Smudging involves the burning of certain herbs to purify negativity and bring divine goodness into its place. 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).
I learned smudging from elders teaching Lakota and Chippewa ways, and it has become a daily 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.
Smudging has become an extremely common ritual for many witches, New Agers, and other self-identified spiritualists, but many of us are missing a lot of critical info when it comes to this sacred ritual. In the last ten years, I've seen a lot of us failing at some major elements of this spiritual practice, so here's hoping we can get our shit together with smudging (and then other things).
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 bird that gave up a feather and mollusk that gave up its shell. 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.
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.
Remember that they have agreed to work with you, not do your work for you.
Respect and gratitude go hand-in-hand, but respect honors these tools as living elements to your spiritual evolution. 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.)
I also believe in getting to know your herbs’ names and stories (sage is not the same as sagebrush and they have different uses), understanding their environmental troubles (stop buying new abalone when you can find it in thrift stores, antique shops, and probably your great aunt’s attic), supporting ethical suppliers (I use Mountain Rose unless I can find a local joint), or, better yet, by growing your own herbs in a special garden.
3. Listen to your tools.
We’ll receive messages from our tools if we develop and trust our intuition – they’re on our team, so they’ll talk to us. For example, I felt uncomfortable using my personal kit to smudge a relative’s house, but I ignored that instinct. It took me a good week before I wanted to use my set again because it had her etheric slime all over it, so now I know to use a separate set for any work that isn’t mine.
They’ll tell us how they want to be cared for, but 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 – I’m using the teachings of First Nations.
In the US, the First Nations (of which there are over 500) shared these practices and teachings with us. It’s an incredible honor and privilege to receive these teachings, and pretty damn spectacular considering the atrocities that these tribes experienced through colonization.
They’re still here, they still have deep cultural heritages, and they still face many residual traumas from US colonization. Learn about these cultures, learn and speak out about the issues they face, and learn as much as you can about respecting the tools and practices they gave to us.
Yes, they gave them to us, and they didn’t have to.
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. (I love you, Betty.)
Is this to say that white girls can’t smudge and seek spirit animals? Of course not. It’s about recognizing the colonial and very dark history of your spiritual practices and honoring them – not with guilt and aversion, but with humility and respect. This shit isn’t casual and it’s not here to make you cool. People literally died for these beliefs.
Digging deep into our own privilege always feels 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 you can do to decolonize your smudging practice:
1. Get honest.
Learn true integrity. Don’t be fooled by these 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.
Take that damn headdress off and do not dress up like “Pocahottie” for a costume party. The people doing this are not honoring anyone, they're contributing to racial stereotypes that legitimately hurt people.
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 mostly go unheard. Read blogs, observe discussions, and find out what the movement wants you to know. 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.)
Don't wait to read it from a white person to believe it.
3. Celebrate indigenous cultures.
We celebrate their cultures by reading works by their authors (Crazy Brave by Joy Harjo was my favorite book of the year), 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 history books), and being respectful in their institutions and events by educating yourself on indigenous issues and stereotypes.
We do not, I repeat, do not, celebrate indigenous culture by contributing to stereotypes by dressing up like Indians, wearing clothing by brands that feature appropriated indigenous styles, making jokes about alcoholism/the Trail of Tears/reservation life, or having caricatures of native people as mascots. End of discussion. 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.
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 take what we like because it’s pretty and fun and ignore the dark and ugly parts. That’s appropriation. That’s colonization. We weren’t given these amazing teachings to feel guilty about them, they were a gift to help us grow spiritually – and the best way to do that is to honor both sides of their historical evolution.
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) – but we can do this.
We have to do this. And it’s going to be awesome.
This article was originally published in shorter form @ WITCH online magazine.
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.
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.
And finally, an article called How to Decolonize Your Yoga Practice, which is a brilliant piece about examining privilege and appropriation in other spiritual practices. (Yoga is a spiritual practice originally, not just a physical activity as it has become in the West.) I took a lot of inspiration from this piece, PLEASE read it and pass it around.
Know someone that would enjoy this article? Share it with them!