Sage advice

The ecological and ethical problems of ‘smudging.’

 

Chances are you know the scent of white sage as well as you know patchouli. The sweet aroma of its dusty, pale green leaves permeates New Age spirituality shops across the Western U.S. The burning of California white sage, especially, has become an accepted form of cultural appropriation. Today, shops that carry sage, whether in mountain tourist towns or on Etsy, rarely consider its Indigenous origins or the current-day implications of its use. 

California white sage, or Salvia apiana, is a perennial desert shrub that grows several feet high. During April, the plant’s flowers, which range in color from white to pale lavender, attract bees, giving it the nickname “bee sage.” Indigenous cultures have collected, dried and burned the plant for centuries, using its smoke as medicine and in ceremonies. The scent is unique, an earthy, sweet aroma that curls in rising circles during smudging, clinging to clothes and hair for hours after burning.

It’s a beautiful plant with many uses. And that’s part of the problem: It’s become so popular that it has been commodified to the point of erasure, robbed of its Indigenous roots and cultural importance.

Historically, white sage has had many uses. The Kumeyaay and Cahuilla used it to treat fever, and its leaves were eaten or smoked in sweathouse ceremonies. The smoke was used for fumigation, and the plant crushed to use as a deodorant and to mask the tell-tale odor of hunters. The Chumash also ate the plant, preparing it in various ways.

White sage marketed as “sustainably grown” for sale in a Denver, Colorado, metaphysical store.
Luna Anna Archey/High Country News

California white sage still grows abundantly in Southern California, although over-harvesting has kept it from growing in the tall, thick bushes it once did. Indigenous peoples continue a tradition of handling it in environmentally sustainable ways by harvesting only what is needed for ceremony. 

There is very little data about where and how the plant is being harvested today for commercial purposes. Without rigorous research into the supply chain that takes a bundle of sage from California to an Etsy shopping cart, consumers simply cannot know if their sage was gathered and sold in a culturally ethical or environmentally responsible way.

United Plant Savers, a nonprofit that advocates for the preservation of medicinal plants, has put California white sage on its list of threatened species. Director Susan Leopold said the lack of understanding about sage’s sustainability and cultural importance — coupled with its seeming ubiquity — has led people to acquire and use it irresponsibly. 

“There are no commercial permits for selling white sage. You can get written permission from private landowners,” Leopold said. “And you can get permits for personal wild-crafting. But also, there’s very unspecific guidelines that sellers exploit.”

“It doesn’t matter if the company is Native or non-Native; it is against protocol to sell medicines.”

Well-intentioned vendors and patrons alike might believe they are buying sage directly from a private grower, not realizing that it was harvested without permission from public lands, possibly causing significant damage to the landscape.

The Gabrielino-Tongva, a state-recognized tribe in Southern California, have a relationship with white sage that goes back 7,000 years, ever since the tribe has been in the Los Angeles Basin. To the Tongva, sage is not a commodity, but a member of the family. This creates a relationship between medicine and person that  is more complex than commerce can account for, a kinship beyond dollars and cents. “I have a firm stance in regards to medicinal plants that they are not to be sold: period,” said Weshoyot Alvitre, a Tongva illustrator who advocates for her ancestral land. Growing up, Alvitre was taught that selling such medicine was wrong. “It doesn’t matter if the company is Native or non-Native; it is against protocol to sell medicines.”

The white sage industry either ignores — or capitalizes on — the plant’s importance to the Indigenous population, she said, and it can be found in “withcraft” and “Native spirituality” kits on Amazon, or purchased for “cleansing rituals” at a local New Age shop. Like dreamcatchers, sage has been degraded for consumption, she said.

Unfortunately, it’s not easy to find ethically, responsibly — and legally — sourced white sage.

Buzzwords like “responsibly sourced” mean nothing if you don’t know your source or their practices, she said.

“If someone says, ‘Oh yeah, we got this sage sustainably,’ I don’t think that means much anymore,” said Deborah Small, who writes about contemporary uses for plants important to Indigenous peoples. Buzzwords like “responsibly sourced” mean nothing if you don’t know your source or their practices, she said.

The plant itself may not be endangered, but its habitat is threatened by encroaching development. In early August, intense wildfires destroyed miles of white sage habitat. Global warming impacts the plant in other ways, too, as rising sea levels erode its coastal habitat. Unauthorized, unregulated harvesting of the plant for commercial purposes accelerates the problem.

Meanwhile, even those non-Native store owners who realize that there are gaps in their sourcing appear unmotivated to change their practices. Herbs and Arts, for example, a Denver metaphysical shop, claims that its vendor ethically sources the sage it sells. That vendor is Full Moon Farm in Arizona, which supplies 350 stores across the country. The farm’s owner, Wendy Hillyer, is not Indigenous. She started the company, she said, because white sage “creates a feeling of sacredness in everyday life, and I wanted to share that with everyone.” Hillyer initially obtained white sage through “friends of friends.” Then she found a regular supplier, though she declined to disclose the supplier or information about the harvest because she said she was worried about “poachers.” Hillyer acknowledged that she could have purchased sage from Indigenous suppliers, but thought it was too expensive.

The fact that California white sage is not listed as endangered gives people the sense that it’s OK to harvest it lavishly and sell it for a profit. The regulations on harvesting are confusing and rarely enforced.  Under California law, white sage cannot simply be gathered from the side of the road. In some parts of the state, there are fines for harvesting without proper permitting. It’s legal to take for personal use with written permission from the property owner. But who owns the property? Few shops accurately document where and how their sage was collected.  In California, it could be the Forest Service, the state Fish and Wildlife Department or the Bureau of Land Management. The Etiwanda Preserve in San Bernardino County, for example, is home to complex underground waterways that help the plant flourish, an irresistible attraction for poachers.

Poachers rarely care about sustainable harvests. White sage should be harvested at the end of the growing season, after it flowers. But poachers cut off the top of the plant before it reaches maturity. In 2018, 400 pounds of illegally harvested California white sage were confiscated by the Rancho Cucamonga Police Department.

Bret Williamson, owner of the Colorado wholesaler Crystal Peddler, has been selling sage for 30 years. His sage is gathered by wild-crafters from Bureau of Land Management land, he said. And though he knows you need a permit to wild-craft on BLM land for personal use, he admits he’s never actually seen a permit, or even asked for or received permission to gather. Despite this, Williamson said he believes the sage he sells has been ethically collected. “I know enough people out there,” he said.

Deborah Small and her co-author, Rose Ramirez, who is Chumash and Yaqui, said the only solution is to make sure that the “responsibly sourced” label actually means something.

The two women have spoken about California white sage across the state, trying to warn people about poaching and explain how to responsibly harvest and use the plant.  But people would rather just learn how to smudge, and they seem to have no interest in the ethical and sustainability issues surrounding the plant. Ramirez has ideas for ways to help curb poaching — creating special certification, for example, and doing more education and outreach. “We are well past the point of not selling it,” Ramirez said. 

Taylar Stagner is from the Wind River Indian Reservation and is currently getting her masters in American Culture Studies at Bowling Green State University. Stagner is Shoshone and Arapaho and loves to write fiction as well. Email High Country News at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor.

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