Native American woman holds up an abalone shell and an eagle feather while smudge smoke from herbs rises out of the abalone shell.

Anthropology: The History of Smudging in Indigenous Cultures

Smudging is a Native American practice with a history that dates back thousands of years that has crept into the mainstream. However, the significant history and origins of this practice remain largely unknown by its new – mostly white – practitioners.  Smudging is a practice that is popular in mainstream discussions about wellness and spirituality. Vogue did a piece on smudging, teaching its largely white readership how to ‘energetically clear their space.’

However, smudging is more than a fad and has a significant history of thousands of years in Native American cultures. It is the practice of burning sacred herbs in a religious ceremony. Smudging is a common name for what is the Sacred Smoke Bowl Blessing, of Native American origin. The burning of these herbs will banish bad energies and spirits and cleanse yourself or your home. Usually, herbs like tobacco, sweetgrass, or sage are wound tightly together with string  to make a ‘smudge stick.’

This is a practice unique to many Indigenous cultures in North America. Smudging has been appropriated by mainstream Western culture in recent years. However, some Indigenous communities are urging people not to use smudge sticks unless they have a historical and cultural understanding of their significance.

The History of Smudging

A Native American woman in a forest holds up a smudging stick, abalone shell, and a feather, all tools common in the history of smudging. a

While the history of smoke ceremonies similar to smudging is not limited to Native America, it is most common in their culture. For example, there are accounts of Egyptians and ancient Israelis using incense in a similar practice. However, when referring to smudging as a practice, it references Native American traditions. A smudging stick resembles a bundle of herbs strung together with twine to make up a thick stick. Often, a bowl full of dried herbs is lit to waft the smoke all over a place, object, or person. This cleanses evil spirits or energies.

Many smudging practices have different traditions in different regions. It is common to observe this ritual daily and for many different reasons. For example, before a meal or ceremony. Wafting the smoke down the left side of the body addresses the female aspect of life. Meanwhile, smudging the right side represents the male aspect. To represent and affirm the great circle of life, the smudge will move clockwise. Guiding the smoke counterclockwise means to unwind, undo, or reverse, especially where negative energies are concerned.

Smudging and the Elements

Smudging in Native American cultures today and in the past is a reference to the history of Indigenous spirits and ancestors. The herbs used in smudging all have importance and represent a crucial part of the ceremony and the relationship to the earth.

For example, often an abalone shell will be the vessel for a smudge bowl.  The abalone shell represents the element of water. The abalone shell has a beautiful mother-of-pearl shimmer on its shell and makes a connection to the ocean even when landlocked. The unlit sage is the earth element, the lit sage fire, and the smoke is the air aspect. The smoke also represents divinity as it is what carries things to and from the spirit realm.

The herbs are put in the abalone shell or on a smudge stick. When lit, the fire will represent the warmth and strength that fire brings to the community. Eagle feathers are often used to move the smoke in the desired direction. Both eagle feathers and abalone shells have a rich history in smudging practices.

The Ojibwe Smudging Ceremony

An image of a hand holding an abalone shell, smudge stick and a feather.

We can understand the history of smudging more by looking specifically at the Ojibwe smudging ceremony. The Ojibwe are Indigenous people in Canada and the United States and are a part of a larger group, the Anishinaabeg. 

For the Ojibwe, along with many other Native American people, these herbs are ‘medicine.’ This is because they are healing, have a connection to the earth, and remind them of important spiritual lessons. Therefore, we can think of medicine in terms of promoting spiritual healing, growth, and well-being. Additionally, medicine heals physical illnesses and ailments as well. The most common medicines for smudging are tobacco, sage, cedar, and sweetgrass. 

The smoke from these properties carries thoughts and prays to the spiritual realm. Tobacco grows prolifically in North America, and it has many healing properties for Indigenous peoples. There are many stories and teachings about the origins of tobacco. For example, according to an Ojibwe woman, Noelle Cormier, tobacco teaches gratitude and humility. For this reason, tobacco is often in every smudging.

Sage releases negative thoughts and will cleanse evil thoughts or feelings from the mind and heart. Cedar cleanses and grounds. It will also clear the mind and help set intentions. Sweetgrass teaches softness and mailability, much in the same way that grass bends under the foot and rises again. Sweetgrass guides softness towards self and the earth. 

Smudging in the Past and Present 

A Native American Canadian woman preparing her smudging herbs in an abalone shell for her granddaughter, passing on the history of smudging to her.

‘Handfuls’ of smoke can be guided over certain parts of the body with either an eagle feather or the hands.  For example, over the eyes to see clearly. They can also waft it over the ears to hear and communicate and open the heart.

Sometimes, they will grab a handful of smoke and do the action of rubbing the hands together. Often, smudging of the hands is the first thing to cleanse, as it prepares the hands to guide the smudge over the rest of the body.

Smoke and medicine is a process of healing self by being thankful to the earth. It connects Indigenous people to those entities’ spirits, gives thanks to them, and asks for their guidance.

Smudging in this way has a variety of purposes. While practiced during times of crisis, death, or illness, many Indigenous people will smudge daily. Smudging is a way of connecting with the Creator, sending prayers to the spirit realm, and providing blessings and protection. Finally, promoting respect for self, others, and the earth, is a way of ensuring that one is always ‘walking in a good way.’

In Native American cultures, the earth is not an inanimate thing but has a spirit and soul. All plants, animals, and things have significance. Therefore, using the elements in smudging is a way of communing with the spirits of the earth. In addition, feathers are another crucial tool in smudging, particularly eagle feathers. Birds are symbolic of their ability to fly close to the heavens and in the realm of The Creator.

