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Smudge and the Cultural Appropriation Issue

by Dakota Fahrenkrug, Wellness Buyer

When the dominant culture in society takes aspects from another culture that’s experiencing oppression, that’s best understood as cultural appropriation. White Sage and other smudge products (burning sweet grass, palo santo, etc. in order to “clear negative energy”) has become increasingly popular among non-native people. However, the practice of smudging and these plants are considered sacred medicine to many Native American/Indigenous Nations. Many non-native individuals are unaware of the great cultural significance of these plants and how Native American practice of any/all ceremony and culture was illegal up until 1978—only 41 years ago. In order for non-natives to avoid participating in the cultural exploitation and appropriation via the use of smudge, it is important to understand its cultural significance and its history of suppression by our white-dominated society. Ultimately, if non-native people still feel the need to use this medicine, it is important that they purchase from companies that work with Native American/Indigenous Nations like WindRose. 

History

I am a mixed Anishinaabe woman. I and many other Native Americans/Indigenous people have parents, grandparents, etc. that were forced to attend “Indian Boarding Schools” after they were forcibly moved to reservation lands. At these “schools” our relatives were violently stripped of their culture, language, and Native identity. These “schools” were enforced under President Ulysses S. Grant and were designed to “Kill the Indian, Save the Man” through assimilation. There were over 150 “schools” across the U.S. and each one was rampant with extreme neglect, and sexual, physical and emotional abuse. Thousands of children were forced to attend these “schools” and thousands died there. It remained illegal for Native Americans to practice any part of our culture only until 1978 with the passage of the American Indian Religious Freedom Act by President Jimmy Carter. 

For many of us, our relatives were forbidden to practice any part of our culture, and that includes burning white sage. Traditions were lost and therefore could not be passed down to the next generation. The cultural traditions that did survive only did so because they were practiced and passed down in secret. Native Americans were beaten and/or jailed if they were caught doing things like burning sage only 41 years ago! Because of this, my generation and younger are reaching out to our elders, sharing knowledge, and slowly relearning and reclaiming our traditions that were stolen from us. Reclaiming our traditions is necessary so that we can pass them down to the next generation and heal generations of trauma. Non-native peoples use of smudge products are often well-intentioned but this appropriation is still harmful and the exploitation of smudge is only a part of a larger issue. 

Today, it’s common to see non-natives wearing us as mascots on game day, donning a headdress to a music festival, or using the phrase, “Your vibe attracts your tribe.” The dominant culture in our society gets the privilege of choosing to take the “fun” aspects of a culture while opting out of the not-so-glamorous aspects. For example, the media often silences Native American/Indigenous voices and portrays us as harmful stereotypes. Forty percent of Americans don’t believe that Native Americans exist anymore, according to a survey taken last year by Reclaiming Native Truth. Some reservations have boiling restrictions or no access to running water. Many Nations have pipelines built through their land and have had their sacred sites destroyed. Our Indigenous women go missing and/or murdered at alarming rates in comparison to other races. Cultural appropriation diminishes historical persecution while still oppressing the culture it’s stealing from.

Ethically sourced smudge

Finding an ethically sourced smudge is not a simple task. Willy Street Co-op is now offering a wild-harvested smudge that directly works with a Native American/Indigenous Nation. Unlike other popular smudge brands, the majority of WindRose smudge products are harvested by the Kumeyaay Nation. Buying sage that has been directly harvested by the Kumeyaay or any Native American/Indigenous Nation ensures that the plants are not being over-harvested, were handled with the utmost respect and care, and allows for regeneration of these sacred medicines. This is something that is not done when you purchase wild-harvested smudge from larger companies who do not work with a Native American/Indigenous Nation. WindRose smudges are also sold in biodegradable bags and a portion of sales supports a Native American Smudge Cooperative in Baja, Mexico.

 WindRose is the only wild and sustainably harvested smudge option the Co-op currently offers that works with a Native American Nation. If non-native people still feel the need to “cleanse their space of negativity” through the use of smudge medicine (burning sage, sweetgrass, palo santo etc.), it is important they understand its cultural significance and that they support a company like WindRose that is interested in doing more than just profiting off of Native American culture.