Cultural appropriate is a real hot button issue for a lot of modern pagans, particularly when it begins to concern Native Americans. Although some Native tribes are quite open to those who are sincere, many Native Americans have come forward and asked people to please stop taking their traditions, and please stop taking them and using them out of context, or without any relation to a tribe, and so on. This is often met, unfortunately, with cries of things like "we're all one people," "spirituality needs to be shared," and "you should feel grateful that people want to emulate you." I would think one only needs to consider the history and current issues facing Native American populations to realize why these aren't exactly great things to say. (And yet...)
But the use of sage in particular is an issue I find interesting. Smudging with sage sticks, generally white sage (Salvia apiana), is just so ubiquitous within modern paganism, nobody seems to question it, or look at it's origins. White sage is native to western North America. The spiritual associations of it, using it for purification, the rituals surrounding it, and so on, all originate with some Native American tribes. White sage is also not the only plant used in such a way, of course, sagebrush, cedar, and other local plants would have all been used by various tribes.So why is it this one thing which seems to have become so widely spread throughout the pagan community? Especially when we consider that the pagan roots we tend to draw from have their own purification traditions.
Let's look at Greece, for example. Common sage (Salvia officinalis) is native to the
Mediterranean. Same genus as white sage, but a different species. Common sage, sometimes also called garden sage, is what you're likely to find in grocery stores for
use in cooking. (Although white sage is edible, and was/is used as a
source of food.) Common sage is found in Greece. It was very, very likely that it was one of the "aromatic herbs" burned as an incense offering to some of the gods. The Orphic Hymns recommend aromatic herbs be burned for Hestia, Hera, Athene, and Selene, for example.
But the Greeks didn't use common sage in smudging rituals like some Native American tribes would do. In Greek ritual, purification of people and spaces would have generally been accomplished with lustral water and barley.
Which is all not to say that no one else ever purified with incense, smoke, sacred fires, and so on. That's found in many, many places all over the world. It's just, there are so many ways to do this without pulling from Native American customs. So again, I can't help but wonder why that in particular was the thing to become standard practice for so many folks. Particularly when, for many pagans, connecting to our ancestral roots is such an important element of the practice. Why didn't we look more to what they did? Their traditions are just as valid, and often easily accessible, after all.
I doubt that I could ever talk someone out of using a sage stick if it's become something they've done in their practice for quite a while, and I'm not even sure if that's my 'goal' here, so to speak. But I do think paganism, as a whole, would benefit in looking at, and finding the value in some of our other purification traditions.
As a final note, I'm always someone who's often going on about the importance of looking locally, working locally, and so on, in witchcraft. However, it's quite possible to work locally, and even respect indigenous traditions, without lifting elements of their spirituality directly from them. Living in those areas would probably open you to the use of these kinds of sage in general, but I think there would have to be ways to utilize these plants respectfully, you know? Being aware of the cultures that still use them as part of their living tradition. Not living in an area where sage is native, I can't speak more on that. There's not really an easy equivalent where I live (not to mention, so many plants here have been imported, so they are local but not native). I'd be interested to hear more from witches living in such areas, however.