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Is ‘Saging’ Cultural Appropriation If You’re Not Native American?

by Karma Sunshine

Sage is one of the most interesting, storied plants in human history. And modern-day cultural appropriation of Native American practices is making the sage and smudging industries big business.

It’s more than just an incense alternative; sage is renowned and respeced all around the world for its clearing and purifying properties.

A Lakota Tribe member with feathers.

Sage In History

Ancient Romans valued sage for its healing benefits. The Chinese would trade four pounds of black tea for one pound of French sage. Charlemagne deemed it so important it was planted on German Imperial farms. And in the Americas, it was valued as a great healer and protector.

It’s also widely revered for its unmistakable flavor. Here in the U.S., it’s practically synonymous with Thanksgiving. And that’s quite the irony as the holiday celebrates the land stolen from Native Americans.

But we don’t just eat sage on Thanksgiving. Many of us have taken to saging our homes and bodies to root out unwanted energy or evil spirits.

Native Americans say this commodification, especially of sacred white sage, is offensive.

“Smudging sage has nothing to do with the magical room-cleansing nonsense sold by uninspired capitalists,” writer and activist Taté Walker, told Fashionista. Walker is a Mniconjou Lakota and a citizen of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe.

“Speaking for myself and what I’ve been taught about my Lakota culture, sage is a critical component within Lakota medicinal and ceremonial knowledge.” Walker says. She adds that not all Native tribes use sage. “Smudging is very specific to prayer, so you can burn sage without smudging and you can smudge without needing to light sage on fire.”

Sage’s complicated backstory extends beyond just cultural appropriation. According to Bianca Millar of the Wendake reserve in Québec (she’s half Huron-Wendat and half Scottish), use of sage and other cultural activities were banned in Canada in 1876. That ban extended more than fifty years in Canada; more than 100 in the U.S. 1978’s American Indian Religious Freedom Act restored the ability for Natve people to use sage medicinally.

Saging is used to clear out negative energy.

Should You Sage If You’re Not Native American?

The short answer: probably not.

If you’re growing sage in your own yard, or you’re friendly with someone who is, then making your own bundles isn’t going to do much harm. But don’t purchase it, especially if you don’t have firsthand knowledge of where it’s coming from. In other words: burning a sage bundle you bought from Amazon won’t remove the “energy” of the former tenants in your three-story walkup. And it won’t do much in the way of fixing your life.

There are other best practices, too. “Like, we don’t believe you should light your smudge or your sage with a lighter. We believe that the butane in lighters kind of kills that medicine, so you should use matches.” Millar says blowing on the sage bundle is ill-advised as well. She says the traditional practice involves using a feather to fan the flames. And don’t do it drunk or high, either. It should always be done when sober.

Is the sage trade perpetuating cultural appropriation of Native Americans?
A sage bundle burns

The Sage Trade

Picking white sage in the U.S. is illegal in wildlife preserves and public land. But the practice persists. There’s even a “white sage mafia.” In 2018, four people were arrested with more than 400 pounds of illegally harvested white sage taken from the North Etiwanda Preserve of Rancho Cucamonga, California.

But much of the sage sold in the U.S. is coming from illegal harvests like this, despite brands promoting their sage as being ethically sourced.

Walker says buying sage also defeats the purpose of the plant’s medicine, which many Natives say should be gifted, never purchased. “Sure, sage is available to buy, but I think you’re canceling out the healing properties and innate ‘good vibes’ you’re going for by perpetrating unsustainable capitalism and Native erasure,” Walker says.

“It’s not something you buy; it’s something that’s given to you,” Native American Julia Bogany recently told Vice. She says sage was historically picked by hand and prayed over to give thanks, and today’s commercial harvesting is “rushed and violent,” often done with pruning shears or hacksaws. “This land is our church,” Bogany said. “It’s like if I walked into church and took the holy water. I would be taking something from God’s house.”

Lavender is a fragrant alternative to sage.

Alternatives to Sage

Looking to clear your home or your life of “bad” energy? It’s true, a strong scent like sage can serve as a reminder of your intention. But there are other plants that can produce strong scents that may be helpful in the same way.

Rosemary, lavender, or mint are all great olfactory stimulants you can use to change your mood. And you can use them fresh, no burning required.

Essential oils or scented candles can do the same thing.

So can a simple meditation or even writing down your intention and tacking it to your refrigerator. Nothing changes the energy of a space like a good old-fashioned hand-written reminder that it needs changing.And like sage, the written word is as old as history, too.

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