Sage smudging has become a viral trend.
What’s the truth behind the smoke?
Metric tons of white sage (Salvia apiana) are being poached to supply an international demand. This plant is deeply rooted in the cultures and lifeways of the Indigenous communities of Southern California and northern Baja, the only region where white sage naturally occurs in the world. The devastating theft and the appropriated trend that it fuels stand in sharp contrast with the values and traditional practices of regional native communities.
White sage in the news:
“Plants are not just ‘cultural resources.’ Plants are our relatives. They’re to be treated with reciprocal respect.”
-Craig Torres (Tongva)
The sage wands you see for sale and the smudging you see in mainstream media do not represent the true cultural context of white sage (Salvia apiana). Indigenous people in Southern California and northern Baja have tended white sage populations for thousands of generations. Referred to lovingly by some as “grandmother,” white sage provides much in return: medicine, food, ceremony, and beyond. The cleansing rituals seen in popular culture misconstrue and disregard the Indigenous context of white sage. Most glaringly, the white sage in many purchased smudge sticks is poached or questionably sourced—not tended and gathered with respect.
Barbara Drake (Tongva)
We always advocate for planting white sage. Plant not just sage, though. Planting the native plants. Learn about the caretaking of white sage. We want you to know why it’s so important. I’d say do your homework. All the gifts that white sage can provide, besides lighting it as a smudge. White sage has so many uses as a medicine. It has such healing properties for your throat, your lungs, your gums. It’s comforting. It just makes you feel good to have a cup of tea. we’re just so fortunate that we have white sage. That it exists. that it comes back year after year. It’s just a gift for us. It’s a gift for all of us.
Craig Torres (Tongva)
You need to have that basic respect for all life around you. Because That’s what enables us to live as human beings on this earth is those plant people, the animal people. Because without them, we don’t [live]. And I think in our societies today, we’ve lost that connection and people have become oblivious to it. Once they don’t have that relationship with the plant, it’s no longer important. And so they don’t need it. Or at least they feel they don’t need it because they get it from all these other places, right? We can go to the store and buy the white sage. They don’t have to have that relationship with the plant out in nature and understanding that it’s that plant that is healing you when you’re sick. It’s that plant you put on your sores. White sage really gives its life to heal us.
Heidi Lucero (Acjachemen and Mustun Ohlone)
We use white sage during ceremony. When I do archaeology and work with ancestors for NAGPRA*, we make sure that we sage ourselves before and after. And when we wrap our ancestors and artifacts to be reburied, we make sure that we send them home with sage. When they have to be reburied, we also burn sage. *Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act.
Kimberly Morales Johnson (Tongva)
Our people are like the plants, and they are our plant relatives. We are survivors and Mother Earth gives us these gifts of plant medicine because thousands of years ago we didn’t have a grocery store, a pharmacy or a Home Depot. We had Mother Earth to provide everything for us. We were completely reliant upon her… So when we go out and we see the white sage, it’s viewed at in our perspective as a gift from Mother Earth. Then I fast forward to 2021 and I see people abusing it and to me, I don’t know where they got it. They could have just bought it… It was probably poached. So if you go back to it’s a gift from Mother Earth and she’s given this for our people to survive, and someone comes in and takes that sprig, burns it, and sells it, that—to me—is a way of pimping out the blessing.
Gerald Clarke (Cahuilla)
In terms of non-native people going into the environment and gathering sage to make smudge sticks, you’re looking for healing outside of yourself. You are looking for some substance to add to your healing. In my community, when we’re singing and dancing together, people come from the outside world and they watch us sing and dance. But they’ll never know that feeling of being in it, of being in the singing, of being in the dancing, and feeling that power—that communal power—and so I think it’s misguided when you think that healing is going to come outside of yourself. You can’t buy that.
