Ghosts Next Door

Ghosts Next Door
by Lopaka Kapanui

Aug 14, 2021

Why I Don't Sage or Smudge

The other night after our Ghosts of Old Honolulu walking tour, when most of my guests were leaving, a young woman came running back to talk to me. She mentioned that she sensed a lot of grief in one of the places we visited and asked if I ever saged the space and ended her question with a millennial “just so you know” comment at the end. 

I told her flat out that I do know, and no, I don’t sage the space. I’ve never saged anything. It is not my practice nor my culture to do so.

I explained that as a native Hawaiian and a cultural practitioner, I follow the protocols of my own ancestral teachings for blessings and cleansings using the elements that are native to Hawai‘i that my own ancestors utilized. For me to smudge an area or use white sage, which is not indigenous to Hawai‘i, would be appropriation. 

People ask me about sage a lot and I don’t often give a long explanation. I usually just say, “no” or shrug my shoulders. I may smile and nod as someone explains that they saged their Hawaii Kai home to rid it of ghosts, even though they have no First Nations ties. People will do what they feel they need to and it’s not my place to tell them they’re wrong. 

However in my own practice, aside from not wishing to support the commodification of white sage which is native to North America and has been used by indigenous people for hundreds of years, I am trained in the ways of my mother who learned from her mother, her grandparents, her great grandparents and so on -- going back to a time we call antiquity. We follow the practices that are connected to our DNA. Also, white sage is not the “end all” of negative energy and hauntings that people think it is. 

If a space “feels” heavy or negative, I will offer a prayer in the form of a Hawaiian chant. If I’m asked to bless a home, a business, a boat, or some other space, I do so with positive intention, following the teachings of my ancestors and the native elements provided to me by my homeland. I don’t do blessings and cleansings to earn money or because it’s trendy or popular or someone on Instagram told me I should. Doing so would go against everything my mother taught me, and I am not interested in waking up to an ethereal slap upside my head!

When people feel burdened by negative energy and ask for help, I will often tell them to first do what is in their heart, with good intention. If you’re able to learn and follow the spiritual teachings of your culture, then do so. If you’re unsure, ask for help. Ask an elder or a community leader. Call upon your ancestors for guidance. If none of that works, then call me and I will try my best to bring comfort to you, your family, and your space -- but I won’t be bringing sage with me.


A lot of people have commented and reached out to me regarding my post on why I don’t sage or smudge. I want to make it clear that I never said sage doesn’t belong in Hawai‘i, I am merely stating that white sage, Salvia apiana, is not indigenous to these islands and it is not an element in the teachings of my ancestors. The word “sage” may appear in our Hawaiian lexicon but it does not alter the fact that our ancestors did not use white sage in their ceremonies. If YOU want to burn sage in your home or business, it’s completely up to you. However, there are a few things you should know about acquiring white sage.

When you use an element like white sage, it’s a good idea to research its source. Nowadays, you can find sage in neat little bundles at boutiques and even grocery stores. It can be grown at home, but quite often, bulk amounts of white sage are illegally picked from wildlife preserves and public land and sold to buyers and wholesalers who never bother to ask the original source. To First Nations peoples, it is a medicinal plant and, similar to gathering Hawaiian elements for la‘au, there are intentions and protocols to follow when harvesting such medicines. Every time someone touches the plant, they put a bit of their energy into that medicine. If someone picks it illegally, are their intentions pure? Someone could grow sage on a farm or in their backyard if they wanted, but if they’re worried about making money from it, or just had an argument or something before going to harvest their sage, can one be sure that their energy is positive? Every person, from the grower to the harvester, to the people that tie them in bundles and stock them on the shelves, puts a bit of their energy into that medicinal plant, whether it’s good or bad. That’s the energy you are putting into your home and your space.

Furthermore, First Nations people have been speaking out against capitalist saging for years. Here's a great article regarding this: IT'S TIME TO RETHINK THE 'TREND' OF BURNING SAGE ON INSTAGRAM

There have also been comments and messages about the smoke from sage being able to purify the air with links to a few news articles regarding this claim. Interestingly enough, all of the articles forwarded happen to link the same research abstract entitled, “Medicinal Smoke Reduces Airborne Bacteria.” We read this abstract a few years ago. Published in 2007, it is a study done in India on Havan Sámagri, which is a composition of herbs and roots used to burn as offerings to their gods. 

The study represents a comprehensive analysis and scientific validation of the ancient knowledge about the effect of the natural products’ smoke for therapy and health care on airborne bacterial composition and dynamics. The study observed that a one-hour treatment of medicinal smoke emanated by burning wood and havan sámagri (a mixture of odoriferous and medicinal herbs used in oblation fire all over India) on aerial bacterial population caused over 94% reduction of bacterial counts by 60 min and the ability of the smoke to purify or disinfect the air and to make the environment cleaner was maintained up to 24 hours in the closed room. 

The thing is, white sage (or any sage, for that matter) is NOT an ingredient in this havan sámagri compound. A blogger wrote an article about the study and inserted “sage” as his/her own explanation of “medicinal herbs.” That blog has been quoted far and wide across the internet, with its incorrect information while still linking the original research abstract. While science seems to have proven that the ancient practice of burning havan sámagri
purifies the air, many scientists in India also recognize that unfortunately, the offerings are so common it also adds particles to the air contributing to their high rate of air pollution. 

Here is a link to the research abstract, noted in all of the news articles that were forwarded to me, that the producers of the articles linked but completely ignored or misunderstood: Medicinal smoke can completely eliminate diverse plant and human pathogenic bacteria of the air within confined space.

This is not to say that white sage has no benefits. There are studies that suggest the Salvia species (not limited specifically to white sage or Salvia apiana) may be considered for drug development for the treatment of illnesses ranging from minor to serious and possibly even life-threatening. It will be interesting to see what develops. Traditional medicine has long been ignored by Western medicine, so it is inspiring to see studies of this type confirming what the ancients knew. 

Again, while I don’t sage or smudge, people will do what they feel they need to. If you think you need to burn a bundle of white sage around your home, then that’s completely up to you, but always consider where your sage came from.

No comments:

Post a Comment