New Indian Wars: Sage

By E.M. Lunsford

When Native Americans speak of sage, what we mean, specifically, is Salvia apiana. Sage is in the same family as many other herbs, such as mint, rosemary, oregano—the family Lamiaceae. Salvia (sages) is a very vast genus. The sage you use for cooking, Salvia officinalis, is known to most of us. Salvia divinorum is a tender sage used traditionally for sacred medicines, inducing visions. Salvia apiana is a woody perennial, and is what most people mean when one speaks of “smudging”. Culturally, there are a lot of issues to unwrap here.

As far as S. divinorum, it has been co-opted by people looking to “trip”. You also get the types who think they’re worldly spiritual gurus that figure they have a right to the medicines of any culture they so choose. It’s now commercially available. It’s easier to grow, comparatively, than S. apiana. S. divinorum is a tender perennial similar to pineapple sage and the sages used as brightly-blossoming bedding plants. It grows much faster than S. apiana, and is more easily cultured in greenhouses.

But the much larger problem is with S. apiana. Every few weeks, the fight is renewed on social media. Some new age hippie type, or Instagram “influencer”, talking about “smudging”, completely (sometimes not so completely) ignorant of the cultural implications. And when confronted, it gets VERY heated.

As I’ve often stated, people think they have a right to claim whatever they wish, especially from

Indigenous people. They’ve claimed our land, our children, our lives, and our culture. Keep in mind, most of these practices were illegal, under threat of prison, for us to practice until 1978’s Indian Religious Freedom Act. Sundances were performed in private, and you had to really know someone to be invited.

Sweat lodge ceremonies had to be hidden. Potlatches were “disguised”.

Despite the first amendment, Indigenous people were not allowed to practice their own spirituality. It was a “religious” movement that lead to the massacre at Wounded Knee on December 29​th, 1890. A Paiute medicine man known as Wovoka had a vision. He was told of a dance that would bring the ancestors back, bring the buffalo back, and send the white men back where they came from. This dance, The Ghost Dance, spread across the nations like a prairie fire. Unfortunately, the settlers thought it was a precursor to them being slaughtered. So the U.S. Government set out to put an end to it. There, in the snow, the 7​th Cavalry surrounded Chief Spotted Elk’s (AKA Chief Bigfoot) band, who were trying to get to Pine Ridge Agency, South Dakota, to join Chief Red Cloud’s people.

Chief Spotted Elk was dying of pneumonia when they were surrounded, and was flying a white flag of truce. The soldiers, having been drinking, disarmed the people, and here the story varies: it is said a deaf man, Black Coyote, didn’t understand what was going on, and refused to give up his gun, which then went off, causing the intoxicated soldiers to panic and start firing, using guns and Hotchkiss cannons. Since they literally surrounded the people, they ended up getting hit by “friendly fire”, but at the end, around 300 men, women, and children were dead. Our religious practices were outlawed. Because the white people were afraid of the brown people they were stealing from.

Anyway, back to today and the use of white sage, also called grandfather sage.

Our practices are sacred to us. But today, another threat comes from encroachment: physical, spiritual, and corporate.  


S. apiana only grows in a small area of the California coast, regardless of what the social media “influencers” would have you believe. It is NOT easy to grow, it is very particular, it is very slow growing, and it is not being grown commercially – all “arguments” we have heard. As cities grow and expand, the range of white sage decreases. Many of the areas left where it grows are privately owned, or in protected park areas. You need costly permits in order to legally harvest it. This is one way it is financially placed out of the reach of traditional people who use it.


When non-Natives use it, they are using a threatened plant commodified for new age use. And they use it wrong. They think burning an entire bundle and waving it around gets rid of “ickies”. You have to be taught how to use it properly, the prayers to use, and if you cannot harvest it yourself, it should be gifted to you. Even Native people, if they must buy it, prefer to buy from ethical Native sellers. But every Becky, Ashley, and Moon Mother thinks they can just buy a bundle of leaves, burn them, and make everything okay. While the burning of sage has been shown to kill bacteria in the air, this is not what they’re intending. It “makes them feel better”. But is that enough, if you are told it’s actually harmful to entire cultures? Would not, say, lavender, or more commonly available cedar, do the same job, if you have the same “intent” behind it? All these people buy “spirit packs” from big companies, and think it’s going to cure all their ills just to burn it. Which leads us to…


Companies are not only buying up much of the available white sage, but poaching is big business, as well. In one case in California, sage poachers were caught in a state park with more than 400 pounds of white sage in huge duffel bags. LINK

No permits, no permission, but they were set to make a lot of money selling huge amounts of sage to corporate interests that make these new age “spirit kits”, also called “witch kits”. LINK

In 2018, Sephora and Pinrose decided to put out a “starter witch kit”. It was derided immediately. Unfortunately, most of the stories put emphasis that witches were the ones to decry it… as usual, little mention of all the Indigenous people who did. Silenced again. Many witches are fine with​   using sage, even when Indigenous people explain it to them. That violates the “harm thee none” tenet of witchcraft.

Sadly, this was their response.

“Per the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, Salvia Apiana (White Sage) is not classified as threatened or endangered. The sage that was planned to be used in this kit is sourced from a Green America Gold Certified company. The sage is grown in the wild in California and is sustainability harvested and sold by Native American-owned and operated businesses…. the product did not reference smudging or ceremony circles.”

If you read the article on the sage poaching, it is called an endangered plant. And oddly, no one can find this mysterious Native source for sage.

On social media, Indigenous people and allies face a lot of violence and racism when they tell InstaModelInfluencers that what they’re doing is wrong, and harmful. Abuse, endless harassment, doxxing, and even physical threats. They REALLY hate being told “no”, that you can’t just take whatever you want. They refuse to listen to Indigenous people, or they make specious claims of some whispered-about mystical Native great-great-grandparent, as if that automatically gives them understanding, let alone the “right” to co-opt Indigenous practices. They’ve tried to tell us it’s “not white sage”, when we know very well that is exactly what it is. Just because the packaging doesn’t state specifically (doesn’t mean it isn’t). It’s certainly not garden sage, it’s very distinctive in form and scent.

Personally, I use and gift small amounts of sage I gather personally that grows in the Cascade Mountains. They do not care how much harm they do… and that makes them, regardless of race or religion… horrible, awful people. The non-Native commodification, purchase, and use puts it out of reach of Indigenous people, physically, spiritually, and financially.

I really want to add a string of expletives here, but I shall refrain. You’re welcome. Stop harming Indigenous people! Isn’t it enough yet?

E.M. Lunsford is an Indigenous writer who has opted not to use a standard bio. Some biographical details are available in Lunsford’s article on Native American Heritage Month.
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