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Smudging is a ceremony practiced by some Indigenous peoples of the Americas, that involves the burning of sacred herbs, in some cases for spiritual cleansing or blessing. While the particulars of the ceremonies, and the herbs used can vary widely between tribes and nations, many use forms of sage (for example, common sage or white sage) and cedar that is local to their region. Not all Native American and First Nations cultures that burn herbs for ceremony call this practice “smudging.” While using scent and scented smoke (such as incense) in religious and spiritual rites is an element common to many different cultures worldwide, the details and spiritual meanings are usually unique to the specific cultures in question.
Native American tradition
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 purification and healing ceremonies, and sometimes smudging 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.
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.
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 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.
- 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.
- "First Nations teen told to stop smudging or face suspension from school". CTV.ca. Retrieved 2014-02-06.
- Lyon, William S. (1998). Encyclopedia of Native American Healing. W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. p. 173. ISBN 0-393-31735-8.
- 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