I start most mornings by smudging [for non-Natives: info here]*. I love how the smell lingers on me and in my home and I love that the smell reminds me of Native spaces. It makes me feel safe. The medicines I use were all gifted to me by friends or colleagues, or I have a few special ones that I gathered myself–a sweetgrass braid I made with my students while we were with Oneida tribal members on their lands, a bundle of sage gathered at Sacred Stone Camp with my friend from Standing Rock while we were participating in the movement in 2016. When I burn them, I remember where they came from or who gifted them to me, and that’s important to me and my practice as well. I also smudge when things are hard, or when something has happened and I need to cleanse or re-center. Smudging is grounding to me. It’s centering. It’s personal.
So when I see things like Sephora selling a $42 “Starter Witch Kit” from the brand Pinrose that includes a bundle of white sage, I have…thoughts.
To understand this kit you need to understand that this, like all instances I write about here, is not new. From the earliest contact with Columbus, Christianity and suppressing Native religions was a tool with which colonizers enacted their violent genocide. There are thousands of examples. In the 1500’s, Spanish colonizers operated under “the Requirement,” which forced Natives to convert to Christianity or else, “We shall take you and your wives and your children, and shall make slaves of them, and as such shall sell and dispose of them as their Highnesses may command; and we shall take away your goods, and shall do all the harm and damage that we can.” The California Mission system has a similar history. Mandatory Government boarding schools and mission schools had the explicit mission of christianization and suppression of traditional Native spirituality. The Ghost Dance and Wounded Knee. On and on and on.
In addition to the violent and bloody suppression of Native spirituality through these tactics, our ceremonies were explicitly made illegal, with punishments ranging from fines, to prison sentences, to being sent to asylums for “insane Indians”. This wasn’t just a threat. It was written into law. The Commissioner of Indian Affairs wrote these “Rules for Indian Courts” in 1892:
“Dances-Any Indian who shall engage in the sun dance, scalp dance, or war dance, or any similar feast, so called, shall be guilty of an offense, and upon conviction thereof shall be punished for the first offense by with holding of his rations for not exceeding ten days or by imprisonment for not exceeding ten days; for any subsequent offense under this clause he shall be punished by withholding his rations for not less than ten days nor more than thirty days, or by imprisonment for not less than ten days nor more than thirty days.
Medicine men–Any Indian who shall engage in the practices of so-called medicine men, or who shall resort to any artifice or device to keep the Indians of the reservation from adopting and following civilized habits and pursuits, or shall use any arts of conjurer to prevent Indians from abandoning their barbarous rites and customs, shall be deemed guilty of an offense, and upon conviction thereof, for the first offense shall be imprisoned for not less than ten days and not more than thirty days: Provided That, for subsequent conviction for such offense the maximum term or imprisonment shall not exceed six months.”
Read that closely–Native peoples would have their rations withheld or would be imprisoned for up to thirty days for simply practicing their ceremonies or being a medicine person.
It wasn’t until 1978–a mere 40 years ago–that Congress passed the American Indian Religious Freedom Act. The Act declares that “henceforth it shall be the policy of the United States to protect and preserve for American Indians their inherent right of freedom to believe, express, and exercise the traditional religions of the American Indian, Eskimo, Aleut, and Native Hawaiians, including but not limited to access to sites, use and possession of sacred objects, and the freedom to worship through ceremonials and traditional rites.” (For a good summary of the history of Native religious suppression and resistance, I found this piece by Lee Irwin very helpful)
The fact that our ceremonies even still exist and are actively practiced today is testament to the resistance and resilience of our communities. Our not-so-distant ancestors had to go underground with our spiritual practices, hide them from authorities, or mask them with a veneer of Christianity (see Pueblo communities or Oklahoma Indian Churches for great examples of that). Once, my Auntie mentioned that her Grandpa (my great-great grandpa) was a “nighthawk”–she didn’t know what that meant other than he supposedly snuck off at night a lot. After asking and reading around, I learned that the Nighthawks were the Cherokees in Indian Territory (what is now Oklahoma) who were committed to revitalizing traditional ceremony post-Trail of Tears. They held stomp dances and ceremonies deep in the forests of Oklahoma, and were committed to a return to traditional “old ways” in the same period of time where the Dawes Commission was dividing up communally held lands to encourage assimilation. These were not casual gatherings. They were dangerous and had dire consequences if discovered. This is the legacy I carry on when I practice my own spirituality.
