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By Adrienne Borden and Steve Coyote
Our Native elders have taught us that before a person can be healed or heal another, one must be cleansed of any bad feelings, negative thoughts, bad spirits or negative energy - cleansed both physically and spiritually. This helps the healing to come through in a clear way, without being distorted or sidetracked by negative "stuff" in either the healer or the client. The elders say that all ceremonies, tribal or private, must be entered into with a good heart so that we can pray, sing, and walk in a sacred manner, and be helped by the spirits to enter the sacred realm. Native people throughout the world use herbs to accomplish this. One common ceremony is to burn certain herbs, take the smoke in one's hands and rub or brush it over the body. Today this is commonly called "smudging." In Western North America the three plants most frequently used in smudging are sage, cedar, and sweetgrass.
There are many varieties of sage, and most have been used in smudging. The botanical name for "true" sage is Salvia (e.g. Salvia officinalis, Garden Sage, or Salvia apiana, White Sage). It is interesting to note that Salvia comes from the Latin root salvare, which means "to heal." There are also varieties of sage which are of a species separate from Salvin Artemusia. Included here are sagebrush (e.g. Artemisia californica) and mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris). We have seen both Salvia and Artemisia sub-species used in smudging. Sage is burned in smudging ceremonies to drive out bad spirits, feelings, or influences, and also to keep bad spirits from entering the area where a ceremony takes place. In Plains nations, the floor of the
in the Eastern U. the people burn cedar for purification in much the same way as sage . though. Cedar (Κέδρο) There is some potential confusion here about the terms used to name plants. monosperina wasn't used as a cleansing herb..S. In the Pacific Northwest. Cedar is burned while praying either aloud or silently. Eastern Red Cedar (Juniperus virginia).. musty odor. how similar it is to the Plains variety we don't know. downed cedar trees are honored with offerings and prayers. Some common names for it are Seneca grass.. Western Red Cedar (Thuja occidentalis) and California Cedar Incense (Libocedrus descurrens) were used . Canada. Some nations wrap their pipes in sage when they are placed in pipe-bundles.it drives out negative energy. Cedar is also spread along with sage on the floor of the sweat lodges of some tribes. But. The spirit of cedar is considered very ancient and wise by Pacific Northwest tribes. It grows mainly on the eastern side of the Rockies in Montana and adjacent Alberta. Cedar branches are brushed in the air to cleanse a home during the House Blessing Ceremony of many Northwest Indian nations. was used ceremonially. sweetgrass is usually braided together in bunches as a person's hair is 2 . junipers are known as "cedar" . Sage is also commonly spread on the ground in a lodge or on an altar where the pipe touches the earth. sweetgrass is a tall wild grass with a reddish bas and perfume-like. and participants rub the leaves on their bodies while in the sweat. mainly because in some areas. not varieties of juniper. holy grass and vanilla grass. On the Plains. It also shows up in some small areas of Wyoming and South Dakota. Its botanical name is Hierochloe odorata. its relative. We have been told that a variety of vanilla grass grows in North Central California. The prayers rise on the cedar smoke and are carried to the Creator.sweat lodge is frequently covered with sage. and old. Sweetgrass (?) One of the most sacred plants for the Plains Indians. but it also brings in good influences. However. Sage wreaths are also placed around the head and wrists of Sundancers. as sage purifies objects wrapped in it. This doesn't mean that J. in the smudging ceremonies we have seen or conducted ourselves.as in the case of Desert White Cedar (Juniperus monosperina).
purified ourselves. Its fragrance will be known by the wingeds. Either way. We pushed the smoke with our hands to cleanse every bit of space . This latter method is how we were taught to burn sweetgrass in the sweat lodge . As with cedar. closets. The best way for most folks to get sweetgrass is to buy it at Native American retail outlets. First. We then. Sometimes. As one California Indian woman told us. burn the clippings of these herbs (dried). and where there are "dark or foggy parts. This gives support to Indians who can help the fields from being depleted. it is usually burned by shaving little bits over hot coals or lighting the end and waving it around." This helps to heal the spirit and to "close up" these holes. Keep praying all the while that the unseen powers of the plant will cleanse your spirit. Our friend had some serious emotional and relationship problems.lingering over dark or cold spots that "felt" uncomfortable. for we understand that we are all relatives. we prayed together to the Creator and to the spirits for help. Smudging To do a smudging ceremony. Sweetgrass is very rare today. its territory severely cut by development. cattlegrazing. and the two leggeds.or more often a feather . the four-leggeds." she brushes the smoke into these "holes in their spirit-body. rub your hands in the smoke. and will spread throughout the universe. or . especially onto any area you feel needs spiritual healing. and he felt they had left a heavy and dark atmosphere.to lightly brush the smoke over the other person(s). letting the smoke spread through the air. We use the term "light". may all our brothers be tame and not fear us!" Sweetgrass is also put in pipe bundles and medicine bundles along with sage to purify and protect sacred objects. or a group of people.and tradition Indians in the northern Plains are trying to protect the last remaining fields. Sweetgrass brings in the good spirits and the good influences. and rooms of the house. one person will smudge another. burning sweetgrass while praying sends prayers up to the Creator in the smoke. burned sage. We were taught that it was good to burn sweetgrass after the sage or cedar had driven out the bad influences. We were taught to look for dark spots in a person's spirit-body. for this is a relatively simple ceremony as opposed to some that are more lengthy and complicated. 3 . using hands . and then gather the smoke and bring it into your body.rub it onto yourself. and took the sage to all the corners.braided.allowing the purifying smoke to get to all parts of the lodge. and wheat fields . High Hollow Horn says in the The Sacred Pipe "This smoke from the sweetgrass will rise up to you. she "sees" a person's spirit-body glowing around them. Recently we did a "light" house cleansing for a friend. although friends have said they have seen it simply bunched and wrapped in cloth.
In any case. the Plains. but . On the Pacific Northwest Coast. then repeated the cleansing process throughout the house with that. We are entering into a relationship with the unseen powers of these plants." One more note about smudging. We've been doing this type of house cleansing for ten years. As with all good relationships. for example. Then sweetgrass was used in the same manner to bring in good influences. and California who don't use abalone shells . smudging is a ceremony that must be done with care. The People of the Pacific Northwest Coast taught this "lighting-up" of a house to us. It is very popular among many novices to use abalone shells in smudging. There are many Native elders who are pleased to see so many new folds smudging themselves. Then we purified ourselves with cedar and. and with the spirits of the ceremony.but instead clay or stone bowls . and it never fails to "clear the air. 4 . there has to be respect and honor if the relationship is to work. some holy men have said that abalone shells represent Grandmother Ocean. not burning. All the time we prayed for help in this cleansing. and that they should be used in ceremonies with water. we took a candle over the whole house and pushed its light into every corner.that we don't personally feel comfortable using a shell. We know enough Native elders in the Northwest. and Steve Coyote is of Cheyenne background.some are concerned that abalone shells are being used when burning the herbs.We used sage first in order to drive out the bad influences. --Adrienne Borden is of Chippewa heritage. Finally.
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