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Smudging, or other rites involving the burning of sacred herbs (e.g., white sage) or resins, is a ceremony practiced by some Indigenous peoples of the Americas. While it bears some resemblance to other ceremonies and rituals involving smoke (e.g., smoking ceremony, saining) from other world cultures, notably those for spiritual cleansing or blessing, the purposes and particulars of the ceremonies, and the substances used, can vary widely between tribes, bands and nations, and even more so between different world cultures. In traditional communities, Elders maintain the protocols around these ceremonies and provide culturally specific guidance. The smudging ceremony, by various names, has been appropriated by others outside of the Indigenous communities as part of New Age or commercial practices.
Native American traditions
In some First Nations and Native American ceremonies, certain herbs are traditionally used to purify or bless people and places. For instance, some cultures use the smoke of burning red cedar as part of their particular purification and healing ceremonies. Sometimes this is done in hospitals to "cleanse and repel evil influence." 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. When specific herbs are burned ceremonially, this may or may not be called "smudging", depending on the culture. 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 varies in potency at different times of the year.
While sage is commonly associated with smudging and several Native American or FNIM cultures may use forms of sage (for example, common sage or white sage) that are local to their region, the use of sage is neither universal, nor as widespread as was once commonly believed. Likewise, not all Native American or First Nations, Inuit or Métis (FNIM) cultures that burn herbs or resins for ceremony call this practice “smudging.” While using various forms of scent and scented smoke (such as incense) in religious and spiritual rites is an element common to many different cultures worldwide, the details, reasons, desired effects, and spiritual meanings are usually unique to the specific cultures in question.
Some of the terminology in use among non-Indigenous people, such as the American English term "smudge stick" is usually found in use among those who imitate what they believe are Native American sacred ceremonies. However, the herbs used in commercial "smudge sticks" or "sage bundles," and the rituals performed with them by non-Natives, are rarely the actual materials or ceremonies used by traditional Native Americans. Use of these objects have also been adopted in some forms into a number of modern belief systems, including many forms of New Age and eclectic Neopagan spirituality. This has been protested against by Native activists as a form of cultural misappropriation, and care is needed to distinguish smudging from other practices involving smoke. 
Smudging "kits" are often sold commercially, despite traditional prohibitions against the sale of spiritual medicines like white sage. These may include bundles of a single herb or a combination of several different herbs; often these herbs are not found bundled together in traditional use, and their use is not universal to all, or even most, Native cultures. In some Native American cultures the burning of these herbs is prohibited. Other commercial items may contain herbs not native to North America, or not indigenous to the region where they are being used, as well as substances that are toxic when burnt.
Native American and First Nations students in college dorms have at times faced harassment and been forbidden from burning herbs for ceremonial reasons due to university fire prevention policies that prohibit the burning of candles or incense in college dorm rooms. This has raised issues around the religious freedom of Native Americans. In another account, a Native American in Cincinnati became ordained by the Universal Life Church in order to fulfill the requirement that only clergy members could perform smudging ceremonies as part of the prayer ritual for other Native Americans in area hospitals.
Use of smoke in other cultures
Other cultures worldwide may burn herbs or incense for spiritual purposes, such as in smoking ceremonies, saining, or practices involving the use of censers. However, these cultures have their own practices, as well as their own beliefs about these ritual actions and the ritual use of smoke.
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- Aldred, Lisa (2000). "Plastic Shamans and Astroturf Sun Dances: New Age Commercialization of Native American Spirituality". The American Indian Quarterly. The University of Nebraska Press: 329–352. ISSN 24.3 Check
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- Stokes, DaShanne (May 18). "Sage, Sweetgrass, and the First Amendment". The Chronicle of Higher Education: B16. Check date values in:
- Bishop, Lauren (April 14, 2007). "Ordained for the Occasion". The Cincinnati Enquirer. pp. A1, A9.
- Elder furious Alberta department store selling sweetgrass - Video
- Sephora’s “Starter Witch Kit” and Spiritual Theft - Adrienne Keene (Cherokee) of Native Appropriations on commercial "smudge kits"
- Stokes, DaShanne. 2001. "Sage, Sweetgrass, and the First Amendment." The Chronicle of Higher Education, May 18, pp. B16.