Smoke cleansing is a global practice that’s been used by many cultures since ancient times, but has become more mainstream lately. With anything that goes mainstream and is commodified, it is often taken out of context and used inappropriately. I know we have good intentions, but it’s important to evaluate our practices and learn where they came from to see if and how our actions affect others.
I’ll start by saying I’m a white girl who’s trying her best to make her practices less harmful, so I don’t have all the answers and I’m certainly not a spokesperson for the Native community. What one Indigenous person finds problematic may not be to the next, but what I’m sharing here is what has shaped my practice over the years.
You may know smoke cleansing as “smudging,” burning sage and fanning it around your room with a feather. They are similar in that they use smoke to cleanse, but smudging is actually part of a larger, sacred, ceremonial act of purification used by various Indigenous groups. Terminology is important—smudging is pulled out of a more spiritually important context that is beyond just burning herbs.
Why is terminology important? Words have power, and smudging simply does not belong to non-Natives. Just four decades ago, they were legally prohibited from essentially practicing their own religion, and many are still fighting for the right to do so.
The wellness boom has also led to the over-harvesting of white sage, making it less accessible to the communities who use it in their spiritual practice. They have asked non-Natives to stop selling sage and smudge kits. So you may see how it’s an issue when white and other non-Native people take something so easily for themselves that others fight so hard for, without giving a thought to its weight or history.
I’m sharing the following effects this can have from a blog post by Hauswitch on the topic:
Not all Natives practice smudging, nor do they all use sage, but it can be disrespectful to those who do. So it behooves us (behoove is a great word, isn’t it?) to find alternatives that are more ethical and aligned with our intentions. It’s much better energy to be cleansing without harming marginalized communities.
Alternatives to sage for cleansing
You don’t need a white sage bundle to cleanse your space. If you are using it, however, ensure that the way you include it in your practice is not culturally appropriative or harmful. For instance, grow it yourself instead of purchasing it, make sure it has been sustainably sourced, or purchase from an actual Native-owned shop to support the community.
Cleansing energy, especially in your home, gives you a fresh start that really shifts the feel of the room, and there are plenty of other ways to get the same result:
- Explore the traditions of your lineage. What herbs did they use? How did they use them? Smoke cleansing is used all over the world and it’s likely your ancestors had their own specific traditions you may want to incorporate into your own practice.
- Make a mugwort bundle. This is considered an invasive weed, there’s likely plenty of it around you to harvest for your needs (but remember the golden rules of wildcrafting). Gather 10-15 stalks of mugwort, lay out to dry a little bit until they’re wilted (could be overnight to a few days). If you let it dry out fully, it’ll be harder to tie together, so you want them wilted but not crispy. Then tie the stalks together with string, knotting it at one end and wrapping it around the leaves to the other end. Mugwort has a similar scent to sage, and works just as well without harvesting sacred, endangered plants. You can do this with rosemary, too, which smells wonderful.
- Find a more specific plant to use. What’s your intention for the energy in the space or the object you’re cleansing? We can find new herbs that are even more specific if we fine-tune what we’re really wanting. Use a resource like The Green Witch to help you choose the right plant for your needs, or just google “herbs for [purpose].”
- Make a floral cleansing bowl. This is my preferred way. I personally find herbal smoke’s scent to linger in a way that feels heavy to me, which is the opposite of what I’m going for! This blend works perfectly (and smells amazing!) to get rid of some undesirable tension and energy. Mix up (dried or fresh) lavender, thyme, and salt in a bowl and stir in some hot water. Open the windows and let the mixture cool, add a squeeze of fresh lemon juice and a few drops of lavender oil and take it around the house with you in whatever way you like to cleanse. You can also strain and bottle some of the mixture in a spray bottle for later use, and pour the rest of the mix into the ground outside or in the soil of your potted plants.
I’d love to hear other ways you like to cleanse. Share them in the comments!