Recently there has been a lot of buzz on the internet about white sage and palo santo—the two most popular smudging tools. From what I've read online, the majority of arguments say white sage is endangered and it is culturally inappropriate to use. Similarly with palo santo, many people are worried big corporations might be breaking rules by cutting down fresh young palo santo trees vs harvesting from dead fallen down trees (as its traditionally done). Before you jump on the fiery band wagon, its important to know what's really going on behind the scenes and to not get too fired up about passionate opinions on the internet.  

Because we regularly carry this product at the bookshop (and we will continue to going forth) I got in contact with our main vendor for all things sage and smudging to help our customers understand the truth of what's going on. Meet Debbie from Fluorescent Ranch, born and raised in Colorado and running her business for over 25 years. On her farm she grows many herbs and other types of sages such as blue sage, golden aura sage, Russian sage, patchouli, mugwort, lavender and others. I wanted to hear her side of the argument as she is friends and business partners with many Native American artists and tribes.

Below is a short Q & A I conducted with Debbie. You may be just as surprised as I was to learn about the history and real meanings behind the different sages!

Debbie, there has been concern centered around wild California white sage and companies mis-using the land, “harvesting” the wild plants and endangering the plant and the wildlife in those areas. The say wild fires are also causing white sage moved toward the endangered list. What are your thoughts on this? Where do you source your white sage?

Having picked and wrapped my own white sage for 15 years, I do know that for the most part, the "harvesting" of white sage is nothing short of rape. People are crawling all over private property, public lands, and even off ramps performing what they call "snatch and grab". So for the past 10 years, I only buy my white sage smudges from the Viejas reservation in Alpine California (outside San Diego) because I know it is coming off tribal lands and being picked and wrapped in traditional manners. But I will also say that it is the Viejas members who first taught me that white sage is "Grandfather Sage" and for protection, not cleansing. When they want cleansing, they will drive way out of their way to find blue sage (Grandmother Sage), and I often trade my blue sage with them. For ceremonies, they prefer to mix the sages (something I also do—I carry a blue & white smudge that mixes both sages, to combine the Grandfather and Grandmother energies). So not everyone is a greedy lying corporate pig (lol) but there are certainly a lot of people crawling all over California stealing white sage to meet the insatiable demand!

How did the “white sage craze” happen?

The white sage craze started with the book Black Elk Speaks. Wallace Black Elk was a Lakota elder who wrote an excellent book, describing many native traditions and stories. He talks a lot about burning white sage—however, he lived in South Dakota. What is now called "white sage" only grows in a very thin strip of southern California and Mexico; not too close to the beach and not too far inland. Wallace Black Elk did not travel there to get white sage. He was referring to the local sage where he lived (which is now called Silver sage, and is a close cousin to Blue sage, of the artemisia family). So the huge demand for what we now call "white sage" is actually a misunderstanding of "common name" changes over time. I don't think Black Elk ever even saw in his lifetime what we now call "white sage".

Where do you get your palo santo from?

I only buy Palo Santo directly from the source. My supplier lives in Peru. While some of the information going around is correct (again, people doing unethical things to meet an insatiable demand) it is not the only truth! My supplier farms Palo Santo (which is actually fairly fast growing). He is one of only 3 government permitted Palo Santo Farms in Peru. None of his Palo Santo is wild crafted and it is 100% farmed.

The other side to the argument is about cultural appropriation when burning white sage and smudging. What are your thoughts on this?

The real story of smudging goes deeper than these two items—people all over the world have burned various herbs, spices, plants, resins etc for thousands of years. In fact, hyssop is mentioned 12 times in the bible as being burned in religious ceremonies, as well as--of course--frankincense and myrrh, and many other plants and resins. In the coastal Pacific Northwest, there is no sage (which is only a western plant to begin with). What [PNW Tribes] have traditionally used for burning ceremonies is cedar. So it isn't really the plant per se, so much as the intention (and the nice smells!). I personally don't see burning plants as "cultural appropriation", as ALL cultures all over the world have done this for thousands and thousands of years. They just used what they had locally, and traded when traveling. It is not only a Native American tradition—it is a worldwide tradition. In the modern age, plants from all over the world are available to everyone, even the "common" people. One of my favorite mixes is rosemary, lavender, thyme, and oranges. Others, of course, have their own opinions and those opinions are generally based on rigid (and narrow) views of various belief systems. The Greeks and Turks have burned sage for thousands of years (and the velvet sage I carry is from Greece)—no one is saying people are appropriating the ancient Greeks culture!

What do we do then about the high demand of white sage?

The reason I started making so many blue sage and mixtures, was to take pressure off the white sage. People really do need to try other smudging materials, and quite honestly, I have rarely seen the Viejas Tribe use a white sage smudge—they generally only burn a leaf at a time. I live in Ute country—the Utes burned juniper, blue sage and pinon resin.

I also heard that abalone shells (the famous smudging dish) are also becoming more rare and difficult to find...

Abalone shells are now not allowed to be collected in the United States. All of them on the market come from Mexico. And they are getting harder and harder to find (especially big ones). The Lions Paw shells I carry are farmed. I am strongly considering not purchasing anymore abalone shells when this last batch runs out. As it is, I only make 10% off them, and people don't want to pay for them if they aren't perfect. So I'm losing a lot of money on them.

Lastly, anything you want to share that you feel passionate about?

Honesty, integrity, competence, and quality. People throw these words around all the time, but these are my deepest values that I purposefully and consciously strive for everyday, in ALL endeavors! It may sound corny but I'm an Aries, so I really do mean it!

[End of Interview]

This interview was a big eye opener for me. Now that I understand white sage used for protection and blue sage is used for cleansing, I will be shifting my own smudging habits at home. I am also curious to try silver sage! I really loved that she mentioned burning herbs based on your region. My little known favorites are burning cedar, rosemary and lavender, as they add a special and gentle energy to my home.

As for abalone shells, I have decided to discontinue them and instead start offering other dishes such as clay bowls and ceramic plates. Even metal and glass plates that are made for candle holders or incense holders can be devoted to catching the ashes of your smudging herbs. We currently carry cast iron cauldrons that work very well!

I encourage you to try the many herb, sage, and resin offerings we have here at East West Bookshop! We always carry Fluorescent Ranch's smudging bundles, herbs and resins. Debbie has handcrafted a large assortment of blue sage bundles mixed with other herbs, including bundles of silver sage. There are bundles of lavender, cedar and mugwort too.

We look forward to seeing you soon!