Edited to add: If smudging is in your culture and heritage, this is not in reference to your practice. I acknowledge that other cultures have a similar practice and that is not what I’m referencing. It’s unlikely that those cultures are harvesting and practicing with the same sage I speak of, but I don’t know enough about them to comment. I understand it’s not clear-cut.
Over the past few years, I have slowly shifted my beliefs and practices as I learn more about Indigenous cultures. I have always been careful and *I think* respectful, particularly in my history of teaching babywearing, but other areas I am still learning about. The colonizer way of babywearing involves safety rules that often paint traditional babywearing (in a kanga, cradle board with moss bag, amauti etc.,) as inherently unsafe, when in reality it’s just that colonizers don’t have babywearing in their heritage and thus must learn according to the society we live in. I call bullsh*t on the rules, and I 100% stand behind traditional babywearing. I used to burn sage (and sweetgrass on occasion) for cleansing, before realizing that it’s not mine to burn. And I used to have a desire to be a part of ceremonies that simply are not for me to experience without clear and explicit invitation by the communities who practice said ceremonies. I used to think “spirit animals” were cute conversation starters, until one of my junior derby skaters educated me otherwise. I’d like to share some of the reasons why I choose to leave the rituals and ceremonies with the cultures they belong to, and challenge you to think critically about the ones you participate in.
A few years ago myself and a few friends were en route to a birth conference and we were discussing rituals around birth. One of my dear friends indicated that she would no longer be burning sage, due to the fact that we are living on stolen land and have no business burning a sacred plant where we are. As someone who dabbled in Feng Shui, I kinda shrugged that off and continued burning sage. However, every time I lit the sage for a cleanse, all I could hear was my friend’s (who I deeply respect btw) words. Within short order I stopped burning sage altogether… and decided to educate myself instead.
Sage is one of those things that has been commodified by today’s colonizer society and can be attained at any new age witchy store, often never making reference to the Indigenous origins or spiritual importance. Well intentioned folks will use the sage to smudge, not acknowledging that smudging is an important ritual in Indigenous cultures that was banned for many years along with Indigenous traditions in general (at least for Indigenous folks). Currently the selling of sage by non-Indigenous sellers, the harvesting by people who do not know how to harvest sustainably and respectfully, and the burning by people who know nothing of the origins or importance, is cultural appropriation at best. I am all for cultural appreciation, but this is not it. We, as colonizers and white witches, have no business picking and choosing sacred practices to uplift our spirit and seek enlightenment without learning at the feet of the people who practice this ceremony as a way of life. A good explanation can be found in this article:
Another ceremony that I have chosen not to participate in (not that it was ever an actual option) is the consumption of Ayahuasca. I learned about it many years ago, and always thought it would be cool to participate in this seemingly life changing, enlightening experience. I never sought it out, but definitely romanticized it in my mind. That was until an issue of Bitch magazine showed up on my doorstep with this article all about it. There were parts of me that knew Ayahuasca was not really for me, but I never had the words or knowledge to formulate an actual reason. That article was enough to convince me that Ayahuasca would never be part of my spiritual growth, although there are plenty of other articles that would do the same. Basically it comes down to over harvesting happening to the point that the practice may not be able to continue for the local communities, and instead it is touted as retreats for spiritual tourists. The people who own the lodges that many of these retreats take place are owned by outsiders of the communities themselves, which means the money is not going to the people it should be. Some communities were persecuted, having to witness their sacred plant being burned and the ceremonies belittled (Hay, 2020). So when spiritual tourists come in and show an interest in these ceremonies, they are ultimately fetishizing the practice instead of understanding and appreciating it.
“Like many other sacred things that have been Columbused by colonizers, be it hip hop, sage, or the very lands we live on, the act of taking ayahuasca is an attempt to flee toxic whiteness, to heal the splintering of the self that occurred when the project of white supremacy was set in motion through atrocities like genocide and chattel slavery.” – Bani Amor
I think there are a couple things worth noting about ceremonies and rituals that are not in your ancestry. The thing that ties it all together and gives these practices meaning within the cultures they are practiced in, is tradition. Anyone can follow some guide and go through the motions of a ritual or ceremony, but unless it is embedded in tradition and honoured as such, it’s just a performance. Going back to sage… do you know if the sage you have was harvested ethically? Were the roots left in the ground? Was the earth thanked for the sage? And do you acknowledge the origins of the practice of smudging before engaging in your own ritual with it? There’s so much more to it than just the burning and cleansing and we all need to challenge ourselves to learn about it. I often think about how I would behave if I were surrounded by Indigenous folks. Would I burn the sage if my Indigenous friends were over? Hell no I wouldn’t… so I won’t do it alone either.
I also can’t emphasize enough the difference between appreciation and appropriation. It is entirely possible to appreciate cultures without appropriating them. As an example, I used to wear my babies in an Amauti, which is a traditional Inuit parka/baby carrier. How I managed to do this without appropriating was by purchasing an Amauti from an Inuit seamstress and protecting their intellectual property. The amauti pattern is protected and should never be made by a non-Inuit person, so respecting that and speaking of the carrier origins allowed me to appreciate that cultural practice in a respectful way. I also speak loudly when it comes to babywearing “safety,” as the colonizer language around it marginalizes traditional babywearers… and I won’t have it. So I believe I use my platform as a babywearing educator to amplify the voices of traditional babywearers, if that makes any sense. On the other side of the coin, if someone were to use an amauti made by a non-Inuit seamstress, not understand its origins and acknowledge the cultural practice and history… then there could be an issue.
I feel like I might be going on a few tangents here… so let’s wrap it up. Bottom line… if you do not know the origins of a practice that feels like ritual and ceremony, look it up. If you are unsure about if and how a traditional ceremony can be implemented ethically in your life, listen to Indigenous communities. The communities are sharing their thoughts, it’s up to you to find the information and listen. And lastly, take an Indigenous studies class for a deeper understanding around Indigenous cultures and why we as white colonizers and/or white witches should not just pick and choose specific rituals that we deem appropriate.
I’d also like to acknowledge that I am still learning. I strongly believe in the motto, “when you know better, do better” and I will not pretend to know everything. I do not. I have made mistakes and I will continue to do so, but I am committed to anti-racism, decolonization and Indigenization. I will humbly receive criticism and be accountable for any harms I have committed, albeit ignorantly. I will work towards cultural appreciation and not appropriation, and call my friends and family in as much as possible.
The Colonization of the Ayahuasca Experience (Mark Hay, 2020)
Please feel free to send me any suggested readings, I’d like to make this list more comprehensive.
**picture from Zenaphoto (Getty Images) via Huffington Post