The Importance of Sage Among Native American Nations for Health and Healing

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As several health rituals embraced, the use of sage really has some pretty deep roots. If you used it personally—or even thought of using it—for physical or spiritual health reasons it is important to know the importance of enlightenment among Native American nations, as members of different Native cultures argue that there is a very thin line between appreciation and appropriation.

You’re possibly familiar with a few different uses of sage, the most prominent of which is “smudging,” a ritualistic burning of sage that has been popularized in the home by non-Natives in recent years. Yet evidence reveals that the traditional uses of sage are really so much more sacred, and that includes its medicinal use. Taté Walker, a two-spirit storyteller and resident of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, shares that in their particular culture, the herb is used as a cure for illnesses, including menstruation, constipation, and anxiety, among many others.

In addition, Ruth H. Hopkins, a researcher, indigenous spokesperson, and a member of the Dakota/Lakota Sioux Tribe, states that Prairie Sage is frequently used inher native culture to cure skin rashes, as a deodorant, and also as a blood sugar-reducing diabetic tea, although uses vary from Tribe to Tribe.

Although both sources accept several medical uses of sage, Walker says that there is at least one majorly false assertion. “One troubling thing I’ve seen circulated a lot, even by Native people, is that burning sage eliminates airborne viruses, like COVID-19,” they explain. “That’s not true, and considering the devastation COVID-19 has caused within Native communities, it’s a harmful rumor that needs to stop.”

When it comes to smudging, both Walker and Hopkins claim that there is something more to it than merely attempting to build ambiguous “good vibes.” Rather, Tribes, like Lakota Sioux, are practicing this ceremony as a sacred healing or blessing with the purpose of removing negative forces. “Sage is sacred and should be respected as such,” Hopkins says.  “Cleansing with sage involves more than just burning the dried leaves of the plant and waving it around. It must be gathered with good intention in a manner that honors both the plant and the earth. The root should be left in the ground, and a prayer of thanks along with an offering of tobacco or cansasa should be given after harvesting. All of this is part of its cleansing power.”

In fact, preservation is a major factor in the use of sage by Native Americans, as Walker states, that the appropriation of it by non-Natives has become an environmental concern. “Commodifying sage has led to poaching and overharvesting, which has a negative impact on how the plant is grown, harvested, and interacts with the environment,” they claim. “From the time it’s harvested to the time the ashes are disposed of must be purposeful, intentional, and sustainable.” Walker continues that the sage used for smudging/prayer purposes should not be purchased or sold, and that is why most natives who use the herb in this way are cultivating their own.

All of this poses a significant question: can non-Natives use sage? Well, according to Walker and Hopkins, it depends on that. First and foremost, you ought to look past the fashion appeal, which Walker claims is both reductive and dangerous. “My people fought and died to protect our medicinal and sacred knowledge, and your trendy use of it here on the occupied lands of hundreds of Native nations erases our struggles and our resilience,” they claim. “More importantly, when you can burn sage and ignore the history of what sage means to Native people, it’s much easier for you to also ignore our modern struggles, such as bringing justice to missing and murdered Indigenous women and defending our lands from violently extractive industries.”

And while Hopkins shares that smudging can be undertaken solely with the consent and involvement of native people, Walker says that if you’re thoughtful and mindful of native communities and the past and sacred purposes of the sage, you’re on the right track. “Lots of non-Native cultures use sage, so I’d never police someone’s legitimate use of it, especially those seeking to understand their ancestry, better themselves, and selflessly serve others,” they explain. “It’s fun to chat with folks doing this kind of inner wellness work; their research often finds them relating better to other cleansing and smudgeable herbs, like rosemary and thyme, and they end up using sage a lot less in their spiritual and wellness rituals.”

When in doubt, Walker advises asking yourself a critical question when attempting to decide if your use of sage is appreciating or appropriating: are you doing anything to help yourself, or are you respecting others, including the land? “If it’s getting likes on your Instagram page and/or putting money in your pocket and/or not in any meaningful way benefiting the people who bled and died so that you could enjoy it today, then it’s appropriation and you need to stop,” they share. “This goes for wearing feather headdresses, putting a tipi in your kid’s room, dressing up as an Indian for Halloween, hanging a made-by-non-Natives dreamcatcher in your car, decorating with a Southwest ‘Native-inspired’ flare, using Papyrus font for your Columbus Day sale, and buying or selling sage, abalone, Palo Santo, and other sacred items.”



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