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The first time I was invited to smudge I remember feeling slightly out of my depth; I was in a hunting hut on the banks of the frozen Manawan lake in Quebec, on Atikamekw territory; I felt so honoured to be invited to be part of this, but I didn’t know what to do! The scent of the smouldering sweetgrass merged with the anxiety that this was a sacred moment I might screw up by doing or saying the wrong thing! Of course, it was fine. I was guided through the smudge and truly felt lighter at the end, throughout the day I’d catch a tiny whisper of scent and feel instantly calmer and happier.

I wanted to speak with an Elder who could explain how he understands smudging. Old Hands, of the Shoshone First Nation, is a traditional medicine man who smudges at the Skwachàys Lodge in Vancouver and also carries out healing at the Phoenix Centre healing grounds opposite Surrey Memorial Hospital.

How would you describe smudging to someone?

“If someone’s never heard of smudging before, I tell them that it’s a very old tradition which was originally called ‘making smoke’. If you look at all religions, they have some form of smudging: Catholics have a high mass, with incense, in Japan and India they have incense too, there’s always some kind of smoke process. Throughout North America many other Indigenous groups smudge.”

How do you smudge?

“I use different plants —cedar, sage, sweetgrass—and light them, then put them in a seashell, or any kind of container as they get hot, and then blow the flame out. When it starts to smoke I take that smoke and scoop it over myself as though it was water. It removes all negative influences and energies around me, and it makes my mind rest on a more sacred nature.”

When do you usually smudge?

“It’s good to smudge as we’re going to pray, or go through a healing process, also if you’re going to move into a new home or apartment; before you move your belongings in we light the smudge pot and smudge the whole place to remove any previous energy so it’s just yours. It’s also been proven that when we smudge it kills viruses and bacteria.”

Is it OK for non-Indigenous people to smudge?

“Yes! It’s not a problem at all, there’s a Lakota saying ‘Mitákuye Oyás’iŋ’ which means ‘all my relations’ and it’s a way of recognizing we are part of everything and everything is part of us. What we do to nature we do to ourselves; if we poison the air or water then we are poisoning ourselves. So everyone can practice smudging and learn to live in the day, look forward to the future and let the past be the past. Some tribal affiliations teach that women shouldn’t smudge when on their moon time.”

If you’ve never smudged before, what do you need to know?

“You should be aware that it’s a sacred ceremony—it’s not scary! —just be respectful. Don’t take photographs. If I were doing a smudging ceremony, then I’d get the smudge pot going and I’d brush the smoke with an eagle wing fan. I don’t touch you but I fan negative energies away. Then I take energy from the ground and fan it upon you. If you’re doing the smudge yourself, think about how you have the power —when you have that smoke and when you sweep it over yourself— to let go of the things you want to cleanse from your life. A lot of people have a hard time letting go of the past, we often don’t know how, but if you make smudging part of your life, as the smoke drifts away so does the past and you start brand new.”

Nikki Bayley

Nikki Bayley

Nikki Bayley is an award winning international travel writer, and food and wine journalist. Originally from the UK, Nikki fell in love with Canada after a visit to Newfoundland in 2008 and moved to Vancouver in 2012. Nikki has been criss-crossing Canada ever since, learning more about the land and its peoples, and sharing their stories around the world.