By Amy Wong
Published on December 8, 2014
The match was struck. The earthy aroma of white sage quickly obscured the harsh notes of sulphur from the fiery match head. The scent still lingers in my memory. Every time I catch a hint of sweetgrass, sage, or cedar, I am brought back to Garden River.
Garden River First Nation was where I was first introduced to smudging. We followed the Anishinaabe tradition. There were other variations to the ceremony among other Indigenous groups across North America, but as I was told, “There is no right or wrong way.”
We started every morning in the same manner. A combination of dried sage, sweetgrass, and cedar — three of the four sacred medicines, were placed in an abalone shell. The fourth medicine, tobacco, had played its part last herb-gathering season, when it was offered as a thank-you to both the plants for giving part of themselves to us, and to Creator.
We would often use only white sage in our smudge since ten out of twelve of us were women, and sage was a powerful medicine that matched our womanly energy. The dozen of us — eager youth from across Canada, who had embarked on this intense, month-long Anishinaabe cultural immersion together in Garden River — would start every day in a circle. The dried herbs nestled in the abalone shell would be lit with a match, and an eagle feather would be used to fan the fragrant smoke. As the volunteer holding the religious implements made their way around the circle, they stopped in front of each participant, fanning the smoke in their direction. One by one, we smudged.
“There is no right or wrong way.”
Each of us smudged in our own unique way, guiding the smoke over ourselves with our hands, towards our five senses, towards our hearts, and over our bodies. By smudging, we were cleansing our minds and bodies of negativity, and beginning each day with a clean slate. If cedar was added, there was an additional element of mental and spiritual purification and balance. Each medicine had its purpose.
Sweetgrass was my very favourite. It was used to bring positive energy into our lives. Sweetgrass, I was told, is mother earth’s hair, an extension of her giving nature. It teaches us kindness. When it is stepped on, it bends, but does not break. This teaching resonated with me, and I often wonder about how I can become less brittle and less prone to breakage when faced with anger, sadness, or challenges that I cannot seem to overcome. I keep a braid of sweetgrass by my bedside to remind me of this teaching, and to remind me to be kind to myself.
Favourites aside, I was taught to appreciate all of the sacred medicines. I was told that the smell of the burning medicines stimulated the release of certain endorphins in the body that promoted healing. I know that personally, I felt calmer whenever we smudged. Whether this was a psychological, physiological or combined effect, I am not sure.
What I do know for certain is that I entered Garden River with a 3-piece-set full of emotional baggage and it was being unpacked in unpredictable ways. I found that smudging really helped me to clear my mind and quell my agitation; albeit temporary, the relief from worry duty was a reprieve.
The adaptability of the smudging ceremony was an aspect that I greatly appreciated. The herbs could be found and harvested from within a wide geographical range in North America. The abalone shell, which originally signified trade partnerships with First Nations from the West Coast, is not requisite to smudging, nor is the eagle feather; only dried herbs, a fire source and will are needed.
Socioeconomic standing, along with gender, sex, ability, and race are not factors that prevent people from being able to smudge in present day. However, it is unsettling for me to remember that only a few decades ago, it was illegal for First Nations to practice their religions, with children in residential schools facing corporal punishment if caught. The institutions may not be able to change your internal beliefs, but they can certainly limit the expression of those beliefs. In present day, I have heard of smudging being banned in some indoor locales, such as dormitories, because of safety concerns. Though I can understand why those who are not familiar with smudging could imagine it as a fire hazard, what I cannot imagine is how frustrating it would be to not be able to practice your religion in your personal room, especially in this case, given the history of religious oppression. It is an eerie parallel to their violent past.
Smudging was the first religious ceremony I had ever been actively taught to practice, yet it allowed me enough flexibility to make it my own. At the time, I was on a mission of self-healing and smudging was introduced to me just when I needed it — at the very moment I most needed to be reminded that there was no right or wrong way.
Amy Wong is a multidisciplinary artist and activist hailing from the concrete jungles of Scarborough. She is a graduate of the International Development Studies and Environmental Science programs at UTSC. Her current interests include home-brewing kombucha, playing the tambourine in public at opportune moments (she assures you, there are many), and as always, writing to the sporadic rhythm of her mercurial mind.
Further reading and viewing suggestions
- Iseke, Judy. 2010. “Importance of Métis Ways of Knowing in Healing Communities.” Canadian Journal of Native Education 33 (1): 83-97.
- Walker, Connie. 2014. “First Nations Teen Told Not to Smudge Before School.” CBC News, February 10.
- Wolochatiuk, Tim. 2012. We Were Children. (Film): National Film Board of Canada