As I Was Saying is a forum for a variety of perspectives to foster faith-related conversations among our readers with the goal of mutual learning, even in disagreement. Apart from articles written by editorial staff, these perspectives do not necessarily reflect the views of The Banner.
As an Indigenous person who’s also a follower of Jesus, my first identity is in Creator Sets Free (Jesus). I also long ago began the journey of experiencing my identity in my Nêhiyaw (Cree) culture. After I connected with both forms of identity I felt for the first time I knew who I was as a Nêhiyaw person made in the image of the Creator Sets Free (Jesus).
One of the ways I’ve identified with my Nêhiyaw culture is to come to appreciate burning sweetgrass and sage. My hope is that after reading this, you, reader, will have a better understanding of what is going on when you see an Indigenous person use this spiritual practice.
My Indigenous people burn sweetgrass, cedar, sage, and tobacco as a form of grounding, as a form of purification, as a form of sending our prayers to the Creator. This is used for private use, at community meetings in the workplace, in ceremonies, or for chief and council meetings. Sometimes my fellow people also will hang sweetgrass braids in their vehicles too. We see the use of any of these four medicines—used for different purposes—to connect to the Creator.
When they wave the smoke over their bodies, they are asking the Creator to help them see what the Creator wants them to see. To help them only speak what the Creator wants them to speak. To help their hands and feet to only do and go to places the Creator wants them to go to. They also see the waving of this smoke over their bodies as a way to ask the Creator to protect and purify them, to ground them and settle their bodies down physically, spiritually, mentally, and emotionally.
For many of my fellow traditional people, before they wave the smoke over their bodies, they take their jewelry off and their glasses off. From my experience, they see this as a sign of respect, just like when a cowboy takes off his hat before praying, just like when a baseball player takes off his or her cap while singing the national anthem. When the person lights any one of the four medicines, they also then walk around to everyone present and give them the opportunity to smudge themselves. Some people will pass by, simply waving their hand. Not everyone who is present is forced into smudging with this smoke. It’s also not held against that person.
There are many Indigenous people who continue to use this practice as a follower of Creator Sets Free (Jesus). There are some who say that this is not in line with Scripture and that it’s inviting the forces of darkness. Why? Because, they say, we are a new creation in Christ, so we don’t need anything else. We should, in essence, burn anything that falls into this category and have nothing to do with the traditional culture of our ancestors. This does create a tension in witnessing to someone, so it can be very divisive if not approached with discernment.
For me, I’ve decided to appreciate this spiritual practice and use it in my own way. I believe in what Galatians 5:1 says: “ So Christ has truly set us free. Now make sure that you stay free, and don’t get tied up again in slavery to the law.” When I light either sweetgrass or sage in a bowl and the smoke starts to rise, I simply appreciate the smell. In my heart I say, “As my prayers rise up to the heavens today and throughout this day, this smoke symbolically reminds me of this reality of my prayers going directly to Creator Sets Free (Jesus).”
I don’t wave the smoke over my body, and I don’t take any jewelry off. I simply have come to appreciate the smell of sweetgrass or sage. It calms me down. Over the past six years I’ve really struggled with anxiety. To deal with this anxiety I’ve been seeing a therapist, and I’ve been reminding myself what Scripture says about anxiety. I also talk to other people about my anxiety. I also found out later on in life that I have Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. Over the past six years I’ve also experienced anxiety attacks. It’s helpful to have a practice that can soothe my anxiety.
In closing, I reflect on Revelation 8:3-4 that says, “Then another angel with a gold incense burner came and stood at the altar. And a great amount of incense was given to him to mix with the prayers of God’s people as an offering on the gold altar before the throne. The smoke of the incense, mixed with the prayers of God’s holy people, ascended up to God from the altar where the angel had poured them out.”
This imagery reduces my anxiety because it makes me realize that my prayers to Creator Sets Free (Jesus), and all those who have prayed for me over the years, are sitting in heaven in this way. Earlier on in Revelation 5 it also says that there are 24 of these bowls that are held by the 24 Elders.
All of this solidifies my identity in Creator Sets Free (Jesus) and in my Nêhiyaw culture. I was made in the image of Jesus and so I also believe that many forms of cultural expression can give glory to God the Father. They can also help us cope with issues such as anxiety and so I, with freedom, continue to offer my prayers up to heaven in this way.