Blessed Winter Solstice! It's that time of year again here in the mountains of Western North Carolina, where in the warmth of the firelight we burn the fragrant resins of pine and fir, and simmer branches in a pot on the stovetop to fill the house with the clean scent and magic of evergreen. It's also the time of year where many are buying gifts, and in Pagan and New Age communities I see an upswing in talk about buying White Sage bundles and the defensive and difficult converstations coming up around how to talk to folks about this issue.
A few years ago I noticed a lack of readily available information on the cultural histories on different plants and woods used around the world for smoke medicine, cleansing and other sacred and healing purposes. The threatened status of White Sage (Salvia apiana) and the requests of Western indigenous peoples to stop using this plant in an inappropriate and culturally appropriative way has been loud and clear, yet for many reasons their asks and the nature of this plant's life go unheeded.
I like to believe it's because people don't know, yet I also see we need new ways to engage in these conversations when they come up to promote and inspire learning and healing. I wrote a booklet called "Sacred Smoke". It weirdly and sadly brought the most hate mail into my inbox, even more then I get when I post about hunting on instagram (including threats of violence against myself). All this, for suggesting kindly and without shaming that perhaps us white and non-indigenous folx could look into the hundreds of other, non-threatened, abundant and culturally appropriate plants and trees available for the practices of smoke cleansing and other incense adjacent practices. White people were outraged I tried to tell them what to do and also called me racist (against myself??) for talking about these things.
I am not taking this personally, I know that I experience a lot of shame and hard feelings when I am asked to examine a behavior I have or have had that causes harm. I am not asking for people to sink into shame, but to rise into knowing and growing. I am asking people to look at the reality of the situation. And that is painful.
Let us reclaim the knowledge erased from all of our minds as our ancestral folk ways were erased by the forces of Monotheistic religion, capitalism and industry. I want for us each to have access to the means to heal our ancestral trauma and that looks different for every person and every ancestry line and requires different tactics, sensitivities and time. Some of the following is an excerpt from my booklet and I encourage you to read with an open heart, knowing that I love you, and I want happiness, health and joy for you at the end of all this work.
All of us grew up in harmful, traumatic ways under the destructive culture of capitalism, patriarchy, oppressive Abrahamic religions, or other challenging and frightening forces. The desire to get far away from and embrace things that seem entirely different from those damaging entities can be the impetus to explore a new spiritual path or practice. This very real pain makes conversations about cultural appropriation in Paganism and New Age spiritual communities very hard, because it can be very triggering.
Everyone deserves a spiritual path that is nourishing and feels good. You can engage in a path of Witchcraft or Paganism without harmful appropriation and more intimately reconnect with your own ancestors and ancestral lifeways, which, if we all go far back enough, we all have a pagan past somewhere. If you are a European ancestored person in America, it can seem like you have no cultural legacy. You do, it was just as efficiently buried as many other cultures are currently being by the forces of imperialism, monotheistic religions and capitalism.
This does not mean that everyone must stick to only the practices of their direct ancestors. People who are adopted or do not know their family histories due to complex familial relationships must face this challenge especially. What I am asking is for you to look for the invitation and the manner necessary to practice what you want while understanding the context of the practice, the people it comes from and looking for ways you can support them today rather than consuming a spiritual practice like a one-size-fits all costume.
The appropriation of Native American practices in America is especially important to think about as a modern Pagan or Witch. Right now, the topic of smudging with White Sage is causing a hot debate about who can and cannot wild harvest it and use it for smudging, or cleansing a space spiritually as it has come to be very popular in New Age circles. This conversation causes such heightened feelings in white practitioners, it is troubling to say they least. No one wants to feel like they have made a mistake or hurt someone when they had no intention to, yet buying this plant from non-Natives and wild harvesting it irresponsibly are both harmful. We forget that it was illegal for indigenous people to practice their own religions and ways not that long ago by severe punishment:
“Rules for Indian Courts” in 1892:
“Any Indian who shall engage in the practices of so-called medicine men, or who shall resort to any artifice or device to keep the Indians of the reservation from adopting and following civilized habits and pursuits, or shall use any arts of conjurer to prevent Indians from abandoning their barbarous rites and customs, shall be deemed guilty of an offense, and upon conviction thereof, for the first offense shall be imprisoned for not less than ten days and not more than thirty days: Provided That, for subsequent conviction for such offense the maximum term or imprisonment shall not exceed six months.”- By the Commissioners of Indian Affairs
It is not wrong to want to use a plant for ceremony. It is not wrong to desire to break the chains of oppressive religion. But when we take spiritual practices out of context, especially the immensely violent and atrocious history of how indigenous people have been treated here, and world wide, by colonizing forces, we are causing harm and enacting dominator culture privilege. We are centering a conversation about oppression of a marginalized people on ourselves and our hurt feelings rather than listening and thinking about the complicated history of what has happened and how we got here to this moment.
