Using Cedar, Sage, & Sweetgrass
— by Clyde M. Hall
Many people use smudging in different ways, in different traditions, or by personal vision. However, in the Native American Plains tradition it is used in certain ways only, and in sequential manner. These methods have evolved over thousands of years by the ancestors of this land. We native people still use these methods because they work! These are all “smokes” that are customary in the ceremonies of the Plains Indian people, but, please remember— the spirit of anything that is released is in the “smoke” of it. So the offering to a spirit may be made by the burning of a substance with a ceremony, making it an offering!
The Dance For All People ceremony requires certain herbs to be used:
1 CEDAR: this is used for traditional clearing of a space, of people, and objects used. The use of cedar (or sage) is permissible at the entrance or beginning of any ceremony. The cedar, as Indians call it, is actually a juniper, one of many western varieties but the one that we are interested in is called juniperus utah ensis in Latin, and “scrub cedar“ in cowboy Western English.
They are usually very old trees. The cedar trees in the sacred groves of Idaho are between 100 and 600 years old! The branches are dried and crushed to a rough powder and stored in buckskin bags to be placed on coals and used as ritual purification and clearing of sacred space, used with a “war bird” or bird of prey feathers (except owls). The incense or “smoke” is distasteful to all evil beings and spirits and thwarts their powers!
Cedar is also used in meditation and prayer. The leaves when brewed in a tea is used as a diuretic and stimulant, and most recently for treatment of diabetes. It was also used by the pioneers for making gin! This type of cedar grows on the western side of the rocky mountains from Mexico through Canada, and can also be found in Siberia.
The cedar tree represents everlasting life since it is always green no matter what season, and it lives for many centuries. It is always thought of as a female spirit no matter what sex the tree is, and therefore a giver of life. It is also associated with thunder and lightening.
2 SAGE: is the most sacred herb of the Indian people. It is used as a smudge to ritually purify one’s self and space as well because bad spirits even fear the very herb itself and will flee from it! The sage is actually a Western-American cousin of the English mugwort plant, Artemisia ludoviciana in Latin, tosa-poho in my native language, and “white sage, prairie sage, or damn weed” in cowboy Western English. It grows as two species; one which has a big three-pronged leaf and one that is a single point. Those are the male and female versions. The male species is difficult to obtain, but both are valued for their “medicine” properties.
The smoke is used to purify objects and people. It is used in sickness as a tea for stomach troubles, colds, fever and rheumatism, and as a poultice for bruises and sores on the body. Sometimes fasting is done on a bed of sage. Sage can be inhaled in a lodge or an enclosed space to clear your lungs from congestion, help you to breath easier, and to relieve headaches. This type of sage grows from Canada all the way to Arkansas. I have even seen it growing in Maine, in gardens in New York City, and bought it on a street corner flower shop in New York City! The three pronged variety was often used in “men’s business” or war medicine. Some tribes such as the Sioux prefer it over the other, but the single-pronged species was used for many common things but is still strong. The old Indians said that even the presence of the plant was feared by bad spirits! So I would not worry about which type is appropriate in ceremonial use.
At times when it’s imprudent or not possible to have smoke, the sage can also be rubbed on the body or sacred things to ritually purify them and as a protective barrier against bad spirits. A sprig of the sage is used during ritual to make yourself “spiritually aware” by placing it behind your left ear or in your hair on the left side of your head above your ear.
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3 SWEETGRASS: the old timers say that “the spirits like plenty of sweetgrass”, which is used in a braid or crumbled from the braid over the coals. Because the sweetgrass smoke is pleasing to all the spirits… any spirit, good or bad… one has to be careful and intentful with your precise language on what is called in and for what purpose! Sweetgrass is not used in clearing space or for ritual purification of any sort! When sweetgrass is burned, it will induce and incline the spirits to help you in your ceremony and look at it in favor, or as a “blessing” for an individual or object so the spirits will be attracted to or look favorably at that person or object.
Sweetgrass is known as hierochloe hirta in Latin, soni-ppeh in my native language and “basket grass or swamp grass” in cowboy Western English. It grows from Canada and throughout the western and central plains (sparse) and Northeastern states of America. It was often gathered and braided or woven into baskets, it was also stored and used as a perfume by wrapping articles in it or with it to absorb the fragrance. Because of this many old-time Indians would use it in storing their dance regalia or ceremonial items. Dried, it was crushed or sprinkled over coals during many ceremonies as a welcoming of spirit or spirits (any spirit), and used as a blessing because of just that reason. It can also be used at the conclusion of ceremony to end things in a good-hearted manner. It was also used as a tea for “thinning the blood” and as a mild stimulant. Sweetgrass tea was a favorite among my people.
Another smoke or smudge, kwii-ppeh in my language, was tobacco, native tobacco (combined with other plants) and also trader tobacco. I will not get into a detailed discussion of the words or plant usage, but I will state that perhaps this was the most valued plant of all by the Indians.
A Note of Caution
One must NEVER use sage, cedar, and sweetgrass together! I have seen “smudge sticks” for sale with a combination of these herbs. That is sending a mixed message to the spirits and they will not come! The herbs should be used separately and with intent and prayer. The one who sprinkles these herbs over coals should always either sing a song or pray to the spirits while doing so. If such “smoke” is not made in a ritual way the spirits will take no notice of you or your ceremony!
The use of “smudge sticks” is a new invention. I first come across them in the 80’s, and I thought “how interesting!” But my old teachers taught me to use the herbs in a different way, even though now I even see younger Native Americans using the “smudge sticks” in certain ceremonies. They are convenient in one way, but just be circumspect what they are made of and how you use it. READ MORE >> RESPECTING INDIAN TRADITION
One must remember that the essence of the smoke is what is important in the “smudging process.” The prayers and supplications of the people are carried by the offering of smoke. The reason is because the smoke is an in-between essence, having a presence in physical reality but also one in the spiritual world as well. And as we all know, there is a great power in in-between things! Always remember that we are honoring and participating in the framework of a Ceremony that follows age-old tradition.