Smudging and other Native spiritual practices are still not openly supported in spaces we occupy. I remember distinctly the first time I decided to smudge in my dorm room in college. I sat on the floor and nervously struck a match. I quickly smudged, concentrated not on my thoughts but on my smoke alarm–which decided that even my small amount of smoke was too much. The alarm began to blare as I waved my hands and a file folder frantically trying to disperse the lingering smoke. Then, with horror, I began to hear doors slamming progressively down the hall–BAM–BAM–BAM–BAM–and realized my hallmates doors were automatically slamming shut to contain the “fire” in my room. I ran out into the hall and shouted, “It’s ok! There’s no fire!” as folks came to investigate. My neighbors accused me jokingly of smoking too much pot. I had to nervously explain to everyone what I was doing, showing my shell and medicine. Everyone shrugged and went back inside. Once the smoke alarm stopped blaring the doors were able to be propped open again, and my pot smoking neighbors delivered a gift–a shower cap to place over the smoke alarm the next time I wanted to burn anything.
I was lucky. My dorm staff didn’t care, I didn’t have to go explain myself to the administration, and I wasn’t shamed for my spiritual practices. But it was still traumatic, and I didn’t smudge for a long time. There are Native students on college campuses across the country who are not as lucky. They are kicked out of housing for smudging, have roommates that “report” them to dorm staff, or are explicitly prohibited from practicing their spirituality in their homes on campus. Administrators tell them to “go outside” (where you’re subject to the stares and ridicule of passers-by) or force them to deliver “proof” from their tribe that this is something “cultural.” When Native campus communities want to bless spaces or smudge before events, they have to go through layers of bureaucratic BS to get permission from those in power. (I asked on Twitter for experiences from Native students, you can read some of the heartbreaking and heartening responses here. I think this might have to be a whole separate post.)
I am going so in depth here to show you–that smudge stick is not benign. It’s not about “ownership.” That smudge stick represents the deep pain, sacrifice, resistance, and refusal of Native peoples. It represents a continuing legacy of marginalizing and punishing Native spirituality. So when our religious practices are mocked through these products, or folks are commodifying and making money off our ceremonies it’s not about who has the “right” to buy or sell. It’s about power.
This problem isn’t limited to Pinrose or Sephora. Selling smudge “kits” is a thing. I tweeted about Urban Outfitters selling a smudge kit in 2015, which they pulled, but the company that made the kit still sells white sage on their site with the disclaimer, “Burning sage is a sacred practice, please be respectful when using sage.” Riiiight.
“When you search “smudge” on Etsy, the search immediately autofills with several options, none of them good.
Search “smudge kit” and the results return over 2000 options.
The sale of Native spirituality is easily a million dollar industry–not even including all the culture vultures and white shamans who sell fake ceremony. Who is benefitting from the sale of these products? Not Native peoples.
Finally, we need to unpack the “witch” part of this particular Pinrose kit in question. Remember back when I was writing all about JK Rowling’s “Magic in North America”? Here’s what I said about having Indigenous “magic” in the Harry Potter world of Witches and Wizards, and tied in the selling of these “kits” too:
The problem, Jo (can I call you Jo? I hope so), is that we as Indigenous peoples are constantly situated as fantasy creatures. Think about Peter Pan, where Neverland has mermaids, pirates…and Indians. Or on Halloween, children dress up as monsters, zombies, princesses, disney characters…and Indians. Beyond the positioning as “not real,” there is also a pervasive and problematic narrative wherein Native peoples are always “mystical” and “magical” and “spiritual”–able to talk to animals, conjure spirits, perform magic, heal with “medicine” and destroy with “curses.” Think about Grandmother Willow in Pocahontas, or Tonto talking to his bird and horse in The Lone Ranger, or the wolfpack in Twilight…or any other number of examples.
