Smudging Spiritual Smoke Purification | Native American Heritage

Smudging Spiritual Smoke Purification | Native American Heritage


Smoke purification (known as “smudging” in English) is a cultural ceremony observed by different Indigenous peoples in other parts of the world. Although the practices differ, purification is still used for medicinal and practical purposes, as well as as part of spiritual ceremonies. The Native American tribes purification usually consists of a prayer accompanied by the burning of sacred plants, such as sweet grass, cedar, sage and tobacco. Despite the repression of such traditions during the time of colonization, the purification survives to this day.

Definition and origin of smudging

Known as “smudging” in English, the term spiritual “purification” is commonly used to refer to the ceremonies of indigenous peoples in which sacred herbs and remedies are burned during a ritual, for a purge or at times, as well as medical purposes. Indigenous peoples use their own unique terms and expressions to refer to purification. We speak, for example, of Atisamânihk in the Cree language (which means “purification process”) and of Nookwez in the Ojibway language (“medicinal purification”).

Practice of Smudging Smoke Purification

Although different Indigenous nations have their own culturally specific versions of the cleansing traditions, there are several teachings common from nation to nation. For example, in all ceremonies some container is used to carry the herbal medicines. It could be a special container, a seashell, a purification staff, or even a ball. Burned in small quantities, the herbs contained in the container produce a smoke which would have healing virtues and could transmit the prayers of the people to the creator. The smoke is spread over the face and body of the cleansed person, either by means of a feather (ideally an eagle feather) or with a wave of the hand. The person should direct the smoke towards their body with their hands, inhaling it with each contact.

When a room or place is purified, the smoke should be circulated throughout, while the person conducting the ceremony prays to dispel negative energy and allow the positive energy to remain. The ashes created by the burnt herbal remedies, rather than being thrown into an ordinary waste container, are buried outside, symbolizing the elimination of all negative energy from our lives.

Purification ceremonies are often led by an elder or spiritual leader, such as a shaman. Anyone can however perform their own ceremony if they feel the need, especially in times of prayer.

Thanksgiving smudging ceremonies

Among some rituals or ceremonies by which the natives express their beliefs, we can retain the thanksgiving ceremonies, which are performed individually or collectively. Apart from oneself, we thank the Great Spirit every day for all that lives. During group ceremonies, we thank the spirit of the plants and animals that have allowed them to be used for food or for making whatever we need. During these rituals, the six different directions – cardinal points, up or down – are sometimes called upon, each of which has its meaning.

  • The top: the Creator, the gift of life, of relationships, of creation, of reconciliation;
  • Bottom: Mother Earth, sustenance, respect for creation and forgiveness for ecological abuse;
  • The East: sunrise, spring, new life, new beginnings, enlightenment;
  • The south: heat, summer, growth, food, blessing;
  • West: sunset, fall, rain, end, ancestors, the world beyond;
  • The north: night, winter, cold, survival, purity, wisdom, gifts.


The teachings of the four directions of the medicine wheel occupy a prominent place in the purification ceremonies. In some cultures, four elements are represented in different parts of the ceremony: fire when burning the sacred herbs, earth in the herbs themselves, air, symbolized by the feather used to spread the smoke or by the smoke itself, and the water in the container used to transport the herbs. In addition, the medicinal offerings, namely sweet grass, cedar, sage and tobacco, belong to the four directions.


Purification plays a different role from one indigenous culture to another. As a ritual, it occupies an important place in spiritual and theological beliefs, as do the sweat lodges and sacred pipes in some cultures. (See also Indigenous People: Religion and Spirituality.) Purification connects people with the Creator and provides a means for communities to gain spiritual protection and blessing, as well as to improve their spiritual health. The smoke generated by the burning of sacred herbs is believed to purify body and soul, and help clear the mind. This is how purification would also succeed in purging places of “negative energy”. Purification is therefore still used today in times of crisis, health problems and death.

Smoke purification is also practiced to restore physical health. When it focuses on certain parts of the body (the head, feet and sense organs, for example), purification gives the whole body a feeling of renewal. According to certain teachings of the Ojibwe, a purification carried out on the level of the back would allow to lighten the weight which weighs on the person. Purifying the ears, eyes and mouth would improve hearing, sight and skills linguistic studies, while deepening a person’s understanding of their surroundings and their place in the world. Respect for oneself and others, including the land, is central to various Indigenous spiritual teachings. It forms the very basis of the notion of purification.

In addition to the individual health that the ritual can provide, Indigenous communities living on and off reserve can find peace through cleansing. After the horrors of residential schools, the loss of land and the traditional economy, numerous epidemics and the various socio-economic factors that lead to intergenerational trauma, the cleansing gives Indigenous people a means of healing based on systems of revitalized beliefs good to them.

Effects of colonization

Colonization has the effect of suppressing, eroding and, in some cases, completely eliminating the spiritual traditions of Indigenous peoples. Although the Indian Act, a federal statute, does not explicitly prohibit smoke purification (as it did with potlatches and sun dancing until 1951), it declares many illegals illegal. ‘Aboriginal activities of a religious and cultural nature which in many cases involve purification. In addition, assimilation policies such as residential schools prohibit any practice of Indigenous cultures. However, smoke cleansing is still very much alive in Indigenous cultures today, especially because of the tenacity of those who defended it.

Native American Heritage : culture, ritual and ceremony, belief, custom and symbol

Sources: Pinterpandai, PowWows, Traditional Native Healing, Legends of America

Photo credit: DoD News / Flickr

Photo explanation: United States Marine Corps veteran Antonio Quezada from the White Mountain Apache tribe, receives spiritual cleansing and prayer from Native American Veterans Association Spiritual Advisor and Sun Walker, Tony Littlehawk, a member of the Cherokee tribe and an Army Vietnam veteran, from Marshall, Texas. The smudging, a spiritual cleansing, took place during the Native American Veterans Association’s Annual Veterans Appreciation and Heritage Day Pow Wow in South Gate, California, Nov. 8th and 9th. More than 4,000 people represented their tribes and their respective military service branches with inter-tribal music, dancing, arts and crafts and storytelling during the two-day event. (Department of Defense Photo by Marvin Lynchard).

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