Ecological Damage on White Sage
As smudging grows increasingly popular, the ecological fate of white sage hangs in the balance.
Smudging is a sacred Indigenous ritual that consists of burning plant herbs, most commonly white sage or scientifically known as Salvia Apiana. Over the last few decades, smudging has reappeared as a trend, encouraging celebrities, influencers, and individuals with no connection to Native culture, to start playing into the commodity. Though it may seem trivial to outsiders, each element of smudging has deeply spiritual ties. Plants are typically used in Native cultures to signify healing, while the act of burning incites purification, cleansing, and blessings. The American Indian Religious Freedom, which was passed in 1978 (commonly abbreviated to AIRFA) and codified at 42 U.S.C § 1996, was monumental for Indigenous freedom. This act gave Native people and other groups permission to practice, protect, and preserve their right to exercise their traditional religious rites, spiritual and cultural practices. Before this act, many aspects of Native religions and sacred ceremonies were prohibited by law. Despite the significance of smudging, most people only identify white sage in organic grocery markets and metaphysical supply stores. Native nations have expressed their concerns with unwanted and uninvited smudging that stem from years of colonial predation and forced assimilation.
Due to the high global demand for white sage, poaching has become a popular way for retail stores and brands that sell white sage to turn an easy profit. The only region where white sage naturally grows is in Southern California and northern Baja. Though it is illegal in California to pick plants from public lands, Native people have reported finding hillsides of white sage completely stripped. The overharvesting of white sage is a detriment to the survival of the species, worrying conservationists who predict potential endangerment. The California Native Plant Society (CNPS) reports that “50% of white sage populations were lost to urbanization.” With the extremely high rates of theft on traditional lands coupled with the previously destroyed habitats, the future of white sage lingers in the balance. “Saging the World” is a campaign launched by Rose Ramirez, a California Native educator of Chumash descent, and Deborah Small, a professor emerita at the School of Arts at California State University, San Marcos. In partnership with CNPS, Ramirez and Small produced a short documentary called Saging the World to foster awareness and inspire action for white sage. This movement has also extended to exploring policy and legislative solutions that will diminish poaching in California and provide necessary protections to Native plants.
If you are interested in aiding Indigenous-led efforts to preserve Native species, land, and culture, consider learning more about white sage and other native plants. CNPS suggests boycotting wildcrafter sage products, investigating local sage sources, growing your own native plants, and connecting with the cultural legacies of the land you live on to show your support. For more in-depth knowledge on white sage and its relationship with Indigenous communities, refer to CNPS’s article on Safeguarding White Sage. To keep up with “Saging the World,” follow Rose Ramirez and Deborah Small at their respective blogs for updates. Ramirez and Small have also co-authored the Ethnobotany Project: Contemporary Uses of Native Plants | Southern California and Northern Baja, which further discusses what it means to maintain an ecologically viable and culturally rich community.