But we’re not magical creatures, we’re contemporary peoples who are still here, and still practice our spiritual traditions, traditions that are not akin to a completely imaginary wizarding world (as badass as that wizarding world is). In a fact I quote often on this blog, it wasn’t until 1978 that we as Native peoples were even legally allowed to practice our religious beliefs or possess sacred objects like eagle feathers. Up until that point, there was a coordinated effort through assimilation policies, missionary systems, and cultural genocide to stamp out these traditions, and with them, our existence as Indigenous peoples. We’ve fought and worked incredibly hard to maintain these practices and pass them on.
So I get worried thinking about the message it sends to have “Indigenous magic” suddenly be associated with the Harry Potter brand and world. Because the other piece I deal with on this blog is the constant commodification of our spiritual practices too. There is an entire industry of plastic shamans selling ceremonies, or places like Urban Outfitters selling “smudge kits” and fake eagle feathers. As someone who owns a genuine time-turner, I know that marketing around Harry Potter is a billion dollar enterprise, and so I get nervous thinking about the marketing piece. American fans are going to be super stoked at the existence of a wizarding school on this side of the pond, and I’m sure will want to snatch up anything related to it–which I really hope doesn’t include Native-inspired anything.
Positioning Native spirituality as “witchcraft” was also part of the tactics of oppression I listed early in the post. So along with placing Native peoples as fantasy creatures, it also draws upon that painful history and collapses diverse Native spiritualities onto the same level as magic crystals.
I’m not going to get into Wicca or Neo-Paganism and marginalization of these spiritual practices. I have some feelings about the ways appropriation runs deep for many individuals in those movements which will have to be another essay. But if self proclaimed “witches” want to get on board with helping stop Native spiritual oppression, cool. Just remember your own Wiccan Rede: “If it harm none, do what you will.” Clearly this harms.
Here’s the thing. “Smudging” is a practice that is from Native North American spiritual traditions. Yes, burning herbs, resins, roots, specific woods, incense, etc as cleansing or for prayer is something shared across many spiritual traditions. Across Native communities, we use different medicines for smudging depending on where we’re from. Not all communities use or used white sage or even smudge. They may call it other things as well. In Cherokee we also “go to water” for cleansing, and I didn’t learn to smudge until later in life.
Despite this diversity, the idea of “smudging” is distinctly indigenous to the Americas. White sage, the plant in question, grows in California. The plant itself is not endangered in the US-stamped-on-a-list kind of way, though many online are saying that, but what is endangered is Native peoples’ ability to access and use wild white sage in the ways that they and their ancestors have done for thousands of years. The habitats of white sage in California are threatened by development and increasing wild fires, and now wannabe “witches” and others who don’t know the proper protocols to sustainably harvest and protect the plants could do irreparable harm to an already threatened medicine.
All of this is to say: find out what your own ancestors may have burned for cleansing, and use that. Unless you’re Native, it probably wasn’t white sage. Sorry. I know you’re not used to hearing you can’t have something. But you can’t have this. Before you storm off in an entitled huff, I honestly don’t care what you do in the privacy of your own home. If you’re gifted medicines by Native folks and are taught how to properly use them, more power to you. Just don’t turn around and sell them or sell ceremonies.
What I care about is the removal of context from conversations on cultural appropriation, the erasing of the painful and violent history around suppression of Native spirituality, the ongoing struggles Native students and peoples have in practicing their beliefs, and the non-Native companies and non-Native individuals that are making money off of these histories and traditions without understanding the harm they’re enacting.
So yeah, won’t be shopping at Sephora anytime soon.
For a similar context-filled post about the misuse of warbonnets: Dear Christina Fallin
(Wanted to give a shout out to who has been tweeting out some great threads about this in the last few days. Give her a follow or support her on Patreon.)
(Also, Hi. I’m back. I missed you all.)
*I wrote about the mechanics of how I smudge here but took it out after thinking about it. I don’t need to provide folks a “how to” guide for cultural theft.