Saturday, February 2, 2008

Buying or Selling Medicine Plants Like Sage

In response as to why I don't believe in buying or selling sage and other medicines, I think there are a couple of thoughts behind not buying or selling sacred medicines.

1. Spiritual things are not to be bought or sold. This is called "simony" in the Bible. It was named after a magician called Simon Magus, who became a Christian and wanted the apostles to _sell_ him the gifts given to Jesus' followers by the Holy Spirit. St. Peter got mad and said spiritual gifts are freely given by God, and are not to be bought or sold. In general, most traditional Indian people are the same way. Now, that does not leave out exchange. When someone wants help with spiritual things, you give the one who can help you an offering of is not the monetary value of tobacco, but what it means spiritually, and as a commitment between people that way. When you go visit an elder, you bring don't go empty handed. When someone (no matter who) visits your house for the first time, you give them a drink of water, something to eat, and a small gift to take with them. When someone is doing a ceremony for you, there is no money, but you chop wood, bring food and prepare work for them, so that the relationship is made, on that personal and spiritual level. This building of trust and respect. If the person succeeds in helping you, you might give them more help building a house, or food, or a gift of what you can, even money at times. That makes it right. But it is not a bill or a charge of a certain amount of money, but an exchange of value and making a relationship of mutual help and respect.

2. Second, Native Americans have historically had a bad run of luck when it comes to money...getting cheated, because money was not part of how you did either gave freely, or you traded. Money exchanged usually resulted in someone getting cheated of lands. The Lakota call money "green frogskins"...the Hawaiians call it palapala, "paper"...that so much little bits of symbolic paper, can make people lie, cheat, steal, enslave, kill even their own families for...paper. There is a disdain for money and what it makes people do, in Native Americans. Traditional Native Americans are still mostly that way, and money is never an end in itself, but only a tool to help family. You are not measured by how much oyu have, how much you accumulate...but by how much you give away to others. That generosity and helping the people, is the measure of your stature and worth to the people.

Having said all that, sometimes you are stuck in a situation, where you need something, and cannot get it the traditional way. Then you just pray, are thankful when you can be helped, and try to buy from a source that is trying to do the right thing, and not be too greedy. Buying from a tribal person is a helpful thing. If you want to buy from them, you are helping out the tribe's economy. But you don't need to buy purification plants, even if you have no sage or sweetgrass where you are, I bet you have a juniper around where you live, as juniper grows about everywhere. When you find it, ask for permission to take a few leaves (scales), tell your needs to the plant, that creates that relationship with the plant spirit. Then give it something back (a prayer, a coin in the earth, some water), take only what you need for immediate use for yourself and family.

Friday, February 1, 2008

"Old Indian Burial Grounds"

The movies "Pet Sematary" (1989) and "Jeremiah Johnson" (1972) featured the eerie feelings people have about "Old Indian burial grounds." One of the most frequent situations you may hear about, either in investigations or folklore, is of problems because of "an old Indian burial ground." My tribe has had a history of white settlers robbing our graves...and then being frightened by the consequences of their actions. Curses or hauntings often seem to follow the disturbance of these places, almost invariably. Today, there are federal laws protecting such places if they are on federal lands (NAGPRA: The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act), and many states have similar laws. Montana has a law protecting burials as well (Montana Human Skeletal Remains and Burial Site Protection Act).

There are a number of factors why this focus on "Old Indian Burial Grounds" is a feature of our culture.

1. GUILT/FEAR: There is a collective guilt for American mainstream historic dispossession of Native lands (and all of America was once Native land!) Even for people who regard this dispossession as a natural or necessary thing, the subconscious feels this guilt. And guilt leads to fear, especially of the old pagan beliefs of retribution of angered spirits.

2. MERGING WITH THE LAND: Indigenous peoples, people before Christian times, have a tradition of merging with the land, physically and spiritually, after death and of restless spirits when they have been wronged. So in a way, the spirits of Native Americans are more present and powerful in their burial and sacred places, because they have merged their essence with the land itself and the land spirits there. And when the land is damaged, disturbed, built on...the spirits, the land itself, is unhappy. The average American feels that when they die, they go to heaven or hell, or somewhere else. The traditional Native American may have an idea of a distant "happy hunting ground" but also that some part of their spirit is fused within the land, especially where they are buried.

3. ROMANTICISM: When the Irish arrived in Ireland, they defeated and dispossessed the preceding peoples of those lands, the Tuatha de Danaan. After the Tuatha were defeated, through guilt and admiration, they were romanticized as a race of spiritual beings who live in the lands beneath the hills..the Good People, the Faerie. This happened also in other lands, an older people giving way before a migration of people from another land. This happened in America as well. We see the same romanticization of Native Americans as the original, spiritual people of a place.

So, next time, you hear rumors of a haunting because of a place being "an old Indian burial ground," think about these three factors. In a future post I will give some examples, and offer some approaches to how to handle such as situation...but each tribe had its own views on such things. The BEST thing to do, is leave these places of death alone...don't build there, don't camp there...or expect some problems. In a post below, you can hear me read a traditional story about this called "Heavy Collar and the Ghost Woman."

