Spiritual Health

When Non-Native People Burn Sage, It’s Cultural Appropriation—And We Don’t Support It

Abbey Stone

Abbey StoneSeptember 18, 2020

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Bundles of sage and Palo Santo packaged as “smudging kits” are available for sale at yoga studio gift shops, popular retailers like Madewell and Urban Outfitters, and even behemoths like Walmart. These products’ very existence seem to indicate that, for less than $10, you can get everything you need to practice an ancient ritual that will clear your home of negative energy.

Except, that’s not the case. If you’re not a member of an Indigenous community, purchasing white sage, Palo Santo, or other sacred herbs and quickly Googling “how to smudge” will not make you qualified to do so. This is cultural appropriation, and it’s harmful to Native communities.

Up until two weeks ago, if you were one of the thousands of people each month to search online for a smudging tutorial, you might have landed on a Well+Good article titled “How To Burn Sage in Your Home To Get Rid of Bad Vibes.” However, after hearing from Native people about the harm inflicted by the article, we removed it from our website—this story you’re reading now was written to take its place.

Thank you to those who generously reached out to call us in, and we are deeply sorry for perpetuating this offensive line of thinking. We know that removing this particular article is just one step in the work that needs to be done to eradicate culturally appropriative content from our library, and we are committed to continuing our education on this topic and taking the necessary steps to ensure Well+Good is a safe space for all people, including members of Indigenous communities.

What is cultural appropriation, and why is it harmful?

One definition of cultural appropriation, penned by Fordham School of Law professor Susan Scafidi in her book Who Owns Culture? and used by the National Conference for Community and Justice in its materials, states:

“Taking intellectual property, traditional knowledge, cultural expressions, or artifacts from someone else’s culture without permission. This can include unauthorized use of another culture’s dance, dress, music, language, folklore, cuisine, traditional medicine, religious symbols, etc. It’s most likely to be harmful when the source community is a minority group that has been oppressed or exploited in other ways or when the object of appropriation is particularly sensitive, e.g. sacred objects.”

Native people have been violently oppressed in North America since the first European colonizers set foot on the continent in the 16th century, and in 1892, the “Rules for Indian Courts,” written by the Commissioner of Indian Affairs, made it illegal (and punishable by prison sentence) for Native people in the United States to practice their religious ceremonies. It wasn’t until 1978—less than 50 years ago—that the American Indian Religious Freedom Act (AIRFA) was passed, guaranteeing Native Americans the freedom and protection to “believe, express, and exercise [their] traditional religions.”

It’s largely because of this history—and the restrictions still placed on Native traditions today—that the mainstream co-opting of Indigenous spiritual practices is so harmful to many. “It hurts to see our traditions, which our ancestors died and fought for, now become a trend that others are demanding to be a part of,” Well for Culture co-founder Chelsey Luger previously wrote in an article for Well+Good. “These practices are sacred and special to us because they helped our people thrive for thousands of years and subsequently survive several brutal generations of genocide and colonialism. These practices keep us strong as we continue to deal with historical trauma.”

“That smudge stick represents the deep pain, sacrifice, resistance, and refusal of Native peoples. It represents a continuing legacy of marginalizing and punishing Native spirituality.” —Adrienne J. Keene, EdD

In a post on her blog Native Appropriations, Adrienne J. Keene, EdD, a citizen of the Cherokee Nation and Assistant Professor of American Studies and Ethnic Studies at Brown University, also speaks to this point. “That smudge stick is not benign. It’s not about ‘ownership.’ That smudge stick represents the deep pain, sacrifice, resistance, and refusal of Native peoples. It represents a continuing legacy of marginalizing and punishing Native spirituality. So when our religious practices are mocked through these products, or folks are commodifying and making money off our ceremonies, it’s not about who has the ‘right’ to buy or sell. It’s about power.”

Dr. Keene continues, “The sale of Native spirituality is easily a million dollar industry–not even including all the culture vultures and white shamans who sell fake ceremony. Who is benefitting from the sale of these products? Not Native peoples.”

I urge you to read Dr. Keene’s entire post.

Does that mean burning sage is completely off-limits for non-Indigenous people?

Many cultures around the globe have traditionally burned herbs, incense, or other materials as a spiritual ritual. So if you’re looking for a cleansing ceremony, you might want to start by learning more about your own heritage. But “the idea of ‘smudging’ is distinctly indigenous to the Americas,” Dr. Keene writes. Within North and South America, it’s important to note, different communities use different medicines and rituals for cleansing.

As with the ceremonies themselves, when it comes to non-Native people following Indigenous practices, there is no single point of view; there are certainly some who believe it is possible for non-Indigenous people to respectfully burn sage and other sacred materials. But the mass commodification of this spiritual practice largely ignores the ritual’s traumatic history and puts money in the pockets of those who have oppressed Native communities for centuries.

As Dr. Keene summarizes: “What I care about is the removal of context from conversations on cultural appropriation, the erasing of the painful and violent history around suppression of Native spirituality, the ongoing struggles Native students and peoples have in practicing their beliefs, and the non-Native companies and non-Native individuals that are making money off of these histories and traditions without understanding the harm they’re enacting.”

Where do we go from here?

Of course, cultural appropriation doesn’t just happen to Indigenous practices. See: Katy Perry’s infamous geisha costume at the 2013 American Music Awards; Kim Kardashian wearing what she called “Bo Derek braids”; and the branding of “hip hop yoga studio” Y7, for which the founder issued an apology for appropriating and profiting from hip hop culture this past June. And those are just three high-profile examples of something that happens every day. (For more information about the cultural appropriation of Black hairstyles in particular, I highly recommend you watch this video from author Emma Dabiri, and then purchase her book Twisted: The Tangled History of Black Hair Culture.) 

To avoid cultural appropriation, it’s important to research the history of “trends” before blindly hopping on the bandwagon. To this end, in addition to the articles and books mentioned above, Rachel Ricketts’s Spiritual Activism courses provide a great primer on cultural appropriation—and more books and courses are just a Google away. (Do the research yourself; don’t burden others—particularly Black, Indigenous, and people of color, if you’re white—with your self-education.)

“When Native people express to you that they are hurt by the exploitation of their spiritual practices, please believe them.” —Chelsey Luger

And, more importantly, it’s vital to listen when someone from a marginalized group tells you that your actions are harmful. To quote Luger again, writing for Well+Good, “When Native people express to you that they are hurt by the exploitation of their spiritual practices, please believe them. Our communities have seen so much pain. We have been mocked, brutalized, infantilized, dehumanized, and ignored. The last thing we need is to be harassed for knowledge when it comes to the most sacred things that we hold dear.”

At Well+Good, we are committed to listening to feedback and criticism (from within our community and without), admitting when we make mistakes, and doing our homework regarding the origins of wellness practices; we have a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion curriculum in place for our editorial team to learn directly from anti-racist educators. We also know that this article on “how to burn sage” is not the only harmful story in our catalogue. We currently have a library of 19,000 articles, and will be systematically combing through our older content to surface and revise or delete harmful content. More information on this to come very soon.

The work to dismantle white supremacy is constant and ongoing, and so will be Well+Good’s on this front.

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