I invite you to examine the ways in which you feel entitled to certain practices, ways and even people’s energy, instruction and forgiveness. I know I am always surprised when I identify an entitlement in myself and can feel a lot of shame around it. Rather than stewing in self pity, I try and trace the root of that feeling, allow myself forgiveness for making this mistake and find the way to move forward to a place of understanding that I am not entitled to anything in this life. But I am invited to share in some things with the myriad of other beings of this beautiful, complex world.
So what is Cultural Appropriation and where does it intersect with Cultural Appreciation or Exchange? Unfortunately there is almost never a definition of a term that will feel meaningful to all people, but let me endeavor to define these terms in the ways in which may be most helpful to understand and talk about this issue.
Cultural Appropriation: Oxford Dictionaries, which only put the phrase into its official lexicon last year, defines cultural appropriation as “the unacknowledged or inappropriate adoption of the customs, practices, ideas, etc. of one people or society by members of another and typically more dominant people or society.” Oxford takes a gentler route in defining this complex term by saying that the members of a society that appropriate are “typically” from a dominant people or society. This is a key part of understanding and addressing cultural appropriation.
So often people, namely white people, become defensive and upset when issues of cultural appropriation are brought to their attention, for it can feel like a form of policing personal expression, and while their intentions may be good, the impact of appropriative actions plays into a long history of oppression and forced assimilation that Western white culture has imposed upon much of the rest of the world, all the while cherry picking those aspects of the different cultures they encounter to excoticize or use. This is why the argument, “well African American people appropriated my (some common aspect of American culture)!” Assimilation to blend in and be able to make a living vs. appropriating for one’s own pleasure are two very different things.
The imbalance of power in how the dominant culture uses the aspect of the marginalized culture is one of the core issues of this action. The marginalized culture expresses their discomfort or offense, and is not heeded by the society or people of privilege who can utilize that thing as a fashion statement, for fun, or for out-of-context spiritual practices. This imbalance of power and ignorance of the ways in which the desired cultural aspect functions within its culture of origin is what makes appropriation different from appreciation.
The ways in which food, music and fashion are consumed in the global marketplace seems to present different questions and challenges then the object of this zine: spiritual practices and uses of sacred plants. The ways in which a spiritual practice is made open, (available to all people), or closed, (available to certain initiated or lineaged people), by a culture is very important when asking oneself what the best way would be to express interest or engage in a certain practice. As far as plants go, is the plant abundant? Local to you? Threatened? Rare? Or on its way? As I said, these are complex issues and asking these questions is incredibly important when exploring whether a cultural practice is appropriate for you to engage in or not. Of course, the most important thing is this: what are the people who are from the culture itself saying? If they are asking for a spiritual practice or sacred plant to not be interacted with in a certain way. Listen. Please listen.
Cultural Appreciation or Exchange: We live in a globalized world, and I am not here to tell you not to eat Mexican food or love movies from Japan or learn to speak Arabic. These are all forms, though there are ways to go about each in respectful manners, of cultural exchange. Non-spiritual foodways, fashions, art forms, dance and music are often readily exchanged through interacting cultural groups (while the ways in which we have come to interact with each culture is also important to note in terms of dominant vs. marginalized cultures).
Sharing and exchange is good. It is a way to more fully understand others who are different from us and become loving, compassionate global citizens. However, much of what makes exchange different from appropriation is the invitation: A mutual exchange rather than a hierarchical assimilation and then appropriating desirable aspects without understanding.
This could look like being invited to wear a traditional garment at a wedding or celebration of a friend or relative of a different culture. This could look like being invited to Sundance by an indigenous person in your life. This could look like paying to learn a craft from a person of a culture you’re interested in. There are many ways to engage in cultural exchange without causing harm or oppression to others. But it takes asking questions and listening, making mistakes and learning. We can do better. I know I can.
People have burned plants for ritual purposes in every culture. Smoke is a unique conduit for spiritual and ritual purposes. It provides a multi-sensory experience of a plant in a way that uniquely ties it to the spirit world. For where does smoke go, but up to the unknowable heavens? Smoke carries with it tantalizing, acrid or surprising scents, and sometimes, smoke can even augment one’s perceptions. It is scent made visible. The power of a plant made tangible in a new way, inspired by fire. What better tool to send messages to the Otherworld than a substance lighter than air? One that appears and fades away, like a summoned spirit.
