Indigenous people share their thoughts on why cultural appropriation and overharvesting more than cancel out the good vibes.
“Cleanse Your Head of Bad Vibes,” reads an email that recently landed in my inbox, announcing a new sage-infused shampoo — one of many 2019 beauty launches that cheekily refers to the energy-clearing power of white sage, or Salvia apiana, a medicinal herb native to southern California and northern Mexico. For years now, beauty and wellness brands have banked on the “high vibe” reputation of sage to sell products.
But for centuries, Indigenous tribes have burned white sage in spiritual ceremonies to cleanse, purify and pray.
These sacred bundles of sage, sometimes called “smudge sticks,” can be found everywhere from Urban Outfitters to indie shops, including, of course, your Instagram feed. It’s not uncommon for a square of burning sage to appear as you scroll through selfies and outfit inspo. Sample caption: “Cleansing your Insta of negativity!” It’s even more common to come across an artfully arranged photo of this sage and lighter set from Sunday Forever — an influencer favorite — the latter emblazoned with the words, “Go sage yourself.” (And yes, that would make a great hashtag.) Last year, Anthropologie came out with a “Cleaning Space Kit,” Fourth Ray released a “Ritual Box” and Sephora and Pinrose collaborated on a scandalous “Starter Witch Kit” that never actually made it to shelves, all featuring sage wands. Goop promotes its newsletter as “inbox sage for the digital age.” None of the above mentions its significance in Native American culture.
“Smudging sage has nothing to do with the magical room-cleansing nonsense sold by uninspired capitalists,” writer and activist Taté Walker, who is Mniconjou Lakota and a citizen of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, tells Fashionista. “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 notes that not all Native cultures burn sage for prayer, which is known as smudging. “Smudging is very specific to prayer, so you can burn sage without smudging and you can smudge without needing to light sage on fire.”
Within some Native cultures, varieties of sage have different uses. “For instance, it helps with constipation, menstruation, pregnancy, anxiety, sore throats, repelling insects and more,” Walker says. “It’s more commonly known for its ceremonial purposes with prayer, sweat lodge and sundance.”
Saging and smudging are centuries-old practices, but they’re still commonly performed today. “My husband and I try to live traditional, so every morning we do a smudge,” says Bianca Millar of the Wendake reserve in Québec (she’s half Huron-Wendat and half Scottish) and the woman behind Indigenous beauty blog A Tribe Called Beauty. “We burn the four medicines: sage, tobacco, sweetgrass and cedar. Sometimes we do that to thank the Creator for the new day, and send up our prayers.”
It sounds simple and sacred and peaceful, and it is — but throughout much of history, the simple act of saging put Indigenous lives in danger. “In Canada in 1876, my people were banned from not just using sage, but any traditional medicine,” Millar says. “It outlawed all religious and cultural activities, which obviously include smudging, and I think it wasn’t until 1951 that it thankfully was abolished, and we were finally allowed to use our medicines.” In the United States, it was illegal for Natives to use sage until the 1978 passing of the American Indian Religious Freedom Act. As Walker puts it: “My people fought and died to protect this knowledge and your trendy use of it.”
This persecution at the hands of the government is precisely what makes the burning of sage by non-Natives a classic case of cultural appropriation. As a refresher, appropriation is defined as “the adoption of elements of one culture by members of another culture” — especially if that first culture is discriminated against for the elements in question. (Think: White women wearing Fulani braids while Black women literally need legislation to protect their right to wear their natural hair.) Fashion and beauty brands have been relatively quick to concede things like dreadlocks and bindis as soon as claims of cultural appropriation appear. “For some reason, things that are sacred to Indigenous people don’t get the same respect,” Walker writes to me in an email.
It’s true: Indigenous people have been calling for the end of the commodification of sage for years, and its non-Native proponents always have an argument ready as to why it’s not appropriation. A big one is the fact that sage has historically been used as an energy cleanser in other cultures, too, including Celtic druids and European witches. While that may be the case, white sage — the kind typically sold in those chic little bundles — is native to North America and therefore, to Native cultures.
