The Commodification of Indigenous Practices

Written by Alejandra Tolley

August is National Wellness Month, meaning we’re talking about all things self-care & mental well-being. In the past few years, self-care has sparked a new kind of trend that centers on holistic approaches to treating our stresses and managing our everyday chaos. Whether it’s putting on a DIY face mask or soaking in our tubs with our package-free soap bars, we have all delved into what it means to unwind with intention. 

A routine that has caught the eye of many is sage-ing and smudging, which include  sacred practices using Palo Santo trees (Bursera graveolens), a tree harvested in Peru and Ecuador. Historically, Palo Santo brought value in shamanic rituals, a ceremonial tradition that centers on the spiritual sense of an illness. White Sage (Salvia Apiana) is another plant appreciated for its connection to ritual practice and cleansing uses. According to a study done by Desert USA, this tradition’s first recording date back to Egypt’s 5th Dynasty, nearly 4,500 years ago. In the American West, Indigenous communities have used this plant for centuries and continue to do so.

 White Sage and Palo Santo aid in clearing unwanted negative energy, asking spirits for protection and safety, and adding a sense of purification to our surroundings and selves. The use of these venerating plants differs from tribe to tribe and is incredibly beneficial for medicinal uses. Taté Walker, a citizen of Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, describes on The Zoe Report that her tribe uses sage to ease certain physical discomforts, including menstruation and constipation. In the same report, the use of this plant symbolizes the sacred relationship which Indigenous communities have with the earth and her gifts. 

Photo from New York Times 

Unfortunately, Native Americans and their bond to their land continue to be severed and erased. Due to the rise of this versatile plant, it has caught the eye of large corporations and companies who market it as a commodifiable self-care tool. Not only does the mass production of sage and Palo Santo cause a shortage for Indigenous communities who depend on it, but it has become an environmental issue. "Commodifying sage has led to poaching and overharvesting, which has a negative impact on how the plant is grown, harvested, and interacts with the environment," is what Walker shared in The Zoe Report. According to Eco-Age, the routine of gathering Palo Santo is often farmers collecting the fallen remains of branches from the tree to prevent overharvesting. Unfortunately, due to high demand, Palo Santo trees are mainly unethically and illegally cut down and over-harvesting is performed. 

Historically, Native Americans were not allowed to practice their traditions or religion. This law included prohibiting access to materials and their land for sacred sites. It wasn’t until 1978, when President Jimmy Carter passed the American Indian Religious Freedom Act ,where Natives gained back some of their autonomy. Indigenous communities went through a rigorous fight demanding their most basic needs that maintain their traditions and cultures. When Non-natives support the mass production of sage, it minimizes the importance and takes away the initial intention of this sacred practice. Ottawa Citizen reported in 2019, a hospitalized Indigenous patient was forced to perform her sage-ing ceremony in -20° C weather. We mustn’t support companies or the narrative that “everyone” can sage when Indigenous folks continue to be shamed or restricted from practicing their religion. 

Photo from Sutori

Instead, we need to engage with this practice as intended. Utilizing your surroundings or self-harvest sage is one of the most impactful ways to not support the shortage and commodification of these traditions. The act of stripping away resources from Indigenous communities and selling them for profit to take part in a trend is almost, if not synonymous to modern-day colonization. Tribes across the country depend on their land for nourishment, and the commercialization of their sacred practices diminishes their culture. One of the main things we can do during this wellness month is to be mindful and intentional with our self-care routine and ensure we are not perpetuating more harm than good. 

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