The ecological and ethical problems of ‘smudging.’
Chances are you know the scent of white sage as well as you know patchouli. The sweet aroma of its dusty, pale green leaves permeates New Age spirituality shops across the Western U.S. The burning of California white sage, especially, has become an accepted form of cultural appropriation. Today, shops that carry sage, whether in mountain tourist towns or on Etsy, rarely consider its Indigenous origins or the current-day implications of its use.
California white sage, or Salvia apiana, is a perennial desert shrub that grows several feet high. During April, the plant’s flowers, which range in color from white to pale lavender, attract bees, giving it the nickname “bee sage.” Indigenous cultures have collected, dried and burned the plant for centuries, using its smoke as medicine and in ceremonies. The scent is unique, an earthy, sweet aroma that curls in rising circles during smudging, clinging to clothes and hair for hours after burning.
It’s a beautiful plant with many uses. And that’s part of the problem: It’s become so popular that it has been commodified to the point of erasure, robbed of its Indigenous roots and cultural importance.
Historically, white sage has had many uses. The Kumeyaay and Cahuilla used it to treat fever, and its leaves were eaten or smoked in sweathouse ceremonies. The smoke was used for fumigation, and the plant crushed to use as a deodorant and to mask the tell-tale odor of hunters. The Chumash also ate the plant, preparing it in various ways.