Smudging vs Cleansing: A Stepping Stone to Plastic Shamanhood

Let’s talk about vernacular. Yes, I’m being serious. Yes, literally. Was that a pun? I’m not sure, but let’s carry on anyway and you can decide for yourself along the way. I will preface this post by saying I am not trying to sound holier-than-thou, but instead to help educate and avoid missteps that I certainly have made myself on this path.

The word vernacular originates from the Latin word, vernāculus, meaning native or indigenous. And that etymology has a special application to the topic at hand.

If there is one thing us metaphysical types love it’s sage – white sage, specifically. People of all designations burn bundles, grind leaves, and find all sorts of ways to incorporate the plant into their practice. I know I enjoy the scent and utilize it in my practice before mediation and rituals and honestly if I’ve just had a bad day. Post-cleansing, it’s helpful to set your intention since you’re working with a “clean slate”.

So, what’s the difference then in the use of “smudging” or “cleansing”? And why is it important? Let me share with you the perspective of a privileged late-twenties, white female – who wants to be a better and more informed ally as she navigates her own learning process.

  • Cleansing can be done by a number of herbs or crystals, of which white sage is very popular. The explosion of white sage’s popularity has caused depletion of the natural, free-growing supply of this plant. If you insist on using white sage, either grow it yourself or ensure the source of your supply is ethical and considerate. A couple of my favorite alternative cleansing herbs are lavender and sweetgrass. Sweetgrass has a delightful vanilla scent, and lavender is famously aromatic.
  • Smudging is the use of white sage in a very specific ritual, consisting of knowledge that is passed down through Indigenous American culture. Information that is privy to specific tribes and practices of those tribes – i.e. not non-indigenous folk and especially not white people. If you fall into the latter categories, you are not “smudging” when using white sage. You’re cleansing.

Using the term interchangeably not only waters down the meaning of the word to those who have ingrained it in their culture but also disrespects those who have been horrifically oppressed by Europeans. As a European descendant myself, I find it egregious to siphon away even more meaning and culture from those were were native to the lands in which I now reside. Dilution of culture and cultural misappropriation should not be scoffed at or cheek-turned. It’s incredibly important to stop whitewashing the rituals and practices of Indigenous Americans.

So, not only is using the term “smudging” instead of “cleansing” inaccurate, but disrespectful. I believe we can do better, dear witches. So let’s do it.

Thank you for coming to my Ted Talk.

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