On Neuropsychology and Respect: the complicated history of sage

Burning sage, also known as smudging or cleansing, is an ancient indigenous North American spiritual ritual.

Scientifically, it has been established that white sage (Salvia apiana) is rich in compounds that activate certain receptors in the brain. These receptors are responsible for elevating mood levels, reducing stress, and even alleviating pain. In addition to dissipating negative energy, improving mood, and strengthening meditative practice, burning sage may improve memory, attention, and focus. A 2016 literature review of neuropsychological studies noted that evidence for Salvia’s cognitive-enhancing benefits are promising, and perhaps a means to help battle dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. Last but not least, burning sage has antimicrobial properties. It truly cleanses.
 
Smudging has been well established as a Native American cultural or tribal practice (see the American Psychological Association sources on indigenous mental health).

As non-native individuals and mental health practitioners, it is our responsibility to be informed and respectful. For example, if non-native people “cleanse their space of negativity” through the use of smudge medicine (burning sage, sweetgrass, palo santo, etc.), it is crucial to understand its cultural significance and history. It was illegal for Native Americans to practice their religion until 1978 in the U.S., and many were jailed and killed just for keeping indigenous practices and traditions alive. Smudging sage was part of those banned religious practices. It was literally a crime.

Because of all that complicated history of sage burning, when non-Native people use white sage to “smudge” their homes or other spaces, it can infringe upon the cultural importance and authenticity of the ritual and its historical spirituality. The practice of smudging, therefore, should not be taken lightly, according to Dr. Adrienne Keene, an assistant professor of American Studies, Psychology, and Ethnic Studies at Brown University, author of the blog Native Appropriations, and citizen of the Cherokee Nation

It is possible to practice and appreciate indigenous cultural, medical, and spiritual practices without disrespecting them. Do research, be mindful, have gratitude, and strive to celebrate Indigenous people and traditions in a way that is culturally conscious. It is a gift, not a right.

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