Mother Earth Living

Light Your Fire: Purify Your Home With Native American Incense

Cleanse and purify your home with smudge sticks and sweetgrass braids— Native American incense with a venerable history.
By Stephanie Rose Bird
May/June 2004
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Photo By Joe Coca
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When spring arrives, we open our windows, doors, and hearts to nature. Spring is also the season for cleansing our homes—purging the old while welcoming new growth and beginnings. In a process known as smudging, Native Americans use sacred herbs to address the spiritual, emotional, and physical aspects of cleansing. Today, many people use sage almost exclusively for smudging, but Native American nations have used a variety of aromatic indigenous herbs throughout the centuries.

Following directions

The Native American Medicine Wheel follows the four cardinal directions, as should your movements during smudging and clearing rituals. Begin to the east because that’s where life begins—it’s the place of birth and new beginnings. Travel next to the south, the place of the teenage years. West, representing midlife, is next. End to the north, the place of the elders, wisdom, spirits, ancestors, and the afterlife.

Some people find having a specific order to smudging useful. These directions were derived from the medicine wheel as reported by an elder of the Mide Lodge, member of the Cedar Women’s Society. The directions also follow the medicine wheel as described by E. Barrie Kavasch and Karen Baar, Native American authors of American Indian Healing Arts: Herbs, Rituals and Remedies for Every Season of Life (Bantam/1999).You can try this method or, if you are feeling creative, devise your own methods that are comfortable and sensible, in accord with your background, orientation, and living situation.

Smudge stick herbal ritual

Smudge sticks are dried medicine bundles that are lit and waved like magical fragrance wands. While sweetgrass is inviting, smudge sticks are used for banishment—to clear spaces of negativity and illness.

When making smudge sticks, try to use homegrown plants or sprigs from trees on your property, bearing in mind that a part of the spirituality inherent in smudging herbs is that they are bartered or personally harvested rather than bought and sold. If you don’t have trees or herbs available, barter with a family member or friend who does.

To make a smudge stick:

1. Gather available sprigs and branches in the morning after dew has evaporated.

2. Cut each herb to between twelve and eighteen inches in length.

3. Bundle the herbs, then tie with hemp string.

4. Bring the bundle inside and hang it upside down away from direct sunlight.

5. Dry for several days; the bundle should still be pliable.

6. Lay the bundle on a natural fiber cloth or newspaper.

7. Fold, then roll the bundle until there is a neat six- to eight-inch-long bunch.

8. Bundle using natural hemp string or undyed cotton string.

Smudging ritual:

1. Open door or windows for good ventilation.

2. Light smudge stick.

3. Tamp out flame. Carry the smoking wand clockwise, emphasizing the four directions through each room, making sure you smoke corners and crevices. Languish over areas that need cleansing or where unfortunate occurrences and arguments have taken place.

4. Some people enjoy using a found bird feather to spread the smoke as they travel, but cupped hands are just as effective.

5. Dampen the smudge stick in seawater or rainwater. Hang it up to dry until next time.

6. Burning herbs on charcoal: As an alternative to smudging, crumble an assortment of herbs and burn them over a mesquite charcoal block or pieces of cedarwood, piñon, or another fragrant wood.

Opening the way with a sweetgrass ritual

Sweetgrass (Hierochloe odorata) is often used at the beginning of rituals and ceremonies; its quiet, seductive scent is thought to invite in positive nature spirits and ancestors. A fragrant herb that’s reminiscent of warmed vanilla, sweetgrass is sometimes called vanilla grass. It’s particularly beloved by the Sioux and Aniyunwiya, or Tsalagi (commonly called Cherokee in English), and the Lakota people connect this scented rush with the compassionate creation goddess Wohpe. Associated with the mysterious seventh direction, Wohpe is thought to appear at the same moment as a puff of smoke. According to Lakota stories, the braided grasses symbolize her beautiful plaited hair. Traditional Cherokee people hang a sweetgrass braid over each doorway inside the house for protection and to beckon positive spirits.

Sweetgrass grows in both North America and Europe. Some Europeans also consider it sacred and use it as a strewing herb on church stairs during saint days. Sweetgrass has been cultivated for at least 10,000 years, but like many beloved plants, it’s endangered in certain areas, especially along the East Coast. Because the species Hierochloe odorata is disappearing rapidly, consider growing it yourself or using the slightly less fragrant H. alpina, H. hirta, H. occidentalis, or H. pauciflora.

Burning sweetgrass is a simple, evocative way to reconnect to the earth in spring. The smoldering grasses become a spiritual invitation for a fertile, vibrant spring with abundant rains. Create your own spring sweetgrass (or other aromatic wild grass) clearing ritual based on the following directions:

1. Cut wild aromatic grasses or sweetgrass (if available in your area) to about forty inches. Braid loosely in three strands. As an alternative, obtain a braid of sweetgrass from a reputable supplier.

2. Stroke the grass gently and whisper your wishes for the spring season.

3. Light the braid in a dark room and implore the earth to open the way for you and your family to have an enlightened and abundant spirit.

4. Tamp the flame and travel through your home, clockwise, in the four cardinal directions (east, south, west, north).

5. Encourage the positive vibrations from the smoke to bless your home as you move.

Native American incense herbs

In addition to these traditional native herbs, many people use lavender, hyssop, and rosemary, which are also considered holy plants.

Bearberry Willow: wood known for its healing effects
Balsam Fir: cleansing and purifying
Bayberry: pleasant fragrance
Bee Balm: fragrance reminiscent of oranges and mint
Cedar: burned during prayer, invocation, and home blessings, wards off illness, purifies
Cedarwood: balances, protects, provides focus; wood chips can be used as a kindling source for other leaves and branches
Juniper: uplifts, protects, purifies
Mesquite: ideal charcoal base for burning smoldering herbs
Pine Oil: associated with endurance, focus, trust, and stability
Pinon Needles: used by the Navajo, Apache, Pueblo, and Zuni in smudging rites, sometimes in place of sweetgrass
Red Willow or Pacific Willow: used in healing ceremonies
Sagebrush: considered protective of the spirit; wild sage (Artemisia tridentata) preferred over culinary sage (Salvia officinalis)
White Spruce: protects, renews, and harmonizes


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