New Age shops include abalone shells, white sage, and turkey or peacock feathers. This post isn't meant to teach you how to smudge because I'm already being appropriative enough by discussing smudging, but I hope this post can help some of us to stop doing it without respect for 1) the tools we're using and 2) the struggles of indigenous First Nations who are still alive today, fighting for their lives and cultures.

Smudging involves the burning of certain herbs to purify "negativity" (whatever that means) and may involve burning another herb to fill in that void with a higher or divine "positivity." (These are not my words or beliefs, just the ones most will likely understand.) Four tools are typically used that, combined, represent the universe as a whole: sacred herbs (Earth), a feather for stoking (Air), a shell for holding the herbs (Water), and a lighter or matches (Fire). 

It's become such a casual thing to wave around a smudge stick, and smudging is actually a sacred ritual act. We shouldn't be goofing off, getting high, or doing any other superficial activity while utilizing a sacred ritual that was given (or taken) from the survivors of a nation-wide genocide. (And if that feels heavy, good. Keep reading.)

 From the Mountain Rose Herbs website

From the Mountain Rose Herbs website

1. Express gratitude to your tools.

Everything we use for smudging sacrificed so that it could become a tool for our spiritual growth. Our herbs were once living plants with life stories, as were the birds that gave up feathers and mollusks that gave up their shells. A plastic lighter will end up in a landfill for the rest of eternity (you’re welcome, Mother Earth), and the wood from our matches came from harvested trees. They deserve our thanks. While not every witch is an animist, recognizing and honoring the sacrifices that living things made for us is critical reciprocity in spiritual practice.

It not only honors your tools when you express gratitude, it honors the ancestors who provided the teachings so that you could have those tools in the first place. You can do this through offerings of words, poetry, song, art, drumming, cornmeal, rose petals, rosewater, moon-charged water, some of your hair, or anything else that’s sacred or meaningful to you.

2. Respect your tools.

The tools have agreed to work with you, not for you.

Respect and gratitude go hand-in-hand, but respect honors these tools as living elements in your spiritual practice. Keep your tools wrapped in special cloth or in a special box or a lined drawer when not in use. Keep them somewhere they won’t collect dust or be handled casually by guests. (And don't touch other people's objects without permission.) These aren't tchotchkes, they're actual beings that sacrificed. Show them that you revere and honor them.

Get to know them. Learn about the herbs’ names and stories (sage is not the same as sagebrush and they have different uses), understanding their environmental troubles (abalone is endangered, please stop buying it new and look for it in thrift shops or your grandmother's attic), supporting ethical suppliers (I use Mountain Rose unless I can find a local supply/indigenous seller, or can grow my own), or, better yet, if you are able, spend time and energy supporting the growth of your own smudging herbs in your garden and build direct relations with them.

 

3. Listen to your tools.

We’ll receive messages from our tools if we develop and trust our intuition. Again, these are beings that are on a journey with us; they'll tell us how they want to be cared for and for which purposes they are uncomfortable or comfortable being used. As an example, I ignored a gut feeling that told me not to smudge a relative's house, and I ignored it, trying to help dispel a lifetime of darkness and abuse. It took me a good week before I wanted to even touch my tools again, and I promised them I'd never do it again.

We have to get comfortable learning how to hear them – and then follow through.

4. Respect the cultures that gave us smudging in the United States.

I’m sure my great grandmother thirty times removed was burning bog peat or something to purify, but that’s not what I’m using when I smudge nowadays: I’m using the teachings and tools of First Nations.

Do you know the general story of the First Nations in the United States? Are you familiar with how our government committed literal genocide against them? They were given blankets carrying smallpox, their children were snatched from their parents and put into horrifically torturous boarding schools, US soldiers opened fire on women and children, and actual, literal laws prevented them from openly practicing their spiritual ways and using their sacred sites until - and I am not shitting you - the American Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1978. Nineteen seventy-eight.

And it didn't end there, my friends. Unless you avoid the news, perhaps you'll remember how police officers repeatedly used violent force against unarmed protestors at Standing Rock and never had to answer for it. Are you aware that huge portions of First Nations folks still live on reservations, rife with poverty and drugs because we systemically took away their cultures, killed their people, and made them dependent on a government who still abuses them?

