on smudging and appropriation

First things first. I’ll tell you what I am and what I am not.

What I am is a cis black queer femme healer; I am not an an Indigenous person, nor have I been trained by an Indigenous elder.

As such, I’m fully aware that what I say may be inaccurate and just plain wrong. I do write this post for my own self-reflection and to invite other non-Indigenous practitioners of various traditions to do their own self-reflection about the ways that they practice.

So, what is smudging? Well, like I said I’m not an Indigenous practitioner nor have I been trained by an Indigenous healer, so the only correct answer to come from me should be – I HONESTLY DON’T KNOW.

What has been indicated by various Indigenous folks on the issue is that smudging involves very specific kinds of ritual, herbs, times, and knowledges and that it varies and it is hardly the homogeneous aberration we of the global west have made of it. Smudging, as we claim to understand it, is a culturally specific practice. Smudging is definitely probably not a non-Indigenous/non-Indigenous elder-trained person using a bundle of white sage tied up with string to clear a space or themselves of negative energy.

To be clear, using the smoke from burning herbs to clear energy or move it, is historically global, and in a lot of faiths is still actively practiced. From burning incense to straight up burning bundles of herbs, this is a practice that has been identified in multiple traditions across the world. I just wonder if we can be honest about the power of words, the power of naming, and the power of capitalism and privilege that relies on watering down entire people’s traditions, memories, and spiritual technologies for its own deification and profit.

Plainly, must you call what you do smudging? Or that herb bundle a smudge stick? Why?

An argument I’ve seen around is that “smudge” is an English word and as such it can’t be appropriated from Indigenous peoples. Again, let’s get real about the power of naming and the kind of world we live in. Smudging as it is mostly used, especially in North America, is in fact referring to our idea of what Indigenous practices are. Are we being accurate, perhaps not? Just let’s stop kidding ourselves about what we meant when we said smudging and where its roots are. It’s like claiming that because Two-Spirit is an English term, non-Indigenous queer folks can use it about themselves with carte-blanche. The better analysis may lie in condemning Pan-Indigenous terms, especially English ones, but absolutely not as a means for us to hold on to what does not belong to us and respecting the words’ use by the peoples it holds weight for.

Safety Rule 1 of not being a cultural appropriator and being a better ally is, if the culture/tradition you are ‘appreciating’ has indicated in any way that you should stop? STOP. Particularly if you hold more privilege than the people whose lived experiences you are ‘appreciating’. If your first instinct is to think of a way to keep doing what you’re doing, examine why it is so important that you have what you want despite the pain it’s causing someone else.

I’m not exempt; I’m still grappling with the ways this post may have ended up doing exactly that.

Appropriation has impact. Not the least of which, for example, is the disappearing wild white sage plant. We did that. Which materially means that Indigenous people who may have had open and free access to a plant sacred to their practice might now not be able to access it or have to pay more and more to have it.

So beyond asking, is our practice appropriative, we need to ask, is my practice appropriative and/or unsustainable? If the answer is yes, then we are back to messy square one.

Make a shift, some alternatives to white sage smoke for clearing and cleansing (and you should always go with ethical cultivation and sourcing no matter the plant, by the way):
– Rosemary
– Evergreen Trees (Cedar, Pine, etc)
– Basil
– Thyme
– Lavender

10 thoughts on “on smudging and appropriation

    • Asali says:

      Herbalist with a black thumb here, and I definitely wish I could grow my own sage, rosemary, thyme, lavender, and mugwort. So far only ivy and aloe survive and they’ve sort of just refused to die- they aren’t growing anymore.


      • SJ Witchling says:

        I have no idea how plants work. I’m pretty sure there are Faery spirits involved in my growing things, because it’s so hit and miss about what I can grow. I finally got lavender growing this year, after three tries. I used to be great at basil and mint and basic herbs. I think once I’ve moved, the Fey will be happier and help me keep the plants better… I don’t know why I’ve had aloe die on me, too. So. I hear you. But I still want my green growing things!

        Liked by 1 person

  1. Jen says:

    Thank you for this post. I have been grappling with this as I develop my own cleansing practices and am looking more to my African heritage and my family’s relationship with land.

    I harvested herbs from my garden, mostly
    Rosemary, and lavender, for smoke cleansing. I also want to incorporate African plants like benne, sorghum, and indigo into my garden and my spiritual practices.

    The crystal industry is ripe for investigation too. Every time I see giant clusters of crystals I think of the mining industry. Imagine living in a place
    where there are crystal caves and then having those stones taken and exported. It’s mind boggling

    Liked by 1 person

    • Asali says:

      Thank you for reading!
      I think it’s a wonderful idea to incorporate African plants and explore their uses in spirituality. That is a beautiful idea!

      Oh my, the crystal industry is absolutely messed up. I don’t know that there’s much in the way of ‘ethically’ mined stones out there- especially with the increase in crystal use by practitioners.


  2. kathryn O says:

    So, if you’re practicing a spiritual practice and members of that practice have asked you to stop, you should stop?

    I am a witch. I’ve been one since before it was cool or mainstream. back in the early 90s. our local witch community was mostly gay guys, a lot of bear who are big fat hairy gays with no dress style.
    they said I can’t be a witch. I wasn’t one of them. I was female. I dressed like a bohemian. I am a nerd into star trek. no one even likes me. I am to leave the practice.

    Did I listen to them ? No. Spirit said no.
    sometimes members of a culture can be buttholes and bullies. the cry of culteral appropriation is an example of that. what do you do when the spirit tells you to defy them?


    • Asali says:

      Thaaaat is not the same…not even a little.

      While I agree they were being exclusionary, perhaps even just plain mean to you, I have to remind you that cultural appropriation is very different.

      Cultural appropriation is about being of privilege and exerting that privilege to take up something from a marginalized group without interrogating your access and utilization of that thing (which includes: tools, artifacts, rituals, beliefs, etc). There’s an institutional power imbalance there.

      So when we (colonizers, and we all are on this land- speaking from a North American perspective) take up indigenous people’s practices and use them willy-nilly we are culturally appropriative. And damaging- case in point the increasing loss of wild harvested white sage.

      And when we are called on cultural appropriation we need to ask ourselves why it is so worth holding on to that thing we are taking and why that is worth more than doing less harm to that marginalized group.


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