Smudging, Geertz, and Ceremony

The Lakota spirituality and way of life were brand new to most people in the Indigenous Religious Traditions. As a class, we know our individual experiences better than the experiences of a Lakota Sioux or our classmates. Because it was such a new experience, we use our observations and the spoken description of other’s experiences to make sense of it. The analysis of these experiences is the most complex part of the thought process because there is no right answer. The truth of such an experience must be defined by what makes the most sense to each individual. In the following paragraphs, I will use anthropological religious theory to make sense of my own observations.

According to anthropological theory, reality comes from cultural models. People have beliefs and values that are constructed through their social and individual experiences. This means that there is a complex web of beliefs and values surrounding the way people see spirituality. Culture influences the way we perceive the world. A Christian would connect to a Lakota ceremony in a different way than a Jew, a Buddhist, or someone who practiced Lakota spirituality since childhood. At the same time, there is an individual component. Two Quakers might connect to a ceremony differently because of social class or simply because each has different background knowledge or approach to spirituality.

Some people take the religious experience on an individual level, and define it by their own feeling of sacredness or transcendence.  Other people view the religious experiences on a cultural level. They see religion as an everyday guide to a group’s life and way of understanding the world. I tend to see my experience at Pine Ridge this way. I feel that the experiences I had speak to a new way of thinking and perceiving the world that I learned from the Lakota as a culture. In the grander scheme, we saw how Lakota ritual practice has maintained the cultural values they otherwise may have lost when they were conquered.

“Smudging” is an example of ritual. Before most ceremonies, a woman was asked to light a bundle of sage. She walked around the circle and waved the scented smoke to the members of the ceremony. The sage is placed in a shell bowl and burns out. Sage is considered the “cleanest” herb and helps chase away the “dirt” of impure thoughts, actions, and unnecessary problems. As each individual was smudged, he or she was purified.

According to Geertz, the symbol of purification through sage is a “function.” The sage should serve a function between our worldview and our ethos. The sage should communicate a connection between the way the world is and how we should live. Mike Jr. said that he in “the Lakota way” looks for the light and the positive energy in everything. The purification system of the sage connects to the Lakota value of seeking the “good” and letting go of the “bad” habits, violence, and ill intention. Before ceremony, people rid themselves of the negative to focus their prayers on what is necessary. The sage prepares the individual participant mentally to think about this function.

Next, the sage should “establish a powerful, pervasive, and long lasting moods and motivations in men” (Geertz, 90). The purification process and its related cultural value extend into Lakota society. To live life in a pure way is important to the Lakota. He said that without the influence of western culture, Lakota people would continue to live by “love” and respect for nature. When the Lakota shoot a deer, Celinda said, they respect it. The hunter puts sage in the deer’s mouth and prays for the life it had. This purifies the act of killing. The sage helps take the evil out taking the deer’s life and focuses the action to the necessity and generosity of the deer.  Mike Jr. sees money and capitalism as corrupt. “You cannot pray for money,” he tells us at the ceremony. “You can pray for education, or the strength to work hard, but not a new car or sneakers.”

This example would take the “purification” to Geertz’s third point, that the value of purification “formulates conceptions or a general order of existence” (Geertz 90). Sage as a purifier tells people in ceremony that they need to be purified. The act of smudging suggests that people inherently hold on to some evil and that it takes a conscious effort to avoid that energy. When people focus on caring for family and neighbors and pray for strength and courage, they are purifying themselves.

The Lakota reality fits the way the Lakota live. The reservation is one of the most impoverished places in the United States, with an 89% unemployment rate and a reputation for alcoholism and the negative effects of poverty. People sleep in old cars and struggle to make ends meet, sometimes resorting to illegal activity. When the Little Boy family refers to the “Lakota way of life,” they are not referring to the poverty. They are referring to the values that have made them a proud and strong community since before they were conquered, taken away from their land, and lost their resources. The strength in the foundation of their reality and way of life “clothe these conceptions with such an aura of factuality.” As the Lakota struggle under Western suppression, their “pure” values of courage, generosity, and respect keep them Lakota.  Despite suppression, they have simultaneously upheld these values in ritual and their way of life.

Geertz would say that the smudging and active spiritual seeking of purity makes “the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic” (Geertz 90). The sage stands to send people back into their everyday lives with the notion that the pure necessities are the most important. It communicates to people that the way they see the world makes sense that they will benefit from purifying their minds and lives from the unnecessary and negative energies. The practice of smudging is a simple ritual that communicates the Lakota cultural model, and therefore the ritual is the truth.

The journey to Bear Butte is an annual ritual. This ritual represents a journey to release a prayer to the spirits. Participants travel to Bear Butte with the peace pipe, prayer ties, and other ceremony necessities. With a prayer in mind, they climb the steep hill to the top of the butte, with views in all four cardinal directions of the South Dakota landscape. Our Lakota “brother” Mike Jr. said that he struggled up the incline because his prayers were so heavy. He cried during the ceremony we held at the top, praying for his daughter’s health and “educational purpose.” On the way down, the weather changed. A small blizzard blew snow in our faces and the path was a little treacherous. Then around a bend, a vertical rainbow transpired in the cloudy valley below us.

The rainbow could have been just a rainbow. The blustering weather could have been a normal weather pattern for the area. And the weight of Mike Little Boy’s prayers could have been because he was really out of shape. But in Western Culture’s practice of education, our cultural model demands skepticism. Skepticism makes sense to the 25 liberal arts students. To Mike and the Lakota, the presence of spirits makes sense. The Lakota connection to land can be put into Geertz’s circle, and so can sacred spaces. Without the endurance and respect for the natural world that is represented at Bear Butte, the Lakota’s cultural persistence would not make as much sense. The Lakota rituals are a symbol that both influence and are influenced by a myriad of social, political, and cultural themes at Pine Ridge. On an individual level, the detailed experience is important to recognize. However, to make sense of everything we observed and experience, we should look outward at how they symbolize the Lakota worldview and ethos as a whole.

-Maggie McKeon

Works Cited

Chernus, Ira. “Religion as a Cultural System: The Theory of Clifford Geertz.” Accessed 11November 2013.

Geertz, Clifford. “Religion as a Cultural System.” In: The interpretation of cultures: selected essays, Geertz, Clifford, pp.87-125. Fontana Press, 1993.

“Smudging:  Sage, Cedar, and Sweetgrass.” Republic of the Lakotah. Accessed 12 November 2013 .

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