Our “Saging the World” essay first appeared in the Spring 2020 issue of News from Native California. That’s Craig Torres (Tongva) on the cover, our good friend and consultant, photographed at a workshop Craig taught at Idyllwild Summer Arts a few years ago.
Although you can read the essay below, we hope you’ll subscribe to News from Native California to help support California Native American communities. Our good friend and consultant Heidi Harper Lucero (Acjachemen) graces the stunning cover of the new Summer issue.
Saging the World
Rose Ramirez and Deborah Small
A fire went through our family’s sage gathering ground, and maybe five acres of white sage just burned to the ground. I was upset, but my uncle said, ‘It’s good—the world just needed saging off.
—Tima Lotah Link, Shmuwich Chumash
Ah, the ubiquitous white sage, Salvia apiana, a plant that we adore. We use it for ceremony, gifting, food and medicine. We burn it to cleanse our bodies, minds, ceremonial instruments, and our homes. We use it to help bury our dead and to get us through menopause. From a single leaf to a dried bundle, many of us grow it, and have it on hand, ready for use, to gift or to provide to a person in need.
—Rose Ramirez, Chumash/Yaqui descent
For Barbara Drake, (Tongva), white sage is sacred: “White sage is used as a prayer plant. We do not sell white sage. If you need it as a medicine, we’re going to give it to you.”
A tea is used for bladder ailments, or to wash infected sores. “White sage is a very, very powerful antibacterial,” according to Julie Cordero-Lamb, Coastal Band of the Chumash. “It’s what doctors refer to as a broad spectrum antimicrobial.”
To the general population, white sage is often considered a ceremonial herb, but California Indians have many sacred plants. “For the Luiseño people, elderberry is considered the most sacred . . . not white sage,” Willie Pink, Luiseño/Cupeño, tells us. “We counted twenty-seven uses for elderberry.”
A plant is often considered sacred because it provides people with something needed, not just because it’s used in a ceremony.
Tribes, including Kumeyaay, Luiseño, Cupeño, Cahuilla, Chumash, Acjachemen, and Kiliwa, among others, have used white sage for thousands of years.
Seeds from a variety of sages— black sage, chia, thistle sage, hummingbird sage—are an important food source.
Craig Torres, Tongva, sees plants this way: “Plants are not just ‘cultural resources.’ Plants are our relatives. They’re to be treated with reciprocal respect.”
But where does white sage come from? Southern California, from Santa Barbara County to Baja California, Mexico, from the coastal ranges to the edges of our deserts. Sage scrub and chaparral plant communities provide important habitat for birds, insects and other animals, several of which are rare, threatened or endangered, in part, due to their disappearing habitat.
But have you noticed that white sage is sold everywhere? If you have traveled through the southwest, every trade shop sells it, from a small basket of sage to overflowing shelves of small and large bundles, priced accordingly. Often abalone shells are sold alongside the sage. It’s also sold all over the country in museum gift shops, bead stores, and businesses on Indian reservations. New Age shops are a prime source, often encouraging pseudo-Native ceremonial use, sometimes providing a prayer or chant to say while smudging.
So how has white sage become so popular, so trendy? Beginning in the 1950s with the urbanization of Native Americans through government work training programs (aka assimilation and relocation), many Native families ended up in cities like Los Angeles. White sage, similar in many ways to sagebrush and other plants used in their ceremonies back home, was adopted by urban Indians because it was easy to find in southern California. Its use then spread throughout Native America and attained a pan-Indian status.
In California, some people who were part of the Hippy Movement of the 1960s co-opted the use of white sage from Native Americans. As the Hippy Movement evolved into the New Age Movement, use of white sage exploded along with it. Now that the market for white sage is international, it’s likely that more non-Native Americans than Native use this herb. White sage smudging is popularized in movies and television. Articles on the benefits of smudging and cleansing pop-up daily in newspapers and magazines, as well as on blogs, Facebook, Instagram and other social media sites, mainstreaming its use.
It is important to note that non-Native people have been using white sage in pseudo-Native ceremony, at least since the 1960s. Yet Native Americans were not allowed to legally practice their religions until the Native American Religious Freedom Act was passed in 1978 (amended in 1994).
Buying and selling white sage is a controversial issue in Native communities. Weshoyot Alvitre, Tongva, tells us, “I was raised with teachings that medicine is not sold. Period.” This plant, as with many others, is a medicine, whether used as cure for an ailment or in a ceremonial practice.
The co-opting of Native culture and the continued destruction of white sage stands are a form of cultural appropriation. Alvitre terms it genocide. The voices of Alvitre and the Meztli Project, an indigenous arts and culture group, have been heard by Anthropologie, which was selling white sage products and pseudo-Native ceremonial kits. In response, the company removed the products from their stores.