Rose Ramirez (Chumash/Yaqui)
Ah, the ubiquitous white sage, Salvia apiana, a plant that we adore. We use it for ceremony, gifting, food, and medicine. We burn it to cleanse our bodies, minds, ceremonial instruments, and our homes. We use it to help bury our dead and to get us through menopause. From a single leaf to a dried bundle, many of us grow it, and have it on hand, ready for use, to gift or to provide to a person in need
“White sage has this mystique as being the most spiritual of all plants in the world… Hollywood has really picked up on white sage as the go-to symbol for cleansing. ”
-Tima Lotah Link (Chumash)
How did white sage (Salvia apiana) go viral? Many native families ended up in California cities like Los Angeles through government work training programs (aka assimilation and relocation) in the 1950s. White sage, similar in many ways to sagebrush and other aromatic plants used in ceremonies back home, was adopted by relocated people. Its use then spread throughout Native America and attained a pan-Indian status. In the 1960s, the hippie movement co-opted the use of white sage and evolved into the New Age Movement. Use of white sage exploded along with it. White sage smudging is popularized in movies and television. Articles on the benefits of smudging and cleansing pop-up daily in newspapers and magazines, as well as on blogs, Facebook, Instagram, and other social media sites, mainstreaming its use.
The demand for white sage is massive and international
White sage is sold everywhere. You can buy sage products in trade shops, gift stores, New Age businesses, yoga studios, groceries and more. Online retailers like Amazon, Walmart, Alibaba and Etsy sell a seemingly limitless supply. Juniper Ridge, the “ultimate hipster bath + body brand,” according to product design coach Lela Barker, sells white sage products in stores across the world. With very few commercial growers of white sage (Salvia apiana), the vast majority of products are wild-harvested.
Donec vitae consecteturJuniper Ridge sells in stores internationally
“Most of the stuff sold in the upscale trendy places was ripped out of the wild; whole hillsides stuffed into an old van and driven to San Francisco or Seattle or even New York so people can experience something.”
-the late Bert Wilson of Las Pilitas Nursery
There is a black market for white sage (Salvia apiana).
On a weekly basis, busts are being made on both sides of the border. In the Etiwanda Preserve, a staffed habitat preservation area in Rancho Cucamonga, busting poachers is a daily occurence. The rangers have confiscated upwards of 1,000 pounds in a single instance, stuffed into oversized duffel bags. Over 20,000 pounds are estimated to have been poached from Etiwanda over the last five years alone. The poachers who are caught and fined are often undocumented workers, used and sent by hidden profiteers who make $30-50 a pound. In northern Baja California, Mexico News Daily reports that Pai Pai and Kumeyaay groups are experiencing massive theft of white sage on traditional land, measured in tons.
Where does white sage grow?
The only place that white sage (Salvia apiana) occurs naturally on Earth is between Santa Barbara and northern Baja California. In this limited range are a slew of internationally famous cities, including Los Angeles, Malibu, Santa Monica, San Diego, and Tijuana. In the map above, blue dots represent white sage plants and the gray coverage represents development: almost 50% of white sage populations have been lost to urbanization. Populations that have not been destroyed or impacted by development are under threat from poaching, climate change, drought and intense wildfire. White sage is an important food source for bees, butterflies, birds, and numerous other forms of wildlife. Larger bees, notably carpenter bees, are the predominant pollinators of white sage.
Meztli Projects is an Indigenous-based arts & culture collaborative centering Indigeneity into the creative practice of Los Angeles by using arts-based strategies to support, advocate for, and organize to highlight Native/Indigenous Artists and systems-impacted youth. Follow their accounts @meztliprojects.
About Rose Ramirez and Deborah Small
Rose Ramirez is of Chumash descent, a California Native basketweaver, photographer, and educator. Deborah Small is an artist, photographer, and professor emerita in the School of Arts at California State University San Marcos. Rose and Deborah co-authored the Ethnobotany Project: Contemporary Uses of Native Plants | Southern California and Northern Baja as well as “Saging the World,” first published in News from Native California in spring of 2020.