What is going on with White Sage?

by Susan Leopold


White SageThis year it was evident due to the social media reaction that people were expressing anger and concern over the increase in commercialization of white sage (Salvia apiana) and the cultural appropriation and offensive marketing that overlooks ethics and ecological, cultural awareness of a deeply sacred and spiritual plant.

The rumblings on social media in regards to those who claimed to wildcraft white sage, along with selling the wildcrafted material that was being gathered from public lands, were clues that the balance between respectful wildcrafting and the use of terms like “ethical wildcrafting and sustainable wildcrafting” for personal use versus commercial gain was being pushed to its limit.

In October of 2018, “Cleaning Space Kits” including white sage bundles appeared on the shelves of Anthropologie, and with the collective social media outcry they were removed from the stores almost immediately—thank you, Anthropologie. At this time white sage can be purchased on Amazon and Walmart websites and on the shelves of stores such as Urban Outfitters in pre-packaged new aged kits. This is a serious indicator of alarm for many who know and respect the ecological and cultural fragility of this plant.

One of the most active voices in the social media outcry is the IG @Meztliprojects. Meztli Projects is an Indigenous based arts and culture collaborative, based in Los Angeles. Meztli Projects brilliantly updated the Wikipedia page on white sage to provide information on the recent controversy, citing the illegal harvest arrests and current press on this issue over the last two years.

Commercial harvest of wild white sage populations is a concern held by many Native American groups, herbalists, and conservationists. In June 2018, four people were arrested for the illegal harvest of 400 pounds of white sage in North Etiwanda Preserve in California.

conservation sign
North Etiwanda Preserve, California

It is very difficult when companies make claims of sustainable harvest when we have no accountability within a very secretive trade. In some cases permits are given on public lands for commercial harvest of economically valued plants, but in the case of white sage no such permit exists. The only way this would be legal is if harvesting took place on private land with permission. What I learned when I was in California and visited the Etiwanda Preserve was that it is the epicenter of the current commercial harvest. The rangers that I spoke with described a very difficult situation in that it is mostly undocumented individuals that are desperate for the work, putting themselves in danger, sneaking into the Etiwanda Preserve to harvest. The residents living near the preserve, working with law enforcement to help coordinate efforts to address the issue were responsible for the recent arrest in June of 2018. This came about when four undocumented individuals were arrested with over 400 pounds of white sage harvested from the preserve.

The North Etiwanda Preserve is a unique Riversidean Alluvial Fan Sage Scrub plant community that provides protection for a number of sensitive plant and wildlife species, several of which are Federal or State listed threatened or endangered. Listed endangered species that may occur on the Preserve include the least Bell’s vireo, California gnatcatcher, the southwestern willow flycatcher, and San Bernardino Merriam’s kangaroo rat. Sensitive species include Los Angeles pocket mouse, San Diego black-tailed jackrabbit, American badger, coastal cactus wren, San Diego horned lizard, coastal western whiptail, Southern sagebrush lizard, San Bernardino ring-necked snake, coastal rosy boa, Coast patch-nosed snake, mountain yellow-legged frog, two-striped garter snake, Parry’s spineflower, and Plummer’s mariposa lily.

The Management Plan for the preserve acknowledges that the area is considered to be a sacred site by the Gabrielino-Shoshoni Nation and Serrano people and is currently being used for cultural purposes. It further states in the management plan their priority actions of conducting historical research, coordinating with tribes to facilitate access for ceremonies, and collection of white sage. When I spoke to a preserve manager, she confirmed the Preserve’s efforts to provide permits to tribal members for collection of sage for ceremonial use.

The San Bernardino associated governments along with multiple state agencies, federal/USFWS, local universities, and non-profits manage the preserve, which was first established in 1998 and expanded with highway mitigation funds in 2009. Working together the management plan establishes its principle goals.

Management Plan principal goals:

  1. Preservation of Native Species, Habitats, and Ecosystem Processes;
  2. Protection and preservation of Cultural Resources;
  3. Monitoring Existing Habitats, Species, and Physical Conditions;
  4. Restoration of Disturbed On-Site Habitats;
  5. Develop and Maintain an Informational Database
Above is just one example that came up in the search results for arrests related to illegal harvesting of white sage