Other stores continue to sell white sage. Julia Bogany (Tongva) tells us: “Last year, I went shopping at World Market. I got all the way up to the cash register when I saw sage and sweetgrass. I just threw down all my stuff. That’s what we’re telling our people to do. Don’t! Don’t even shop in those stores that are selling white sage. It only empowers them.
The white sage fields are now sacrifice zones for the reckless global commodification of the plants. Hall Newbegin is the founder of Juniper Ridge, one of the largest companies selling white sage on Amazon and stores around the globe. Juniper Ridge gathers all of its white sage for their products from the “wilds of the west coast.”
In “The Sustainability of the Juniper Ridge White Sage Harvest” (2015), Newbegin exonerates himself and his company as he scathingly condemns “the free-for-all that’s happening in the big sage fields in the Los Angeles basin.” His is an eyewitness account:
I’ve been harvesting white sage for almost 20 years now, I’m probably one of a dozen people in the world who knows all the harvesting crews, harvesting spots, who the good players are and who are the bad ones . . . I know this stuff backwards and forwards . . . .
The crews that clearcut the white sage fields needs [sic] to be stopped – I know their bosses are driving them to do it because they want cheap sage; I know both their bosses and the crews; I’ve brought it up with them in the fields. It’s grody, and it needs to stop and it is clear that more monitoring of the open-land fields is necessary, as they are just getting totally hammered, all for a marketplace that’s hungry for $7 smudge sticks.”
Newbegin goes on to warn us:
You should always be skeptical of us business types. I am always deeply suspicious when biz types say ‘oh yeah, of course we have your best interests at heart. . . . I’m in business to make money-ha! I’d be a liar if I didn’t own up to this . . .
Juniper Ridge, the “ultimate hipster bath + body brand,” according to product design coach Lela Barker, sells a myriad of white sage products including essential oils, body lotion, incense sticks, candles, soap, perfume, cologne, and smudge bundles in stores in Helsinki, Taipei, Barcelona, Sydney, Zurich, San Francisco, Bordeaux, Kraków, Oslo, Berlin, New York, Montreal, Los Angeles, Stockholm, etc., etc., etc. You can check out their Juniper Ridge online global store locator.
Juniper Ridge seduces us with great photography and design, and shares stories about the camaraderie around campfires, getting tipsy on whiskey or bourbon and beer, under starlit skies. Stories about traveling to manifest destinations along California’s west coast, where sage is just waiting for biz types to gather it, year after year after year.
White sage harvesters are not only from California.
Most of the stuff sold in the upscale trendy places was ripped out of the wild; whole hillsides stuffed into an old van and driven to San Francisco or Seattle or even New York so people can experience something.
— the late Bert Wilson of Las Pilitas Nursery
When Willie Pink spoke with us, he expressed anger about a particular company in New Mexico: “They send out their harvesters [to California] and they absolutely destroy the plants. They don’t care because they’re also extracting the white sage oil now. So they’ll cut the plants all the way to the ground.”
Huge quantities of plant material are required to produce even small amounts of essential oils.
Ron Goodman, San Bernardino County Ranger, and Luis Vaquera, Rancho Cucamonga Park Ranger, are passionate advocates for the protection of the Etiwanda Preserve. Located in Rancho Cucamonga, the region is important to many tribes, including Tongva, Serrano, Cahuilla, and Luiseño. The Preserve was established in large part through the efforts of the Spirit of the Sage Council, cofounded by Tongva elders, Vera and Manuel Rocha.
The rangers spoke to us of the wholesale and on-going poaching of white sage. “Come April, May and June, it’s almost and everyday occurrence . . . They’re taking it when it flowers.”
The rangers’ largest bust last year was almost 1000 pounds of white sage, stuffed into at least 10 over-sized duffel bags. They’ve even caught poachers working for seed companies, and they confiscated 150 pounds of white sage seeds (and sage pods) in one bust.
Everyone takes their job seriously at the preserve. Even the sheriff deputies get involved in the chase, sometimes using a helicopter and a bloodhound to track the poachers across the sage scrub. At the bottom of the white sage supply chain are often exploited workers who don’t know the laws.
According to Ron Goodman and Luis Vaquera, “they bring these folks up here that have no idea whatsoever that they’re committing a crime. . . . All the guys that we catch, they’re working for somebody. They get paid 25 cents to a dollar per pound.
The wholesale value as you go up the supply chain a few steps, according to the US Forest Service, is “anywhere from $20 to $30 a pound.”
If we don’t fight to protect the plants and to protect the land, they’re no longer there for us. The connection to who we are as a people has everything to do with the plants.
—Craig Torres, Tongva
For Heidi Lucero (Acjachemen), the foraging of white sage is now “out of control.
Craig Torres calls the reckless exploitation of white sage “trafficking.” Bill Madrigal, Cahuilla, refers to it as “poaching.” So does Lorence Orosco, Center Manager, Haramokngna/Pukuu Cultural Center.
