Traditions serve an important function to keep a culture’s history and to engage the community. Rituals that include smoke or incense are widespread and can be found in Buddhist temples across Asia, the Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox churches as well as indigenous tribes like the First Nations in North America.
Smudging is one of those traditions that is common for many First Nations. It is part of a gathering ceremony to get rid of negativity and focus on the positives, remove lingering energy and to invite the spirits of ancestors and the world to share the space.
The custom involves burning one of four sacred medicinal substances, usually tobacco, sweetgrass, sage or cedar that was dried and made into a bundle, ball or smudge stick. The smoke is often spread into the room and pulled over the head, eyes, mouth and heart.
Sage or other sacred plants (people on the East Coast use tobacco, cedar, sweetgrass, juniper, pine needles, deer's tongue, cypress, and sage. Out west they use tobacco, pinion, desert sage, and sweetgrass). Sage represents the earth element and when burned, the smoke from it represents the air.
Abalone shell This is meant to hold and burn the plants. (The shell represents the water element)
Matches or a lighter (representing the fire element)
Feather (representing the air element)
Drum(s) or sacred drumming music (representing the beat of the heart)
The science behind these types of ancient customs seems to support smudging: Burning sage and other sacred herbs releases negative ions, which in turn have been shown to improve moods. The ceremony does allow participants to slow down and become mindful and centered, similar to meditation.
Possible health concerns related to smudging
The purpose of smudging may be to clear the air and get rid of negativity, but it still involves burning a substance and being exposed to smoke. Most guidelines state the importance of opening a window or door before lighting up the herbs.
While different from smoking cigarettes, the sacred smoke from smudging may still be harmful. Smoke typically contains dangerous particles and chemicals that pose a health risk, especially when exposure occurs often. Over the years, these chemicals and particles may build up in the body and cause or exacerbate respiratory diseases, including asthma and OCPD. Fine particle pollution has also been linked to premature death, heart attacks, irregular heartbeat and irritation of the airways.
During a recent study on smudging, a researcher found that fine particle levels exceeded health recommendations. The research included different types of sage that were burned in a box with an air sampling pump. For particulates, every single test was above the EPA’s 35 μg/m3 standard.
Introducing smudging to school-aged children
As smudging is a common and important ceremony for people of the First Nations, it has been allowed in hospitals and community centers and it is also being offered to students.
Many schools serving First Nations students offer smudging, either during particular events or as a regular part of the school day. It is often done indoors and it is a voluntary action that is usually led by a person with the required knowledge, i.e. an elder or cultural teacher.
Guidelines for schools in Manitoba, for example, recommend posting signs on spaces that are being used for smudging and letting the community know when and where smudging will occur. Stressing student safety, the guidelines state that schools should “Ensure that smudging does not pose a health risk to students, particularly students with severe asthma and respiratory issues. Communicating with parents and students prior to holding a smudge in a well-ventilated room can help to accommodate such concerns.”
They also recommend having written permissions from students who want to participate in smudging ceremonies and using sage as the medicine of choice, as it is “safe” for all students to use year round, even during menstrual cycles.
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