Also be sure and check out the NAGPRA site above, and the Indian Burial and Sacred Grounds Watch home page.

Thursday, January 31, 2008

Smudging: Sage, Cedar, and Sweetgrass

Painting by Howard Terpning: "Blessing From the Medicine Man"

I was raised with smudging, as many Native American kids were. We did it in our family and tribe for hundreds if not thousands of years. It is effective in helping, but it is not a cure-all. Think of it as spiritual "soap" that cleans an area, but if there is too much "dirt" or if you keep doing things that bring "dirt" it won't last. Things that bring "dirt" are things like evil actions, things like sinfulness, anger, hatred, wrongful sex, drugs, untreated mental and emotional problems, unforgiveness, revenge, ...things that harm yourself, others, or the land. And if a spirit is actively trying to get to you there, it can only be kept away so much, and you have to keep smudging. But ultimately it is best to correct the underlying problem.

A "smudge" is just another word for burning a plant as an incense, and using the smoke for cleansing. Smudging is not only for purification, people used to say you smudged using smoke of various plants to drive away pests like mosquitos too.

With "Sage" (sagebrush) and sweetgrass, they are most often burned as a tied bundle of the dried plant. There are three basic varieties of smudge for us plains Indians. People of the Northwest Coast, the Eastern Woodlands, and other places, use other different plants sometimes. The three plants used by my tribe...


1. "Sage" (Artemisia ludoviciana, Artemisia tridentata, and others): There are different varieties; this is "sage" that everyone talks about in most of the paranormal shows on TV. "Sage" is short for sagebrush. It is not the same as the European/cooking sage (Salvia) that you buy in the spice section of the supermarket. Prairie sage is related to the plants that Europeans call "wormwood" and "mugwort." It is used to cleanse and purify; evil spirits flee from it, but good spirits are ok with it. It is also known as white sage, prairie sage, and western mugwort (A. ludoviciana).


2. Sweetgrass (Hierochloe odorata): Bought as a braid, it is good especially against storms; it soothes and purifies, and seems to work to calm spirits, good or bad. Spirits are soothed, rather than driven away.


3. Juniper/"Cedar" (especially Juniperus virginiana, but also Juniperus communis, Juiperus scopulorum , etc.): The scalelike leaves are burned to purify, soothe, and protect. The berries, some say, keep away ghosts. You can sprinkle the scales on a hot rock, or in a cast-iron skillet or old metal coffee can lid on a stove burner.

Smudge smoke is used by wafting it all over yourself as you stand, or for another person, from head to toe and back to front, around, using your hands or feather as though your were "bathing" in the smoke. You can also burn it in the evenings and mornings on the stovetop; be careful with it, it is after all, a form of fire. You can also try some of it in small bits on those charcoal disks used in metal incense burners. Those are the three main smudges I was raised with. But as I said, other smudges exist.

For example, here in Montana, you can use Sweet Fir, also called Subalpine Fir (Abies lasiocarpa) as the tribes along the Mountains did. It is often burned to keep away ghosts, bad spirits, and after a death, the sorrow and bad feelings.

One last thing. It is good to gather these things yourself, out in the wild, asking permission from the plant, with a prayer and an offering. You can give them or receive them as a gift. I was taught it is wrong to sell them, as it is wrong to sell spiritual gifts (Christianity calls this "simony") but it seems many people, even Indian tribes, do this these days.

SWEET FIR; SUBALPINE FIR (Abies lasiocarpa)

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Heavy Collar and the Ghost Woman

This is a ghost story from the Blackfeet/Blackfoot people, called "Heavy Collar and the Ghost Woman." I used to tell this story to may little sister, and to the Bear Comes Out kids. It was a favorite. There's not a lot of flash in is straight-out storytelling old-school sound effects or music. The story is in two parts. Just turn the lights down low, lay back and get comfortable, and listen to an old-style Indian ghost story.

Native American Culture and the Paranormal Blog

This paranormal blog is for folks to ask questions they might have about Native American cultures and the paranormal. I also am a specialist in landscape history and nature/land spirits and can tackle that area as well. My qualifications? I am an enrolled member of the Ioway tribe, and was raised in Montana. I am familiar with the cultures, folklore, and history of many tribes. I attended the Institute of American Indian Arts and at the University of Montana received my B.A. in Anthropology and Native American Studies. My M.A. is in Anthropology from Iowa State University, as well as an M.L.A. focusing on Landscape History. I have had over 20 years of experience in archaeology and historic preservation. I have studied the paranormal and the occult, having had experiences since I was a child. I am the founder of a local paranormal investigation group. I am 47 years old and live in Helena, Montana with my wife. I currently am adjunct faculty at the University of Montana teaching art and archaeology. I am also a member of the Ancient Order of Druids in America (AODA) and a Roman Catholic.

I have other blogs you can check out too:

Paranormal Montana:
Montana Archaeology:
Once and Future Druid:
My Art Blog:

Our Ioway tribal culture website is at: and some videos at

I hope to hear from you!

-Lance Foster