Others claim that saging is appreciation, rather than appropriation. “When it comes to whether or not something falls under appropriation or appreciation, we really need to look at the impact of the behavior,” Walker counters. “Commodifying sage has led to overharvesting and shortages of the plant.” This statement also tends to inspire objections, since white sage isn’t technically endangered, according to both United Plant Savers and the San Diego Botanic Garden — but the issue is a little more complicated than an “endangered” or “not endangered” label.
“The threshold for what is regarded as endangered tends to be quite onerous to overcome, and the resources dedicated to reviewing petitions have never been as robust as conservationists would like,” admits Tony Gurnoe, the Director of Horticulture at the SDBG. “An unfortunately small number of species are officially listed as endangered relative to what botanists personally know to be the case from working in the field.” In other words: Just because a plant isn’t on the official endangered list doesn’t mean it’s not vulnerable.
“Here’s where the confusion lies: White sage is being illegally harvested,” Susan Leopold of United Plant Savers tells Fashionista. Although laws prohibit people from picking white sage off wildlife preserves and public land, that hasn’t stopped what she calls “the white sage mafia” from gathering protected plants for profit. In 2018, four people were arrested for smuggling 400 pounds of sage from the North Etiwanda Preserve of Rancho Cucamonga, California — and according to Leopold, this behavior is increasingly common due to increased demand for sage. The unlawfully-harvested herbs could end up anywhere (like, say, a Witch Kit), since there aren’t any regulations in place when it comes to sage trading. “There’s no standard,” Leopold says, and it’s surprisingly hard to track down how brands source their sage. Catherine Rising, the company that supplies Free People, did not respond to Fashionista’s request for comment; Sunday Forever tells Fashionista it buys from a “family-run farm in California,” but declines to provide further details.
Overharvesting, whether or not it leads to endangerment, does directly impact Indigenous communities. “An elder told me about a year ago that she was on the reservation and she went up to a field with a bunch of youth to teach them how to pick sage, how to pick medicine, and when she got to that field, there was absolutely no more sage,” Millar recalls. “She said that it’s because non-Indigenous people go to these fields and don’t know that you need to leave some sage there so that it can grow. Instead, she just taught the youth about overharvesting. They laid down some tobacco [as an offering] and prayed to Creator and asked Mother Earth to try to help more sage grow.”
The beauty blogger says it’s “heartbreaking” to see the land ravaged — but, she adds, that’s not the only issue. “When you buy sage, you don’t know who’s picking that medicine, so you don’t know the energy that person has,” Millar says. (And since the whole point of sage is to cleanse negative energy, that’s kind of a problem.) “Then the person that’s packed up that sage and put those other products, you don’t know if they had good energy. Then while that package is sitting in that store, waiting for you to buy it, how many customers have gone and touched that?” she asks. “We believe that every time someone touches medicine, they’re putting their energy into that. When you’re bringing that sage home that you buy in a store and then you’re burning it, you’re putting that person’s bad energy in your home.”
Even if, by some miracle, everyone in the entire packing-and-shipping process has clean energy, store-bought sage still wouldn’t be up to Indigenous standards. “Sage that’s used in smudging — prayer — should never be bought and sold,” Walker says. “It’s a bit cringe-inducing to think of commodifying prayer. That would be like me walking into a Catholic church and asking the priest if there’s a sale on holy water.”
All that being said, Walker and Millar agree that saging and smudging are not out of the question for non-Natives, if practiced purposefully and mindfully.
First thing’s first: Don’t buy it. “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. Many Indigenous cultures also believe that medicine should be gifted, never bought. “I know in Canada, we have the Indian Friendship Centres in pretty much every city and you can just call them and ask them [for sage],” adds Millar. “They would actually love if non-Indigenous people called them and asked about medicines, because it shows that they want to be educated.”
Or, you can grow sage in your own backyard (or windowsill, or rooftop garden). “You need to make sure you’re growing it for the right reasons,” Millar cautions. “Grow it for yourself and for your family and your friends to share with them — as long as you’re not selling it for your own profit.”
Next, Millar suggests educating yourself on Indigenous smudging ceremonies; even a Google will do. “There are little things that you would never think of,” she says. “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.” You shouldn’t blow on your smudge, either; instead, Millar suggests using a feather to fan the flames. Sage should never be harvested, plucked, burned or used in any way, shape or form if you’re “under the influence” — so no drinking or smoking and smudging. There’s also something to be said for sustainability, so it’s wise to burn a single leaf at a time, rather than light up the entire bundle.
