Sage, sacred to Native Americans, is being used in purification rituals, raising issues of cultural appropriation

white sage

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White sage, which is sacred to some Native American tribes in the southwestern United States, has been adopted by some contemporary Pagans and New Age practitioners for purification rituals. As Emily McFarlan Miller reported in a recent Religion News Service article, this has led to overharvests and shortages of the plant, making it harder for Native Americans to find enough for their sacred ceremonies.

In her new book “Purity and Danger,” anthropologist Mary Douglas shows how central purity and its maintenance are to faith. It is a way to keep danger at bay as well as providing a way to separate the sacred from the mundane.

As a sociologist of religion who has studied contemporary Paganism for over 30 years, I understand how important contact with the spirit world and purification is in this religion. Contemporary Paganism is a set of religions that base their practice on what is known of pre-Christian religions in Europe, mixed with literature, science fiction and personal inspiration.

Within these religions nature is seen as sacred, to be celebrated and protected. Celebrating nature takes many forms, the most common being a series of rituals that commemorate the changing seasons. Purification is a way of providing a safe place to interact with the spirit world, which is always a part of Pagan rituals.

Purification can be done using a number of substances, including salt, rosemary and sometimes white sage. When purification includes the use of sage, it raises the question of appropriation, as it has traditionally been used by Native Americans in their rituals.

Protection and cleaning

Pagan rituals take place outdoors, when possible, or sometimes in people’s homes or occult bookstores. There is no set liturgy that everyone follows, and people can create their own rituals.

Because there is no dedicated holy place, cleansing and protection are extremely important within Paganism. More mainstream religions have buildings, such as churches or synagogues, where they hold sanctuaries for religious purposes only.

Pagans, on the contrary, have ritual areas that must be transformed from amdane to sacred use. More importantly, perhaps, rituals are meant to open up the individual to the spiritual or other life. Magic, the process of changing reality to your will through clairvoyance, is done in this area.

As I learned while doing my research, most Pagans believe that there are great possibilities and dangers associated with entering this field. The purpose of cleaning and purifying the place and the participants is to protect them by keeping out unkind spirits.

Purification can be done in different ways. When I started my research in 1986, it was common to do it with salt and water. At Pagan ceremonies that I attended as a researcher, the people leading the ritual would “cut” a “sacred circle”. This involved walking around the circle carrying a ritual knife known as the adam and chanting chants to mark the area as a safe place that only the so-called spirits would enter. Then they used salt and water to clean the circle.

In some of the rituals the participants were already standing in the circle when this part of the ritual was done; in other cases they joined afterwards. The participants were also purified, with salt, water, smoke from a candle, incense or rosemary and a crystal or rock, as a symbol of Mother Earth.

White sage and cultural appropriation

White sage was sometimes used for purification in ritual. It was used because it was associated with a Native American practice. As religious studies scholar Sarah Pike has discovered among contemporary Pagans, cultural borrowings from Native Americans were believed to connect participants with the spirits that inhabited the land around them.

The participants believed they were honoring the first peoples of the continent by incorporating aspects of their spiritual practice. Some of the Pagan practitioners had received training from a Native American teacher. For many contemporary Pagans, Native American spirituality was a practice they wanted to emulate because of its connection to the land, spirit life, and because it predates Christianity and is indigenous to the region . As today’s Pagans often combine different elements to create their spirituality, it seemed natural to include Native American practices.

As Pike notes, in the early 1990s Native Americans from many tribes began to express their rage at what they saw as “cultural strip mining,” the theft and watering down of their culture and spirituality, which has described as an extension of the colonization that took them from their original lands. The use of sage was not the only cultural artifact that these Native American spokespeople objected to being used by non-Native people. Traditional dress and eagle feathers were two other examples of commonly appropriated items.

Because Pagans pride themselves on being sensitive to the practices of different cultures, they quickly gave up the use of the sage; it was also less common to use other Native American artifacts in Pagan practices. Those who were using sage returned to using salt and water or rosemary for purification.

The use of sage by Non-Native Americans is becoming more widespread again. I noticed while doing my research in 1986 that white sage was sold in shops that catered to the occult. It is now being marketed more widely by stores such as Walmart and Anthropologie.

The market has become larger as elements of Pagan or New Age practices have entered more general practice and the number of Pagans has increased. It has become popular, for example, for younger Americans to cleanse their homes of evil spirits with white sage even if they do not identify as Pagans. In addition, those who are new to Paganism are often unaware of the history of the toilet and are repeating the errors of an earlier generation of Pagans and using sage in their rituals.

The Native Americans who choose the herb as they need it complain that they cannot find enough for their spiritual needs. Concerns have also been raised that the plant could become extinct as a result of over-harvesting, causing the animals that depend on it to disappear as well.

It would be ironic and sad if Pagans helped destroy a sacred herb while celebrating Mother Earth.

Provided by An Comhrá

This article from The Conversation is republished under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.The conversation

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