Smudging Ceremony

By Adrienne Borden and Steve Coyote Shaman's Drum 1987
Our Native elders have taught us that before a person can be healed or heal 
another, one must be cleansed of any bad feelings, negative thoughts, bad 
spirits or negative energy – cleansed both physically and spiritually. This 
helps the healing come through in a clear way, without being distorted or 
sidetracked by negative "stuff" in either the healer or the patient. The elders 
say that all ceremonies, tribal or private, must be entered into with a good 
heart so that we can pray, song and walk on a sacred manner, and be helped by 
the spirits to enter the sacred realm.
Native people throughout the world use herbs to accomplish this. One common 
ceremony is to burn certain herbs, take the smoke in one's hands and rub or 
brush it over the body. Today this is commonly called "smudging", and in Western 
North America the three plants most frequently used in smudging are sage, cedar 
and sweetgrass.
There are many varieties of sage, and most have been used in smudging. The 
botanical name for "true" sage is Salvia (e.g. Salvia officinalis, Garden Save, 
or Salvia apiana, White Sage). It is interesting to note that Salvia comes from 
the Latin root salvare, which means "to heal". There are also varieties of sage 
which are of a species separated from Salvia-Artemisia. Included here 
are sagebrush (e.g. Artemisia californica) and Mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris). We 
have seen both Salvia and Artemisia sub-species used in smudging.
Sage is burned in smudging ceremonies to drive out bad spirits, feelings or 
influences, and also to keep bad spirits from entering the area where a ceremony 
takes place. In Plains nations, the floor of the sweatlodge is frequently covered 
with sage, and participants rub the leaves on their bodies while in the sweat. 
Sage is also commonly spread on the ground in a lodge or on an altar 
where the pipe touches the earth. Some nations wrap their pipes in sage when 
they are placed in pipe-bundles, as sage purifies objects wrapped in it. Sage 
wreaths are also placed around the head and wrists of Sundancers.
There is some potential confusion here too about the terms used to name plants, 
mainly because in some areas, junipers are known as "cedar" – as in the case of 
Desert White Cedar (Juniperus monosperma). This doesn't mean that J. monosperma 
wasn't used as a cleansing herb, though; in the Eastern U.S., its relative, 
Eastern Red Cedar (Junperus Virginia) was used ceremonially. However, in the 
smudging ceremonies we have seen or conducted ourselves, Western Red Cedar 
(Thuja occidentalis) and California Incense Cedar (Libocedrus descurrens) were 
used – not varieties of juniper.
Cedar is burned while praying either aloud or silently. The prayers rise on the 
cedar smoke and are carried to the Creator. Cedar is also spread along with sage 
on the floor of the sweatlodges of some tribes. Cedar branches are brushed in 
the air to cleanse a home during the House Blessing Ceremony of many Northwest 
Indian nations. In the Pacific Northwest, the People burn cedar for purification 
in much the same way as sage – it drives out negative energy, but it also brings 
in good influences. The spirit of cedar is considered very ancient and wise by 
Pacific Northwest tribes and old, downed cedar trees are honoured with offerings 
and prayers.
One of the most sacred plants for the Plains Indians, sweetgrass is a tall wild 
grass with a reddish base and perfume-like musty odour. It grows mainly on the 
eastern side of the Rockies in Montana and adjacent Alberts, Canada, and also in 
come small areas of Wyoming and South Dakota. Its botanical name is Hierochloe 
odorata; some common names are Seneca grass, holy grass and vanilla grass. We 
have been told that a variety of vanilla grass grows in North-Central California 
but how similar it is to the Plains variety we don't know.
On the Plains, sweetgrass is usually braided together in bunches as a person's 
hair is braided, although friends have said they have seen it used simply 
bunched and wrapped in cloth. Either way, it is usually burned by shaving little 
bits over hot coals or lighting the end and waving it around, letting the smoke 
spread through the air. This latter method is how we were taught to burn sweet-
grass in the sweatlodge – allowing the purifying smoke to get to all parts of 
the lodge.
We were taught that it was good to burn sweetgrass after the sage or cedar had 
driven out the bad influences. Sweetgrass brings in the good spirits and the 
good influences. As with cedar, burning sweetgrass while praying sends prayers 
up to the Creator in the smoke. High Hollow Horn says in The Sacred Pipe: "This 
smoke from the sweetgrass will rise up to You, and will spread throughout the 
universe; its fragrance will be known by the wingeds, the four-leggeds, and the 
two-leggeds, for we understand that we are all relatives; may all our brothers 
be tame and not fear us!" Sweetgrass is also put in pipe bundles and medicine 
bundles along with sage to purify and protect sacred objects.
Sweetgrass is very rare today, its territory severely cut by development, cattle-
grazing and wheat fields, and traditional Indians in the northern Plains are 
trying to protect the last-remaining fields. The best way for most folks to get 
sweetgrass is to buy it at Native American retail outlets, which gives support 
to Indians who can help the fields from being depleted.
To do a smudging ceremony, burn the clippings of these herbs (dried), rub your 
hands in the smoke and then gather the smoke and bring it into your body – or 
rub it onto yourself, especially onto any area you feel needs spiritual healing. 
Keep praying all the wile that the unseen powers of the plant will cleanse your 
spirit. Sometimes one person will smudge another, or a group of people, using 
hands or more often a feather to lightly brush the smoke over the other people.
We were taught to look for dark spots in a person's spirit-body. As one 
California Indian woman told us, she "sees" a person's spirit-body glowing 
around them and where there are "dark or foggy parts", she brushes the smoke 
into these "holes in their spirit-body". This helps to heal the spirit and to 
"close up" these holes.
Recently we did a light house-cleansing for a friend. We use the term "light" 
for this is a relatively simple ceremony as opposed to some that are more 
lengthy and complicated. Our friend had had some serious emotional and 
relationship problems and he felt they had left a heavy dark atmosphere. First 
we prayed together to the Creator and to the spirits for help. We then burned 
sage, purified ourselves, and took the sage to all corners, closets and rooms 
Of the house, pushing the smoke with our hands to cleanse every bit of space – 
lingering over dark or cold spots that "felt" uncomfortable.
We sued sage first in order to drive out the bad influences. Then we purified 
ourselves with cedar and, with it, repeated the cleansing process throughout the 
house. Then sweetgrass was used in the same manner to bring in good influences. 
All the time, we prayed for help in this cleansing. Finally, we took a candle 
over the whole house and pushed its light into every corner. This "lighting-up" 
of a house was taught to us by the People of the Pacific Northwest Coast. We've 
been doing this type of house cleansing for ten years and it never fails to 
"clear the air", at least somewhat.
One more note about smudging. It is very popular among New Age groups to use 
abalone shells in smudging. There are many Native elders who are pleased to see 
so many folks smudging themselves, but some are concerned that abalone shells 
are being used when burning the sacred herbs. On the Pacific Northwest Coast, 
for example, some holy men have said that abalone shells represent Grandmother 
Ocean and they should be used in ceremonies with water, not burning. We know 
enough Native elders in the Northwest, the Plains and California who don't use 
abalone shells – but instead clay or stone bowls – that we don't personally feel 
comfortable using a shell.
In any case, smudging is a ceremony that must be done with care. We are entering 
into a relationship with the unseen powers of these plants and with the spirits 
of the ceremony; and, as with all good relationships, there has to be respect 
and honour if a relationship is to work.


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