What is important to stress is that this underground sage mafia is not ethical or sustainable wildcrafting as it is portrayed in hipster IG accounts and stores! The scale of white sage commercial trade on the Internet and demand in China is alarming. United Plant Savers is working with agents at the USFWS and at the State level to provide as much insight as possible into the trade so that law enforcement can be informed to protect the preserve. I was invited by the owner of a white sage company to meet at the Etiwanda Preserve in March of 2019; he wanted to show his sustainable harvesting methods. I quickly pulled out my phone to show him that it was against the law to do so, and that recent arrests had been made. He carried on as if that was not the case, and fortunately law enforcement arrived and I was able to get confirmation of the laws in regards to the preserve from the officer on the spot. His story quickly changed, and he claimed he no longer wildharvested but had a farm where he is now growing sage for his company. I tried to convey why the preserve did not allow commercial harvest permits and the level of community engagement that goes into ensuring safe haven for threatened and endangered species. Certainly he was proud to show off his harvesting technique and make claims to be a former student of Michael Moore, but he lacked ecological knowledge of the diversity of species in the habitat he claimed to sustainably harvest, not to mention basic laws surrounding wild harvest of plants on state and federal lands.

It can be frustrating when attempts to inform stores who sell sage bundles respond that they are getting their sage from those that claim sustainable harvesting techniques and have all the right verbiage on their social media and websites. Consumers and retailers need to understand laws in regards to wild plants because even if one’s techniques are sustainable, if it is not permitted, then it is illegal. A first step for a buyer or consumer is to ask to see a permit.

White sage is abundant in its local habitat as a keystone species of its plant community, but that habitat is under threat due to development and it is fragile, apparent by the many endangered and threatened species that rely on its habitat. Most important to note is that it can be grown, and if it is to be in any form of commercial trade and certainly on the scale it is now, the only sustainability claims should be that it is coming from a cultivated source, and a buyer should always visit the farm to verify the claim.

Traveling throughout California to understand the state of sage habitats and the cultural teachings of white sage, I came across the recently published book Kumeyaay Ethnobotany at the Anza Borrego Visitors Center. The photograph by Rose Ramirez caught my attention and through a Google search I was able to locate her and ask permission to use the image for the cover of this year’s journal.

We then began a dialogue on the issues and concerns over its recent popularity and I asked if she would provide me a quote to share from the perspective of an indigenous elder. Here is the quote she provided me.

“We do not sell white sage. If you need it as a medicine and we have it, we’re going to give it to you. We discourage selling medicine plants, spiritual plants, because we don’t know if the person collected them in a good way, with a good heart. But if you have white sage growing in your own back yard, you would know because you would be taking care of it.” – Barbara Drake, Tongva Elder

I found the quote she shared from Barbara Drake that speaks to why they discourage selling of spiritual plants on a commercial scale because one does not know if the person who is collecting them is doing so in a good way, with a good heart as very profound. Wildharvesting can be detrimental to the plant and/or the species that relies on the plant, but often it is most harmful to those who are harvesting, when they are forced into doing so for very little because they are in a desperate situation. This is why programs like fair wild are important because they address the fair treatment of those communities of harvesters and the plants, and this is important. If we the consumers want to be healed by the plants, then should we not want those who are harvesting to be treated fairly? Conversely harvesting wild plants when regulated and when harvesters are treated fairly can result in beneficial relationships, for both consumer and harvester, and the harvester and the plants, as well as for the plants and their habitat. It seemed serendipitous that my year would be filled with two impactful sage encounters, when I learned about the wild sage native to Albania facing overharvesting in the wild due to unregulated trade and the herbal companies working towards a solution by transitioning to cultivated sage and support to small scale farmers.
(see article in this issue on Albania).

The Ethnobotany Project is a collaboration among Rose Ramirez, Deborah Small, and the Malki Baliena Press, working together to document southern California and northern Baja California’s Native people’s contemporary uses of native plants. The primary goal is to create a resource for Native people in this region to share and learn traditional knowledge about native plant uses and gathering practices. The project began in 2007. Two publications have resulted so far: a 2010 large-scale calendar and a book in 2015. The Malki Museum, founded in 1965 by Native Americans (Dr. Katherine Siva Saubel and Jane Penn) on a California Indian Reservation, is the oldest non-profit museum and has been the inspiration for several other museums. My journey to understand the complexity of white sage has been a learning journey to the many state and federal recognized tribes and the diverse projects and museums working hard to revive and celebrate cultural and ecological diversity that is more beautiful and powerful. I would encourage those who are drawn to white sage to spend time researching the cultures that have tended its habitat and choose a smudge that you build a personal relationship with and question the idea of ethical wild crafting, considering the habitat, the harvester, the laws, the cultures, and the medicinal teachings.

Check out our latest Journal here.

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