Understanding the Smudging Ceremony – Incense in Native American Practices

Smudging is a spiritual practice that involves burning fragrant natural herbs like sage, sweetgrass, and cedar. It is a way to energetically cleanse a person, object or living space.

There are four elements that are involved in smudging: the vessel, traditionally a shell; the sacred plants; matches or lighter; and feather or hand to fan the smoke.

The Four Directions

A smudging ceremony is an ancient ritual of burning medicinal plants like tobacco, sweetgrass, and cedar. It is also used to ward off negative spirits and energies. While different tribes have their own smudging traditions, most agree on the healing properties of these plants and their ability to purify both a person and a space.

The most common method of smudging involves burning one or more of these medicinal herbs in a vessel, usually an abalone shell or smudge stick. Then, the smoke is wafted around a room or person either with a feather or your hands. Different cultures have their own rules for how to participate in a smudging ceremony, but removing any metal objects is usually necessary before beginning.

While smudging is increasingly popular with non-Indigenous peoples, it should always be done with respect and with the guidance of those who hold knowledge and wisdom about Indigenous practices and beliefs. It is important to be invited into a smudging ceremony and not to attend one simply out of curiosity.

The Four Elements

An important part of any smudging ritual is setting an intention. This gives the act of burning sacred herbs a purpose, helps keep you grounded and prevents it from being hollow or simply going through the motions.

Smudging can be done anywhere, and is often used to clear one’s personal space or to cleanse a home or office. It is also a part of several divination practices and used to help clear the space around a medicine wheel or during a spiritual walk.

A smudging ceremony typically involves four elements. These include the water element in an abalone shell or a clay bowl, the fire element of candles, matches or a lighter, the earth of the sacred plants and the air element of the feather used to fan the smoke over the person being smudged. Indigenous people believe that Great Spirit is in all of the elements and in all natural things, so they respect them all.

The Spirit of the Plant

The smudging ceremony can help you cleanse negative energy, attract positive energy, promote healing and connect with the spiritual world. The burning of sacred plants such as sweet grass, tobacco, sage and cedar has long been a part of Indigenous ceremonies and events to purify and create a positive environment.

For Indigenous peoples, everything in nature and creation has a spirit, including plants, animals, minerals and people. These spirits are connected to the Four Directions teachings and Great Spirit, so they should be treated with respect.

Depending on the specific tribe and smudging ritual, different herbs will be used. Each herb will have a specific meaning and purpose. For example, willow fungus and mugwort can be used to treat respiratory problems and willow berry for headaches. Smudging also requires a special vessel to hold and burn the herbs, such as a ceramic bowl, abalone shell or a smudge stick (bundled herbs). This vessel represents the water element. Matches or a lighter are used for the fire element, and a feather is used to fan the smoke, representing the air element.


As part of the teachings of the Four Directions, smudging is used to purify oneself and the environment. It is similar to bathing or fasting in the sense that it cleanses the body, mind and spirit.

During the smudging ceremony, sacred herbs are burned in a container such as a shell or clay bowl while prayers of gratitude and well-being are said aloud. The medicinal or sacred plants cedar, sage, sweetgrass and tobacco represent gifts from Mother Earth. The herb bundles are then ignited (preferably with a wooden match) and the smoke is wafted over oneself or a living space using a feather or hand.

The ashes are returned to Mother Earth to symbolise the removal of negative energy and to signify that negative thoughts, feelings and actions are being placed outside our lives. Traditionally, smudging is conducted by an Elder or spiritual leader, but average citizens are increasingly conducting smudging ceremonies at home or in their workplace.