I got into a bit of a debate on Facebook about a post someone shared in a group about smudging. The post rightly declared that smudging is a traditional Native American practice, however what they were describing in the post was not smudging and had nothing to do with Native American traditions. My immediate response was anger and then they made fun of my response, but we eventually worked it out. It definitely opened my eyes to how little people actually know about actual Native Americans and their traditions.
Who am I to talk about this? I am of mixed race and heritage. My grandmother is a full-blood Cherokee. However she was adopted by an Osage family so we know Osage ways. Her Osage mother had been in one of those horrible boarding schools where they beat the Indian out of the kids. She decided to raise my grandmother in the white world. We lost so much of our heritage. However, some things you just can’t beat out of a person, so we still knew a little. We do know my grandmother’s birth mother so we also know of our ancestors who came to Oklahoma on the Trail of Tears. So my teenage mother got knocked up by a white guy who didn’t stick around and I never met. We lived with my grandmother for years and I grew up going to pow wows and going to Oklahoma to see family, some of who where much more traditional. My mother had a series of husbands. When she was married to a Cheyenne man, we did things Cheyenne way. He was a Sun Dancer and we went to Sun Dance to support him. Now she’s married to a Navajo who through a complicated series of events knows Lakota ways.
The point of all of that is to show that I’ve grown up around the culture in ways that most people don’t. Even people with mixed blood aren’t always exposed to the culture. What I am not is an expert. The only traditional thing I do is play the flute. I’ve never learned anything else. Mainly because when you start learning that stuff there are restrictions from the elders. You can’t drink alcohol. If you do they will never teach you anything else ever again. It’s a lifestyle. Plus when you begin the process you are for lack of a better word initiated into an entire system of magick with its own rules and spirits. If you break the rules you can incur the wrath of the spirits. I have forged my own path, and am not ready to go down that road. So no, I am no expert. If I ever start acting like a wise old Indian to claim spiritual authority, you know my ego has gotten out of wack and you are free to tell me so! I don’t know how to smudge. But I know enough to know that I don’t know how to smudge, so I know enough to know that you don’t know how to smudge.
Actual traditional smudging is ceremony. There is more than just waving around a stick of sage. Every time I’ve seen an actual smudging the guy doing it goes off by themselves for several minutes. I don’t know what they are doing, but I know they are smoking their fan. They then use the fan instead of the sage stick. I was pretty confused the first time I saw a white person “smudge” and they just lit a stick of sage. That is a cleansing, not smudging. I know that in some tribes it’s even more elaborate with drums or singing.
Anyone can do a cleansing with sage. You can use other herbs too. You can mix it with other traditions and use it to clean chakras and all of that. But you aren’t smudging. Even if you are using it ritually and set your intention and all that, you aren’t smudging. Don’t call it smudging. I know right now you’re probably kind of angry at me. No one likes being told they can’t do something. But here me out.
Here’s an example. As a teenager a lot of my friends practiced Wicca. They talked about it a lot and I even participated in a couple of ceremonies. I think I have a basic understanding though I’ve never studied. I could probably Chaos a version of a Wiccan ceremony that could work. But I’d never call that a traditional Wiccan ceremony. There are elements I don’t know and I probably don’t know that I don’t know them. So I can’t perform a Wiccan ceremony. Just like I can’t get up in front of people and read the Bible and pass out bread and call it a traditional Catholic Mass. There are all sorts of things I would be missing. It isn’t really that you can’t smudge, there are lots of things you can’t do if you aren’t trained and initiated into a system. It’s that simple. And I feel more than confident in saying you haven’t been initiated or trained in tribal ceremonies.
So this isn’t some political correctness thing. I’m not upset because you are appropriating Indian culture. What you probably don’t know is that there is still an ongoing war on Indian religions. Their religions are technically illegal in a country with freedom of religion. Their beliefs are deeply connected to the land and the water. It’s very place specific. So when they build a mine or a pipeline on sacred ground they are killing a part of their religion. So it doesn’t help when people come along and take Native tech and say they are doing traditional native practices. It isn’t cultural appropriation, it’s colonialism. Stop thinking like a colonialist. You can be inspired by native culture, but don’t claim it. Use what you know from it, but don’t act like you own it. Give up the word smudging and call it a cleansing.
Don’t go too far the other way though. Don’t read this and think you can’t use sage anymore. You absolutely can use sage. Please do. Also, please try and buy it from native suppliers if you can. You are free to use the the cleansing tech however you want. Try things out, experiment with different plants, it’s fine. Just don’t call it smudging.
What happened on Facebook was a real teaching moment for everyone involved. I honestly had no idea people, very well meaning people, were so ignorant about actual Indian traditions. It isn’t their fault, because there is a long history of suppressing Native culture in America. Most people never get to sit down and talk to people who live that culture. As someone who has had that privilege I also have the responsibility to share that knowledge in a helpful way, and not angrily lash out at people. So I just wanted to share this, and I hope it enlightens you a little. Thanks for reading.
P.S. I use the word Indian along with Native. I know they tell you that you aren’t supposed to do that, but all the Indians I know still use the word Indian. I know you’ve been told to use Native American, but there are a lot of bad memories of the phrase Native American because that is what white nationalist types historically called themselves. (Watch “Gangs of New York” for an example.) So it gets a little weird when you are talking to people and everyone has been told to use this word and not this word, but in reality this word is fine. You get the idea. Indigenous and First Nations are also used some. I only mention because someone always likes to chime in that I shouldn’t use the word Indian anymore. It’s all good, just don’t call anyone a redskin.