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11/30/2018 12:47 EST | Updated 12/03/2018 12:10 EST

Indigenous People Want Brands To Stop Selling Sage And Smudge Kits

"The unfortunate thing is people take a little bit of our culture and twist it into their own liking."

Ceremonial smudging involves the burning of sacred medicines.
zenaphoto via Getty Images
Ceremonial smudging involves the burning of sacred medicines.

Indigeneity is having a "moment" in popular culture, one which has lasted decades.

From the appropriation of headdresses and moccasins, to textiles and beadwork, retail chains and brands can't seem to help themselves when it comes to romanticizing Indigenous culture. The commodification of sage and smudging is just the latest addition to this expanding list.

Amy Willier, co-owner of MoonStone Creation Native Art Gallery in Calgary, doesn't like the fact that retail chains continue to sell sage and smudge kits.

"These huge companies are profiting off our spirituality. That's not how it should be, it hurts my heart quite a bit," she said.

Smudging, on the surface, is a ceremony for purifying or cleansing the soul and involves the burning of sacred medicines. In Indigenous practice, these medicines are sage, tobacco, sweetgrass and cedar. Other cultures around the world also perform smoke-cleansing rituals and may use different herbs, resins and sacred objects.

Willier, who is Cree from Sucker Creek First Nation, isn't saying no one can sell sage, because she does. She's saying there's a problem when retail chains sell the idea behind smudging completely separate from the practice. But this isn't a new problem, it's merely a growing one.

Despite resistance from Indigenous people, sage continues to be sold by retail chains and online merchandisers.

Kory Snache (Giniw), who is Anishinaabe from Chippewas of Rama Mnjiknini First Nation, believes non-Indigenous companies should know they're crossing a line when they choose to sell items that are sacred to Indigenous people.

"People who utilize sage spiritually have a very different concept of what sage is, and that should be respected," said Snache, who organized a medicine walk in Toronto over the summer. "It is deep rooted with medicinal and spiritual understandings that are reinforced with teachings passed down through generations."

Screen Shot/Anthropologie, Home Blessings Smudge Kit
Anthropologie recently pulled their "Home Blessings Smudge Kit"

Earlier this year, Sephora planned to sell a "Starter Witch Kit" from perfume brand Pinrose that included a bundle of white sage. After protests from both Indigenous and witch communities, Pinrose pulled the product and released a statement apologizing to those who took offence. However, they claimed "the product did not reference ceremonial smudging or ceremony circles," despite stating its intent was "to create something that celebrates wellness, personal ceremony, and intention setting."

Adrienne Keene who runs Native Appropriations, a forum for "discussing representations of Native peoples," spoke in detail about the hypocrisy of labelling the "Starter Witch Kit" an appropriation of witchcraft when practices are routinely taken from Indigenous people.

Up until mid-November, Anthropologie was selling a "Home Blessings Smudge Kit," but this wasn't the company's first foray into this territory. In October, they pulled an "Elements of Aura, Cleansing a Space Ritual Kit" that included an abalone shell and sage stick.

Sage and smudge kits have been routinely pulled from stores but often only after Indigenous people have launched campaigns against the appropriation.

Stores like Sephora and Anthropologie, however, are not alone in commodifying Indigenous spirituality. Urban Outfitters (which shares a parent company with Anthropologie, URBN) sells a "White Sage Incense Stick" and "Incense + Crystal Kit." Free People (also owned by URBN) sells a "Ritual Kit," with white sage and feather. Amazon sells a three-pack of "White Sage Smudge Sticks" and describes it as a "sacred herb among Indigenous North American people."

We have reached out to URBN, parent company of Urban Outfitters, Anthropologie and Free People, for comment, and will update this story if we hear back.

Indigenous communities have not only taken issue with retail chains profiting off of their spirituality, but also the promotion of smudging as "trendy" when, for decades, Indigenous people were banned from practicing it themselves.

While the Indian Act did not explicitly ban smudging, it broadly outlawed Indigenous religious and cultural activities, of which smudging is an integral part.

Screen Shot/Urban Outfitters, White Sage Incense Stick
Urban Outfitters still sells their "White Sage Incense Stick," and this is one of the photos used to market the products.

Willier believes this commodification has led to non-Indigenous people co-opting aspects of Indigenous culture without understanding it.

"Native spirituality makes sense to a lot of people. But the unfortunate thing is people take a little bit of our culture, twist it into their own liking and and use it like that," said Willier.

Smudging, she said, is much more than just the burning of sage, but that's all it is being marketed as by retail chains.

"Smudging is ceremony, and when you're in ceremony, all parts of your being need to be in ceremony. And it's not something you take lightly," said Willier.

Snache has always viewed sage as a sacred object and throughout his life he has used it for many purposes, all of which have been spiritual.

"During hunting, for cleansing, for prayer, for fishing, spearfishing, and when harvesting bark and medicines, it is the spiritual teachings and understandings that bind me to it," he said.

People are searching for meaning in their life, so we're not saying, 'No you can't do it, it's not yours to have 'cause smudging is a gift for everyone.Amy Willier

"Smudging is not just like, 'I'm going to light this sage and have a glass of wine and all the bad spirits will get out of here.' There's a ceremonial way to do it," said Willier.

Indigenous people aren't laying claim to sage and smudging as an act — the resistance is based off of the way it's being appropriated, and the protocols that are being disregarded.

"People are searching for meaning in their life, so we're not saying, 'No you can't do it, it's not yours to have' 'cause smudging is a gift for everyone," said Willier.

Screen Shot/Anthropologie, Juniper Ridge Smudge Stick Trio.
Anthropologie sold out of their "Juniper Ridge Smudge Stick Trio."

If you're actually interested in smudging and learning the proper ways to go about doing it, Willier says there are people who are willing to teach.

Snache agrees, he believes no one can own the act of smudging or the items themselves, and that it's all about the intention of the act, whether the intentions are pure, and where the teachings come from.

"If people are buying it to be 'free' like 'Indians,' it's definitely not good," said Snache. "Taking pieces of other cultural practices is being a culture vulture, and that's connected to entitlement."

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At Moonstone Creation Native Art Gallery, Willier and her mother get all kinds of people in, and see it as an opportunity to share those teachings.

They have sage and smudge kits in their shop, but they include their own teachings in addition to some protocols.

"I've always been about teaching people and my dad has always been about teaching people and sharing the knowledge," said Willier.

"Knowledge without sharing is worthless."

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