Incense in Native American Traditions

Incense in Native American Traditions

The practice of burning incense is a common part of spiritual or religious ceremonies for many different cultures. It can also help cleanse negative energy, improve moods and enhance focus during meditation.

Smudging involves burning fragrant natural herbs like sage, sweet grass, juniper and cedar while praying for healing and well-being. The smoke is fanned by a feather (ideally an eagle feather) or hand over the body or throughout a living space.


Sage is used to cleanse a person, place or object of negative energy and impurities. The process is called smudging or saging, and it is believed that the smoke from the burning sage attaches to any negative energies that are present and carries them away. You should always open a window before and during smudging to allow the smoke to leave your home.

Burning sage is also a common practice among many indigenous people, and it can be helpful for detoxifying the body or clearing negativity in the home or workplace. The smoke is soothing and calming, and it can also be used to set an intention or shift the mood. Often, smudging is accompanied by a prayer or recitation that helps to focus the intentions of the smudge and its benefits. Like Palo Santo, smudging is believed to cleanse negative energy and invite in positive vibes. It also helps boost energy levels and relieve stress and fatigue.


Sweetgrass (Hierochloe odorata) has long been one of the most important ceremonial plants among Indigenous tribes in North America. It is known for its vanilla-like fragrance and the power to bring in good spirits, healing, peace and spirituality. It is used to smudge, in the same way as sage; smoke from burning braided sweetgrass is fanned over people or objects to clear them of negative energies.

It is also used as a decoration in basket weaving. Mi’kmaq weavers combine finely split splints of black ash wood and sweetgrass to make decorative baskets in many styles.

The Nlaka’pamux and other Interior Salish peoples of British Columbia use it in similar ways, as does the Nuxalk nation near Bella Coola. The Wabanaki people of Acadia use it to cleanse themselves before and after prayer, in purification rites and as an aid to sleep. The seven strands in the sweetgrass braid represent mind, body, spirit and love, peace, harmony; they are also the teachings of the grandfathers: Humility (wolf), Courage (bear) and Honesty (sabe or wise). It can be grown easily from fresh or dried stems.


Cedar has a strong connection to the spiritual world and is known for its cleansing properties. It can also help to connect us with our ancestors and promote healing and balance.

Cedar was used in a variety of ways by Native American tribes for both practical and ceremonial purposes. It is very versatile and can be carved into various shapes and sizes to make tools, boxes, utensils, and shelters.

It was also a very important material for making clothing, baskets, mats, and ceremonial dancer’s regalia. Women would strip the outer bark into long threads that could be used on a loom to make intricately detailed clothes and blankets.

The cedar tree represents strength and resilience, which are traits that are essential to survival. The smoke from this plant can be used to smudge an area, cleansing it of negative energy. Many Native Americans believe that a person’s soul travels along a Sky Path westward after death, and if they lived a good life, their journey will be quick and easy.

Palo Santo

Known as “holy wood” or the “wood of saints,” Palo Santo (Bursera Graveolens) is an aromatic tree native to South America with a citrus-like scent. It has been used for centuries in Indigenous ceremonies, as a medicine, and to ward off evil spirits.

Much like sage, it’s traditionally used for energy clearing, purification and to attract sacredness and good vibes in a space, an Indigenous practice called smudging. The four elements involved in a smudging ritual—fire from the burning plant or wood, earth from the plants and trees themselves, air from the smoke, and water represented by the shells that are often used to catch cinders from the burned items—are said to shift energy.

With this rise in popularity, it’s important to note that it’s crucial to buy ethically harvested palo santo from an artisan who can tell you what region the product was sourced from and whether they are committed to reforestation efforts. Also, it’s best to use it with a light touch, as the sticks can be delicate.