Lisa Novick, of the Wild Yard’s Project, writes that the world is “in the initial throes of a sixth mass extinction, this one caused by people erasing native habitat and negatively impacting the biosphere, . . . foraging native plants is not just irresponsible: it is tantamount to ecocide.”
Juniper Ridge claims their wild sage is sustainably foraged from private land. Mike Evans, from Tree of Life Nursery, counters: “If it’s public land or if it’s private land, it’s still habitat.”
In her cover story for the Journal of Medicinal Plant Conservation, Susan Leopold, Executive Director of United Plant Savers, writes that the “only sustainable white sage would be white sage that is intentionally grown.” White sage is now on the United Plant Savers “To Watch” list, a list of the species of important medicinal plants most impacted by human activities.
White sage once grew in what in now the most developed and populated areas in southern California. Sage scrub and chaparral plant communities continue to be decimated by development. According to the Audubon Society, as little as 10-15 percent of California’s original coastal sage scrub has survived. Naomi Fraga, Director of Conservation Programs at Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden (RSABG), tells us that “coastal sage scrub is now considered a habitat of critical concern.”
Also of critical concern are the beautiful iridescent abalone shells that are now marketed, along with white sage bundles and feathers, as smudging kits. You can find hundreds of online sites and stores selling these kits. It’s trendy. It’s also disrespectful. And extremely painful.
There are seven species of abalone in California. For millennia, they have been crucial to the culture of coastal Native tribes for food, artwork, regalia, adornment, and ceremony. Perhaps most importantly, abalone is part the creation story for many southern California tribes. In the traditional story of Chinigchinix, as related by James R. Moriarty in Chinigchinix: An Indigenous California Indian Religion:
The people decided to kill Wiyot so they poisoned him. When he realized it he came down to the sand and his mother, the Earth, wanted to cure him and had Wiyot urinate in an abalone shell and she added worms and herbs. While it was fermenting, Coyote came and kicked the abalone shell. The urine became the sea, and that is why it is salty and bitter and the worms became the fish, and the herbs became the kelp.
According to the National Marine Fisheries Service, two of the seven California abalone species are now listed as endangered and three listed as species of concern. Poaching, overfishing and climate change are part of the mix contributing to the devastation of abalone.
We don’t encourage buying smudge kits and abalone shells. However, there are a few sustainable growers of white sage: Strictly Medicinal Seeds and Oshala Farm, both in Oregon, and Sagewinds Farm in Jacumba, east of San Diego.
We visited Sagewinds. The owners, Ken Taylor and Ellen Woodward-Taylor, have been growing white sage for fifteen years. “I just knew that there wasn’t enough for everybody, because there was such a demand, ” according to Ellen. They started with a patch growing on their land, collecting seed and propagating it. The couple thought it would make a good business and would not deplete the natural sage stands. Sagewinds is now certified organic.
How can we save what remains of our white sage stands. We need to stop supporting the illegal market.
Heidi Lucero realized that the sage was being illegally taken from the land and that climate change and development were taking a toll. She stopped gathering from her Acjachemen community’s remaining traditional sites.
“If you live in California, there’s no need to wild gather. Grow your own! Save your $10 on a sage bundle and buy a plant that gives you sage all year long.” Heidi’s sage grows abundantly and she gladly shares it: “My friends probably come over four or five times a month to gather from my plants.”
For Theresa Richau, (San Gabriel Mission Band of Indians), “plants are important in maintaining a sense of place and belonging. I gather plant materials from native plant gardeners in exchange for my Native Roots products, where I handcraft small quantities of soaps, salves, and lotions, and distill my own line of hydrosols.”
To stem the accelerating loss of habitat, growing white sage and other native plants for ourselves and to share with our communities is one of the most beneficial things we can do as individuals. Cultivating white sage and other California native plants is “essentially repatriating those plants back to the landscape from which they grew,” according to Naomi Fraga.
We hope you’ll join us in cultivating white sage in your garden or nurturing the plants in containers on decks, porches, and windowsills — wherever there is space and sun, and a desire to honor and use the plants.
You can purchase seeds and plants from native plant nurseries throughout the state, including Tree of Life, Theodore Payne, Moosa Creek, California Botanic Garden (formerly Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden), local California Native Plant Society chapters, as well as many other reputable growers (see Calscape.org).
You’ll attract and support bees, butterflies, birds, and other beneficial insects. You’ll have the opportunity to spend quality time observing plant and pollinator habitats and better understand how our species’ health and well-being are inextricably connected with that of the plants that sustain us.
“The sage really needs a few years of love and knowledgeable attention before the really great medicine shows up. And when it does, there is nothing else like it.”
Note: All photos with no photo credit are mine.
Update: Juniper Ridge contacted us and stated that: “Juniper Ridge products are not sold at Walmart. In the past others have gone against our no resell policy and sold to 3rd parties like Walmart.”