I recently made the decision to offer sage – smudging, specifically – to the sacred sister circles I facilitate. I did not make this decision lightly.

I know a lot of New Age circles burn sage and smudge. And I know that it’s not without controversy.

There are two main arguments against it:

  1. That it’s a form of cultural appropriation (read: cultural theft).
  2. That it’s often sourced unethically and in a way that prevents Indigenous people from using it.

I definitely didn’t want to be that person.

My initiation with smudging

I was initiated – if that’s the word – on November 11, 1999. I remember that day vividly.

Many members of the Mendota Mdewakanton Dakota tribal community and Earth activists were gathered in sacred circle at Coldwater Spring near Minneapolis, MN. Jimmy Anderson – an elder and leader of this tribal community – walked around our circle and fanned sage smoke onto us, and we’d draw said smoke up and over our heads, shoulders, and onto our faces and chests, followed by the words mitakuye oyasín (we are all related).

Then, Jimmy introduced the sacred peace pipe, and we each took a turn smoking it. At one point, Jimmy paused the ceremony to point out “Brother eagle”, who was perched in a nearby tree and which Jimmy said meant he was here to bless our ceremony.

Since then I’ve smudged countless times. And while I know people generally view smudging as a mechanism to clear negative energies from spaces, for me it was always about connecting with Spirit. Smelling sage smoke literally offers me a portal to the Divine and helps me to remember who I truly am. It’s very powerful medicine.

Ceremonial gifts

Over the next year, I developed a close friendship – and dare I say almost-mentorship – with Bear, another Indigenous elder.

Bear would take me to a drum group’s practices, invited me into my first sacred sweat lodge, and introduced me to a few of the founding members of the American Indian Movement (AIM). Bear also connected me with activist Stephanie Autumn, and the two of us embarked on a five-day spiritual fast together, where we drank only water and cedar tea. We ended our fast with fry bread and a march through the frigid streets of Minneapolis.

Bear also gave me several gifts, including a turtle rattle, medicine pouch, bear claw necklace, and a red-tailed hawk feather in a protective felt-lined wood case.

This feather was absolutely sacred to me. It was meant for smudging.

Cultural appropriation

Fast-forward 20+ years. I’ve become keenly aware about just how harmful cultural appropriation through the blog posts and books and Instagram accounts of many Indigenous activists and writers.

One significant takeaway is that there is no consensus amongst their voices over whether it’s possible for a non-Indigenous person like me to ethically smudge with sage.

One Ojibwe author and energy healer whose work touched my heart has suggested that it is indeed possible. But others say no.

Out of a deep yearning to not risk appropriating, I’ve chosen to not offer smudge at my sacred sister circles. And, I also stopped smudging myself.

In other words, I pretty much buried this sacred ritual that Jimmy and Bear shared with me so many years ago.

Change of heart

I won’t go into the backstory of where the change of heart came from, but I will say that I experienced a deep yearning to reintroduce the sacred practice of smudging into my life and share it with sisters in circle.

I got very still and sat on it for a long while (as a Human Design Reflector, my strategy is to wait a lunar cycle before making any big decisions).

Eventually, I received the clarity I sought.

I realized that I’d taken my fear appropriating too far.

I would only offer what I knew, I would honor those who initiated me, and I would source my sage carefully.

It felt right in my body – the metric I use for knowing whether something’s in integrity with my true nature.

The night before our Sacred Sister Full Moon Circle, I pondered my prayer and how I’d honor Jimmy and Bear. And then I realized that I hadn’t yet sought their blessing.

Since both had passed, I asked for a sign that they supported and blessed my intention to share this sacred ritual with my sisters.

The next morning, I was leaning into one of my favorite pine tree friends at Gompers Park when it happened.

A red-tailed hawk swooped down close to me and then up into a tree.

And landed right next to another red-tailed hawk.

Now, I see a lot of wildlife at Gompers, but I don’t often see red-tailed hawks. And I’ve never seen two perched a few feet apart like I did that morning.

I remembered Bear’s gift to me of a red-tailed hawk feather.

I remembered Jimmy Anderson’s statement “Brother eagle is blessing our ceremony” and noted the similarity – the synchronicity.

And in that moment I knew I had both of their blessings.

Thank you Jimmy. Thank you Bear. Mitakuye oyasín.

Can you see one of the red-tailed hawks (middle right)? The other flew away as I was scrambling for my camera.