It is believed that incense use began approximately 5,000 to 6,000 years ago. By definition, an incense is any material that is burned or volatilized to emit fragrant fumes. Many ancient cultures, such as the Sumerians, Babylonians, Egyptians, Assyrians, Romans, Greeks, Hebrews, Persians, and Parthians, used incense for various rituals and even as medicines. Globally, people have used and still do use many traditional plant smokes for spiritual and medical healing or actions.
Let's look at a few examples from my booklet about the plants, trees and shrubs also used as sacred smoke. Remember, this list is not a free for all. Each plant we use and harvest requires the same questions we ask about White Sage. Not only do we ask questions about its ecological sustainability, we also ask about how it effects the peoples its specific sacred use was born from. If you want to see them all, you can buy my booklet here. If you are a BIPOC person, just send me a message in the form at the bottom of the page and I will give you this for free.
Balsam Fir (Abies balsamea) Unspecified parts of this species were burned as incense in Iceland. The gum from the tree was used in churches in Paris as frankincense.
Juniper and Cedar (Juniperus spp.) On the Isle of Colonsay in north-western Scotland, Junipers were once burned to fumigate houses and stables to cleanse them of pests, diseases, and evil spirits. In Britain, from Devon to Colonsay, the Inner Hebrides burned green branches and berries to produce smoke that was used to purify and air-out sick rooms. In the Ubage Valley of France, the people inhaled the smoke of burning juniper berries to treat rheumatism and used the smoke produced by burning boughs as a disinfectant.
The smoke from burning branches, which were lit on Christmas Eve in Tuscany and elsewhere in Italy, was used to ward off the evil eye. In Russia the practice of burning Juniper for health and spiritual purposes survived well into the 18th century. It must have been commonly thought that juniper should be burned to healthful effect, for even Peter I, during a period of plague in 1710, ordered his generals to obtain and burn as much juniper as possible against the spread of disease among the regiments. The smoke of the juniper was equally believed to be repellent to serpents.
In Tibet, they burn Juniper-wood as incense in a gigantic altar, with an aperture at the top, which is called Song-boom, and bears some resemblance to a limekiln. Many ancients held that the burning of Juniper-wood expelled evil spirits from houses.
Bishop Hall wrote:
“And with glasse stills, and sticks of Juniper, Raise the black spright that burns not with the fire.”
In Germany and Italy, the Juniper is the object of a superstitious reverence on account of its supposed property of dispersing evil spirits. According to Herr Weber, in some parts of Italy, holes or fissures in houses are brushed over with Juniper-boughs to prevent evil spirits introducing sickness; in other parts, boughs of Juniper are suspended before doorways.
Blackberry (Rubus spp.) Original text by Cecil Williamson of the Museum of Witchcraft in England describing a witch’s whisk, or a bundle of bound, dried, blackberry twigs used for ritual burning in English witchcraft:
'Witch's whisk made of dried out blackberry stems and with the end bound to form a handle. Here in the south west (of England) when a witch decides to make magic she first selects a spot or place where she will work, be the chosen place inside or out. The next thing to be done is that of cleansing the chosen spot of all evil forces. This is where the bundle of blackberry twigs comes in. She sets a light to the twigs and with them smouldering, burning and making smoke, she dances and weaves her way in and around and around over and over again. So this is one might call it: "a witch's devil scarer".'
Lemon scented thyme (Micromeria biflora) In Nepal, the whole plant was considered useful for burning as incense.
Peony (Paeonia officinalis) Issac, the second patriarch of the Jewish people has said the smoke of the seeds is good for people possessed by the devil, the ones who are called demonaci in Latin.
Rue (Ruta spp.) .In Morocco, rue was often mixed with unspecified incense materials or rosemary and was burned to produce smoke that countered the effects of the evil eye. It reportedly could also cure the bewitched.
Sweet flag (Acorus calamus) This sweet plant was considered sacred in many parts of India and the roots were burned.
I chose a small handful to demonstrate just some of the many magical and special plants and trees used for their smoke around the world. I hope this has helped provide further explanation and understanding around why we discuss this issue and has invited you to look into wide world of using plant smoke for medicine while supporting and listening to indigenous and all BIPOC voices surrounding the cultural use of plants and medicines. This booklet is also fully sourced so you can continue your own research! If you have edits, suggestions or questions please message me below at the very bottom of the page. I'd love to hear from you, as I am just a student in this learning.
Blesssed Winter Solstice.
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