Definition and Origin
The word “smudging” comes from “smudge,” which is English in origin. However, the term has been used widely to refer to the smudging ceremonies of Indigenous peoples, in which sacred herbs and medicines are burned as part of a ritual, or for cleansing or health purposes. Indigenous peoples have their own terms and phrases for smudging, including atisamânihk (Cree for “at the smudge”) and nookwez (Ojibwe for “smudge medicinally”).
Although Indigenous nations have their own culturally specific smudging traditions, they typically share certain teachings. For example, all smudging ceremonies require some sort of vessel to carry the medicinal herbs, such as a special container, shell, smudge stick or ball. Burned in small amounts, the herbs contained in the vessel produce smoke that is said to have healing powers and carry the prayers of the people to the Creator. The smoke is wafted over the face and body of the person being smudged, either by a feather (ideally an eagle feather) or by hand. The person guides the smoke towards their body with their hands, inhaling as it comes their way.
When a room or place is being smudged, the smoke is directed around the location, while the person conducting the ceremony prays for the negative energy to leave and for positive energy to remain. The ashes of the burned medicinal herbs are not discarded in a typical garbage receptacle; rather, they are put outside, onto the earth, to signify that negative energy is placed outside of our lives.
Smudges are frequently led by an elder or spiritual leader, such as a shaman, though average citizens can perform their own smudging ceremonies when they feel the urge, and especially during times of prayer.
DID YOU KNOW?
The Four Directions teachings of the medicine wheel feature prominently in smudging ceremonies. In some cultures, four elements are represented in parts of the ceremony: fire in the burning of the sacred herbs, earth in the herbs themselves, air in the feather used to fan the smoke or the smoke itself, and water in the vessel to carry the herbs. Additionally, medicine gifts belong to the Four Directions, including sweetgrass, cedar, sage and tobacco.
Smudging serves a variety of functions in different Indigenous cultures. As a ritual event, it is considered significant to spiritual and theological beliefs, as are sweat lodges and sacred pipes in certain cultures. (See also Religion and Spirituality of Indigenous Peoples in Canada.) Smudging connects people to the Creator and provides communities with a way to gain spiritual protection and blessings, as well as to improve spiritual health. The smoke created by burning sacred herbs is thought to purify the body and soul, and bring clarity to the mind. In this way, smudging is also used to cleanse places said to hold negative energy. Consequently, smudging was (and still is) performed during times of crisis, ill health and death.
Smudging is also practised to restore the physical self. Associated with targeted parts of the body, such as the head, feet, back and sensory organs, smudging provides the whole body with a renewed sense of self. According to some Ojibwe teachings, smudging the back allows for the release of troubles that weigh one down. Smudging the ears, eyes and mouth provides for better hearing, visual and language skills, and for a clearer understanding of one’s surroundings and place on this earth. Respect for the self and for others, including the earth, is central to various Indigenous spiritual teachings, and consequently forms the basis for smudging.
In addition to individual health, Indigenous communities both on- and off-reserve can find peace through smudging. In the aftermath of residential schools, loss of territory and traditional economies, epidemics and socioeconomic factors that have caused intergenerational trauma, smudging has provided a means of healing according to revitalized cultural beliefs.
Effects of Colonization
Colonization repressed, eroded and in some cases, eradicated the spiritual traditions of Indigenous peoples in Canada. While the federal Indian Act did not explicitly ban smudging (as it did the potlatch and sun dance, until 1951), it did broadly outlaw Indigenous religious and cultural activities, of which smudging is an integral part, in many cases. Additionally, assimilative policies such as residential schools forbid the practice of Indigenous cultures. Through Indigenous resistance, smudging is still a part of various cultural activities today.
Bans on Smudging
Nevertheless, many Indigenous peoples still have trouble practising smudging in public. In 2016, for example, a woman was told she could not smudge inside of a provincial building in Thunder Bay, Ontario. The building was where an inquest into the death of her daughter, Lena Anderson, was being held. After lawyers notified the province’s Minister of Indigenous Relations and Chief Coroner, a spokesperson for Infrastructure Ontario apologized for what had transpired. (See also Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls in Canada.)
In some cases, bans against smudging are also upheld in the private sphere. In 2017, Nellie Rider from Regina, Saskatchewan was prohibited by her landlord from smudging, allegedly because of the smoke it produces. Rider never filed a formal complaint but she said the ban violated her “rights as a human being.” In a similar case in June of that year, Crystal Smith from British Columbia was served with eviction notices by her landlord because of the smoke from smudging. Smith filed a human rights complaint.
When classified as a religious ceremony, smudging has also caused controversy in secular institutions. In 2016, Candice Servatius argued her two children were forced into participating in a smudging ceremony at their elementary school. (The School Act of British Columbia prohibits the teaching of religion.) The case went all the way to the Supreme Court of British Columbia, where it is still before the court. Other schools in the country (such as the Winnipeg Seven Oaks School Division and the Saskatoon Public Schools division) continue to offer smudging services for students. For many Indigenous peoples, smudging is not about propagating religious doctrine, but about cleansing one’s self and appreciating the connection between humans and the earth.
In an attempt to redress historical practices of assimilation, some levels of government have established policies that support Indigenous traditions. For example, under the Ontario Human Rights Code, organizations that fall under the jurisdiction of the province have the obligation to permit Indigenous spiritual practices, such as smudging. (See also Human Rights.)
In 2016, the Canadian government fully endorsed the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which states that, “Indigenous peoples have the right to promote, develop and maintain their…distinctive customs, spirituality, traditions, procedures [and] practices…in accordance with international human rights standards.” (See also United Nations and Rights of Indigenous Peoples in Canada.)
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s calls to action also include cultural awareness of Indigenous healing practices, including smudging.
Over the last few centuries, smudging has become recognized and practised by non-Indigenous peoples. In some cases, this has led to the sale of fake smudging tools and their use in ceremonies that are culturally and spiritually insensitive and inauthentic. Cultural sensitivity appears to dictate a protocol of invitation for non-Indigenous peoples. Since smudging is considered deeply spiritual, non-Indigenous peoples seeking to participate in these ceremonies should respectfully contact people with credible Indigenous ancestry, wisdom and ceremonial knowledge.