A smudge stick is a bundle of dried herbs, usually bound with string in a small bundle and dried. The herbs are later burned as part of a ritual or ceremony. Plants that are often used include sage and cedar.
The English term "smudge stick" is usually found in use among non-Indigenous people who believe they are practicing appropriated North American Native spiritual traditions. But the herbs used in commercial "smudge sticks", and the rituals performed with them by non-Natives, are rarely the actual materials or rituals used by traditional Native Americans. Using scent and scented smoke in religious rites is an element common to many religions and cultures, but the details and spiritual meanings vary with the specific cultures and ceremonies.
Smudging in North American Native Traditions
In some Native American ceremonies, certain herbs are traditionally used to purify or bless people and places. However, the same herbs that are burned by one culture may be taboo to burn in another, or they may be used for a completely different purpose. Furthermore, when specific herbs are burned ceremonially, this may or may not be called "smudging," depending on the culture. Boughman tells of smudging done in hospitals to "cleanse and repel evil influence."
The practice of burning sacred herbs for ceremony has also raised issues about the religious freedom of Native Americans. Native American students in college dorms, for example, have often faced harassment and been forbidden from smudging due to university policies that prohibit the burning of candles or incense in college dorm rooms.
Traditionally, when gathering herbs for ceremonial use, care is taken to determine the time of day, month, or year when the herbs should be collected; for example, at dawn or evening, at certain phases of the moon, or according to yearly cycles. Gertrude Allen, a Lumbee, reported that her father, an expert in healing with plants, stated that sage varied in potency at different times of the year. Most commercial gatherers do not follow these traditions.
Smudging in other cultures
"Smudging" has been appropriated into a number of modern belief systems, including many forms of New Age and eclectic Neopagan spirituality. This has been protested by people from some of the traditional cultures whose practices are being imitated.
Composition of smudge sticks
Smudge sticks are often sold commercially, despite traditional prohibitions against spiritual medicines like white sage being sold. They may be made of a single herb or combination of several different herbs; often these herbs are not found bundled together in traditional use. In some traditional cultures the burning of some of these herbs is prohibited. Other commercial smudge sticks may contain herbs not native to North America. Common sage is frequently used by non-Natives.
- Boughman, A. L., & Oxendine, L. O. (2003). Herbal remedies of the Lumbee Indians. Jefferson, N.C., McFarland.
- Stokes, DaShanne. 2001. "Sage, Sweetgrass, and the First Amendment." The Chronicle of Higher Education, May 18, pp. B16
- Hobson, G. "The Rise of the White Shaman as a New Version of Cultural Imperialism" in: Hobson, G., ed. The Remembered Earth. Albuquerque, NM: Red Earth Press; 1978: 100-108.
- Aldred, Lisa, "Plastic Shamans and Astroturf Sun Dances: New Age Commercialization of Native American Spirituality" in: The American Indian Quarterly issn.24.3 (2000) pp.329-352. The University of Nebraska Press.