The History of Colonization Repressing Smudging

An image of a smudging stick on a marble bowl, next to some candles, a crystal, and a book on botony.

Smudging is not just a practice but represents a history that defines many essential elements of Indigenous ways of life. Colonization had an enormous role in the repression of many Indigenous practices. Many traditions and ceremonies, including things like potlatch and sundancewere prohibited and banned by Christian settlers for many years. Although Smudging was not banned by law up until the 1950s, it was heavily suppressed and restricted. 

In 1876, the Indian Act came into effect. This is the official federal law that the government uses to manage Indigenous land and the status of the Indigenous community. However, the Act imposed many colonial laws that eradicated Indigenous cultural practices to introduce assimilation during this time. 

Assimilation means that First Nations people are not able to practice their traditions and beliefs. Instead, they are made to take on white European values and traditions. This saw the eradication of Indigenous practices like smudging that caused an enormous loss of history and identity.

The Indian Act saw the introduction of many laws that would cause generational trauma, human rights violations, and repression. The Act is responsible for a great deal of intergenerational trauma. Although the government amended the Act in 1951 and 1985 to edit discriminatory sections, the damage continues. 

The Introduction of Residential Schools

A black and white photo of Native American children with a Catholic preist outside a residential school.

The history of residential schools in Canada is a primary example of how the government eradicated practices such as smudging. The residential school system was a network of boarding schools expressly set up for Indigenous children in Canada.

The schools removed Indigenous children from Native American communities and assimilated them into white culture and practices. In these schools, children were forced to speak English, convert to Christianity, and enter the Canadian school system. Children in these schools suffered abuse and mistreatment. It is estimated that 150,000 children were taken to residential schools. By the 1930s, this was up to 30% of Indigenous children.

In May 2021, the remains of  215 Indigenous children were found in unmarked graves on the grounds of Canada’s largest residential school. This is only one example of the violence and trauma that Native Americans collectively experienced.

Separated from their families and ancestral languages, these children slowly forgot their history and practices, including smudging. 

The Problem of Appropriation

A cartoon image of two white women dressing up in Native American traditional headdresses next to a caption that reads " No it's cool, it's not like your ancestors were killed."

Because of the collective trauma caused by colonization, the appropriation of Indigenous practices such as smudging can do more harm than good. Rather than promoting an understanding of the importance of these practices, it can further obscure their significance.

Most First Nations people feel that Western cultures using traditions such as smudging fetishizes, glamorizes, and diminishes them. Many people from Western cultures have little understanding or recognition of the history of smudging and beliefs. Colonization almost eradicated and prohibited these practices for so long.

The repression of smudging has also resulted in a lack of education surrounding Indigenous practices. Many people understand smudging as ‘spreading good vibes,’ in the wellness and spirituality circuit. However, for Indigenous people, smudging and the elements used in this practice, like sage, are sacred.

Smudging not only represents Indigenous beliefs and ways of life, but a recent history of activism. Many Indigenous people fought against the effects of colonization and for the preservation of their lands. Smudging is now also a powerful reminder of the restoration of their culture and connection with their land. Therefore, if non-native people wish to do a smudge, they should do so with permission from local Native Americans.

The Use of Sage Past and Present 

A Native American man in traditional clothing uses an abalone shell and eagle feather to waft smoke in front of him.

The rising popularity of smudging as a trend has caused the overharvesting of sage. The harvesting of sage done at a mass level makes doing it in a sustainable way very difficult. Currently, the overharvesting of sage is endangering its existence and threatening the ecosystems that rely on it.

In addition, overharvesting is causing further damage to Indigenous communities, to whom sage is sacred. First Nations people have always harvested sage respectfully and sustainably.

The appropriation of sage, in particular by mainstream stores as a wellness ritual or a trend, commodifies it. Instead, we should respect these herbs for their significance to specific cultures and the environment. Further, it can be unfair for Westerners to make a trend out of some aspects of Native American culture while still actively discriminating against other elements. For example, the disappearance of Indigenous women, which goes largely ignored and unsupported.

Rather than purchasing sage, Western practitioners can use other herbs in smoke ceremonies. For example, lavender, rosemary, and mugwort are some herbs that we use that are not under threat. These herbs have antibacterial and healing qualities and are ideal for smoke cleansing.

Cultural Significance in Anthropology

A group of Native Americans stand on the street with signs protesting against appropriation and for their human rights.

It may seem like a cultural appreciation to practice smudging, but if unaware of the history behind the practice, it is appropriation. Put shortly; appropriation is when a dominant culture borrows or adopts a practice from an oppressed culture.

Native Americans still face poverty, overcrowding in reserves, lack of access to affordable food, and racist stereotypes. Additionally, they face violence and discrimination in large numbers. For example, native American women are ten times higher than any other demographic in the USA and Canada to be murdered. Significantly, 80% of this violence against Native women is done by non-native men.

These issues get little to no mainstream recognition, media coverage, or government support. Considering this, it seems inappropriate to cherry-pick certain practices like smudging in the mainstream as trendy. Celebrating smudging can seem somewhat empty if we do not acknowledge the major issues at hand. 

However, it is appropriate to educate ourselves on the history of smudging and how Native Americans practice this tradition. Then, rather than mainstream practice, we can all make an effort to generate mainstream recognition of Native American rituals.

Anthropology often focuses on the rituals and traditions of culture as an expression of a social system. Smudging has social and cultural significance for Indigenous people. Rather than being a standalone ritual, it reflects a much larger cosmic understanding of the world. If people smudge as a  trend, it will reduce something that represents a social system into a fad. 

If we honor and recognize the history of smudging, then we honor the past and present of Native American culture. Doing so brings us one step closer to reconciliation.

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