Do you pick up what I'm putting down? Indigenous people don't owe us shit. And here, as usual, we as whites have made an incredible market out of smudging, paying no mind whatsoever to the current sociopolitical crises that the keepers of this ritual still face. They’re still here, they still have deep cultural heritages, and they still face severe residual and intergenerational trauma from colonization. Learn about these cultures, be an activist about the issues they face, and learn as much as you can about respecting the tools and practices we have taken as our own and profited from. 

 image of an unarmed activist at Standing Rock by  Ryan Vizzions

image of an unarmed activist at Standing Rock by Ryan Vizzions

5. Decolonize your practice.

Imagine what it must be like to have had your great-grandparents beaten, tortured, and emotionally assaulted for practicing their traditions after being taken from their families (or murdered without recourse), several generations of recuperating from the decimation of your people, and then to see ten-thousand New Age white girls talking about “saging” and how Betty White is their spirit animal. 

Is this to say that white girls can’t smudge and have spirit animals? I mean, maybe. But more importantly for this article, it's about recognizing the very dark history of your spiritual practices and honoring them – not with guilt and aversion, but with humility, respect, and then action. This shit isn’t casual and it’s not here to make you cool. People literally died for these beliefs, and we have the privilege and power to fight alongside them.

Digging deep into our own privilege may feel like shit, but avoiding it because it’s uncomfortable is a sure way to stay on the wrong side of history. Here’s a quick (but certainly not complete) list of things we can do to decolonize our smudging practice - if that's even possible:

            1. Learn integrity.

And I mean actual integrity: getting honest with yourself and others, following through on your word, and being guided by morality. Don’t be fooled by New Age movements into thinking that intention is always everything. Intention is everything in your private life; it doesn’t mean shit when you’re wearing a headdress on Instagram or calling Betty White your "spirit animal." If facing privilege and being an activist for indigenous rights feels icky because "negativity," we don't deserve to use these tools in the first place. 

Humility is a piece of this. Treat these practices, cultures, and beliefs with reverence and respect. 

           2. Get to know what the originators of your spiritual practices have to say. Believe them.

As a rule of privilege and colonization, the voices of First Nations go unheard - but they're out there. Read blogs, observe discussions, and find out what the movement wants you to know - and what the movement wants from you. We have to put our personal feelings aside because this isn’t about you or me; it’s about moving forward as a collectively respectful and inclusive spiritual species. At the end of this article, I'll provide some links to get you started.

           3. Celebrate indigenous cultures.

We celebrate their cultures by reading works by their authors (Crazy Brave by Joy Harjo was my favorite book of this year if you need a rec), humbly checking out local Pow Wows, exploring indigenous art and museums (NMAI is a must if you're near DC, Warm Springs and Makah if you're in the Northwest), and sharing all of these things with anyone who will listen.

Other ways we can celebrate the original keepers of this land include recognizing that they are not lost to history (they're still here, trying to keep their cultures alive while existing in a modern Western culture that relegates them to "savages" in history books), and being respectful in their institutions and at their events by educating ourselves on indigenous issues and stereotypes.

And, quite honestly, by keeping quiet and being as non-intrusive as we possibly can.

We do not, I repeat, do not, celebrate indigenous culture by contributing to stereotypes by dressing up like "Poca-hottie," wearing clothing by brands that use appropriated indigenous styles, making jokes about alcoholism/the Trail of Tears/reservation life, or having caricatures of native people as mascots. We also don't respect them by rushing to tell them our "spirit" names or about our Cherokee princess great grandmother, or asking what their names, practices, or sacred symbols mean. Easy peasy.

         4. Take your personal feelings out of it.

I’m not here telling you that you’re a jerk for smudging; I’m telling you that we can’t just take what we like because it’s pretty and fun and ignore the dark and ugly parts. That’s appropriation. That’s us continuing the legacy of colonization. We weren’t given these amazing teachings to feel guilty about them, they were a gift from many elders across many tribes (who, incidentally, often face a lot of perfectly reasonable backlash for doing so) to help us grow spiritually - and the best way to honor the sacrifices of those elders is to take up the fight alongside their grandchildren, right here, right now.

Becoming a socially conscious activist is not easy, and it’s even harder when your spiritual path is all wrapped up in it (trust me, I know – this article is the culmination of many years of wrestling with everything I’ve just talked about, I promise) – but we can do this. We have to do this.

LINKS FOR FURTHER READING:

The Native Appropriations blog is a wealth of down-to-earth, not-sugar-coated calling-out of indigenous racism in "innocent" popular culture and it's a must-read.

Here's a list of BlogHer's recommend blogs by native writers.

Meet Native America is an awesome column produced by the National Museum of the American Indian.

Buy Native-made products instead of appropriated knock offs in chain stores

Chantel Rondeau and Bad NDNs

American Indians in Children's Literature if you're ready to learn how cultural stereotypes and discrimination show up in the most innocent of books.

A list of 12 awesome Native podcasts 

How to Decolonize Your Yoga Practice, a piece about examining privilege and appropriation in other spiritual practices