Words by Ruth H. Robertson
PHOTOGRAPHS BY EVAN BENALLY ATWOOD
Native Nations have historically embraced sage for its power to heal bodies, hearts and minds, cleanse spaces, and make holy. But with the advent of social media, sage usage among non-Natives has grown in popularity, endangering the medicinal plant in the process.
Sage is a medicinal plant embraced and utilized across cultures, but it is most sacred to and has the most history with Indigenous Nations that predate the formation of the United States. Traditionally, the fragrant Native plant is dried, consumed, or burnt.
Natives display sage for its fragrance, and because it is an insect repellent. Additionally, sage is believed to ward off evil or negative, draining energies, so it only makes sense to set it out in living areas or to put it on the dashboard of one’s vehicle. One could even put a little wad of sage leaves in one’s shoes or coat pocket as an extra measure of spiritual protection. My ancestors also simply loved the color of sage and thought it was beautiful, so they displayed it ornamentally.
Sage is edible, too. The seeds may be ground and used as a seasoning, or mixed with other grains. The stalk may be eaten raw, boiled, or roasted. Sage tea is a powerful medicine as well.
Furthermore, the plant is bundled, dried, and set on fire to create sacred smoke. Today, this practice is commonly known as “smudging.”
In my ancestral lands, Artemisia ludoviciana, or prairie sage, grows in abundance and is the sage variety that we primarily use. In a practical manner, my People use prairie sage to treat skin rashes, as a deodorizer, and as a tea that helps control blood sugar levels. Other Tribes to the south and west prefer Salvia apiana, or white sage. White sage is thought to have antimicrobial properties and is used by California Tribes to treat colds, flu, tooth aches, bad breath, and even urinary tract issues.
I’ve heard elders refer to some types of Artemisia as “women’s sage,” because when prepared properly, it may be used as an abortifacient or to treat menstrual cramps. Some Tribes call the entire plant genus Artemisia “moon medicine.” This is curious when one considers that the genus is named after the Greek goddess Artemis, and its name loosely translates to “The Mother’s Herb.”
Once one has been introduced to it, sage varieties are easily recognizable. An earthly, pale greyish green, they grow tall and are easily visible from roads. One can smell them growing wild in the fields.
Tribes who’ve used the plant for millennia are ringing the alarm, warning the public that if unfettered poaching and misuse of sage continues, this sacred medicine loved by so many will vanish from the wild.
October represents the end of the harvest season in Oceti Sakowin (Great Sioux Nation) Dakota makoche (homelands) in the northern plains. There are dozens of fruits, vegetables, and Native plants that we gather throughout the summer for food and medicine. Those from the Sage family are still ripe for picking, even at this late stage of the year—if you can find them. Any day now, we will experience the first hard freeze of Autumn. All manner of life, from trees and insects, will wither, seek shelter, and rest. Bugs, especially, make real nuisances of themselves in the Fall.
Indigenous people of Turtle Island need you to know that sage varieties are in crisis. With the advent of social media, sage usage among non-Natives has grown in popularity, and although Artemisia is not currently listed as endangered, Tribes who’ve used the plant for millennia are ringing the alarm, warning the public that if unfettered poaching and misuse of sage continues, this sacred medicine loved by so many will vanish from the wild. We are losing wide swathes of sage at a rapid pace, too quickly to be replaced. This rate of harvest is unsustainable.
While non-Natives appear to be seeking sage in droves because they appreciate its medicinal properties and its energetic cleansing abilities in particular, the process of its collection is being poisoned by the commodification late-stage capitalism demands, and the paternalism of a sick society—that, coincidentally, is most in need of purification.
California Tribes report that poachers are routinely being caught smuggling literally hundreds of pounds of white sage, roots and all. Even worse, poachers are hiring undocumented laborers to poach for them, implicating these disadvantaged workers, in their criminally wicked scheme. To the traditional Native practitioner, such methods of collection are morally wrong, and actually corrupt the plant so it loses its spiritual power.
Poaching sage is not appreciation, it is cold blooded exploitation that some say amounts to cultural genocide.
NEVER TAKE THE ROOT. When one uproots a plant, one takes away its ability to regenerate. When sage is harvested, it should be cut, so the root stays in the ground and can grow again next season. When sage is uprooted, it doesn’t just kill the plant itself. It disrupts the entire ecosystem. Sage is an ancient Native plant that an entire landscape of living organisms depend on for nourishment and structure.
But saving the root is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg.
If one truly believes in the spiritual strength of sage—in its power to heal bodies, hearts and minds, cleanse spaces, or make holy, one must have a relationship with the plant.
Ideally, the one who uses the sage ceremonially should be the one who picks it. The sage should be harvested with a good heart, and an offering should be left after the sage is cut from its root. A prayer of thanks to The Source should be said upon its collection. This acknowledgement and mindful harvest preserves its sanctity and imbues it with incredible supernatural power.
Among my People, we have specific areas set aside where prairie sage grows wild. We may collect it from these places when it is full grown. Usually, this collection takes place before Sundance ceremony in the summertime. We collect enough for ceremonies, and to last until the next harvest. We are also careful about where we harvest plant medicine from, because some areas have been tainted by pollution, thanks to extractive industry. Plants tainted in this manner should not be consumed, or burnt.
If used correctly, sage brings people together, and coupled with action, stops the avaricious, patriarchal destroyers of Mother Earth like a mighty wall of goodness and hope.
I understand that some folks who need to use sage may not have personal access to it in the wild. I suggest growing your own plants, or finding someone who farms it, and collecting the plant directly from the dirt. Growing your own sage gives you an even more personal connection to the medicine, making it that much more potent for ceremonial use. Don’t be afraid. Sage is quite hardy. One doesn’t necessarily need a green thumb to grow it. At the very least, do not support corporations and businesses who do not respect, preserve, and collect sage appropriately. You could actually be hurting yourself and your intentions by using sage that has been wrongfully taken.
Sage has its own spirit, and its own guardians. Just imagine how powerful it is to have a sacred plant you’ve tended from a seedling or sprout offer itself up to you as medicine, knowing that it loves and remembers you. If tended properly, it will regenerate. Eventually, you could have a lineage of sage that comes to know your grandchildren, just as we Oceti Sakowin have the fields of our homelands.
One could argue that sage has become even more powerful in recent years because of its boon in popularity. It’s become a symbol of holistic living, resistance, and unity. If used correctly, it brings people together, and coupled with action, stops the avaricious, patriarchal destroyers of Mother Earth like a mighty wall of goodness and hope.
While I tend to be a purist when it comes to Oceti Sakowin traditionalism, one could also argue that the igmu (cat) is out of the bag, so to speak. We are no longer in a position to forbid the non-Native from using sage, especially when we witness what dire straits humanity now finds itself in. The modern world suffers greatly, and needs all the help it can get. We can, however, still demand that our beloved sage not be abused, and assist our sisters and brothers in tending to it, collecting it, and using it appropriately. We can also advocate for legislation that will protect sacred sage from extinction. To use sage the right way is to reconnect oneself to the whole, the Universe, all the way back to the beginning.