Finally, acknowledge your privilege and exercise allyship. “Non-Indigenous people are so freely able to use sage, and they’re doing it in their homes, and they need to put it into perspective,” says Millar. “At one point in history, me just doing a smudge, I would go to jail or have my kids taken, essentially. Think, ‘What if it was literally illegal for me to do this?'” While you’re at it, patron Native-owned businesses, follow Native influencers and support Native causes. Sage shouldn’t be the only way you connect to the culture.
“For folks who just aren’t sure whether or not they’re appropriating or appreciating, there’s a simple test: Are you using or doing the thing to benefit you, or are you being selfless and responsible to others, including your non-human relatives, like the land?” Walker asks. If you’re posting a picture of sage on Instagram, or promoting the act of saging without acknowledging its history or selling sage to put money in your own pocket, “then it’s appropriation and you need to stop,” the activist says. “Smoke cleansing is a wellness tool available to anyone, but if you’re doing it for likes or capitalism, you’re doing it wrong.”
It’s worth mentioning that not all Indigenous people feel this way. Activist Allen Salway, best known as @lilnativeboy, believes there is absolutely no “right” way to sage, and that white sage should be completely off-limits to non-Natives, as he’s said on Instagram.
If you suspect you’ve been appropriating and are ready to do better, there are plenty of less-problematic ways to cleanse your energy or offer up a prayer — including burning frankincense or even burning garden-variety green sage “from the Trader Joe’s salad section,” as Michelle Pellizzon of Holisticism suggests. It’s important to make sure that your preferred alternatives aren’t harmful to the land or another culture, though.
For example, it’s often recommended to burn palo santo in place of sage, but palo santo presents sustainability issues of its own. Andi Scarbrough, a crystal healer and the founder of CrownWorks (and, it should be noted, a white woman), recently decided to stop including palo santo in her online orders after “stumbling on two troubling conversations: one being the damage being done to these sacred trees by overharvesting, and the other being the sensitive topic of cultural appropriation of a spiritual tool usually reserved for shamans and medicine people of Indigenous cultures,” she tells Fashionista. “My own use may have not been ideally informed in the beginning, but as I deepened my own work, I learned more. As I learned more, I chose better.”
Lately, Scarbrough says she’s tapped into her Northern European heritage to “find plants that will literally work better with my DNA.” The healer traced her personal lineage back to the use of rosemary, thyme, peppermint, nettle, juniper and cedar for cleansing. “We all have magic woven through our histories,” she says — so why not look into your own? Some of her other favorite energy clearing modalities include Breathwork (“it’s been the most powerful energy clearing practice I have personally adopted”), sound healing (“working with tools tuned to the vibration of OM, or 432 Hertz, will support bringing harmony and balance to the body and space”) and crystals (“they offer us rock-solid support from some of the oldest, wisest, most wondrous creations on the planet” — if they’re harvested mindfully, of course).
“Salt is also incredible,” adds Scarbrough. Similar to sage, the mineral is said to remove negative energy from spaces and bodies. “Try salt baths, salt scrubs — you can even put some salt in a pan, pour in a little rubbing alcohol and light it up like a flambé to zap dense energy out of the room,” she says. Honestly, “go salt yourself” does have a nice ring to it.
On an individual level, implementing these changes should be quick and easy. On a brand level, it’s admittedly a little harder — and a little more visible. So what can you do if you or your non-Native-owned company has sold or is currently selling sage? Walker suggests issuing a “thank you” to those who’ve educated you, along with a sincere apology. “List the steps you have already taken and will be taking to make sure the thing doesn’t happen again,” the activist instructs. “Follow up by making reparations, including hiring more people from marginalized communities into positions of company influence, donating profits and, of course, giving land back to Indigenous communities. Check-in with your fans from time to time to demonstrate the progress you’re making.”
Whatever you do, don’t sweep the mistake under the metaphorical rug. “Maybe we learn from those failures, but no one else does,” Walker says. “Making mistakes can be a beautiful part of the human experience because it means you have an opportunity to learn and do better next time. Brands, celebrities and even influencers are in a position of great power and privilege.” Because in the end, educating your audience on appropriation is the ultimate way to spread good vibes.