How the Rage for Sage Threatens Native American Traditions and Recipes

A few years ago, Julie Cordero-Lamb took a handful of kids from her tribe, the Coastal Band of the Chumash Nation, to a remote spot in the hills between Santa Barbara and Los Angeles where their community has, for generations, gathered white sage.

Unlike common sage—a short shrub usually found in stores and herb gardens, which grows all over the world—white sage can grow upwards of five feet, into dense thickets of long white-to-lavender-tinted green leaves. But it only grows in the scrublands of Southern California and Northwestern Mexico. While it’s best known for its use in local Native spiritual and medicinal traditions, its leaves, seeds, and stalks have also been a cornerstone of regional cooking for centuries. A particularly pungent and potent species of sage, it has a unique flavor: intensely earthy, with a slight pepper and pine kick.

As an herbalist, Cordero-Lamb had brought many youth groups to this site to teach them how to care for the land and harvest leaves, respectfully and sparingly. Usually, they were alone in the hills. But as they pulled up to the trailhead, they saw a huge truck, filled to mounding with white sage, driving away. When they got to the sage grounds, they found that the people in the truck had “ripped it all up by the roots,” she recalls. “It was completely destroyed.” Some of the elders present “sobbed their hearts out.”

This was not an isolated incident. In recent years, skyrocketing demand for white sage, fueled by new age beliefs about its powers as a cleansing and calming tool (that largely appropriate but misrepresent Indigenous traditions), has incited rampant over-exploitation. Rangers at the protected North Etiwanda Preserve, 1,200 acres not far from Los Angeles, whose unique ecosystem is anchored around white sage, often bust people sneaking hundreds of pounds of uprooted shrubs out in sacks.

Officially, white sage is not endangered, nor even threatened. But Indigenous and conservationist groups alike believe this unchecked wave of mass commercial harvesting is rapidly driving it to the brink. Many Native Californians have already stopped taking white sage from traditional gathering sites in order to protect them. And this loss has played out, in a turn of tragic irony, just as local Native groups have ramped up efforts, through cooking collectives and cultural education, to revitalize long-ravaged culinary traditions.

“We’re losing native plants and environments on high speed,” says Rose Ramirez, a Chumash- and Yaqui-descended basket weaver who works to raise awareness of white sage exploitation. “It hurts Native Californian people.” Weshoyot Alvitre, a Tongva artist, has argued that the destruction of white-sage lands amounts to cultural genocide.

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According to the late Tongva elder and cultural educator Barbara Drake, centuries of colonization have made it impossible to fully know how important white sage was in historical Native Californian foodways. But from European texts, oral traditions, and some surviving practices, we do know that Native Californians had incredibly varied diets based upon careful management of wild plants and game. They ate mesquite pods and agave leaves, wild cherries and berries, and every bit of the cactus. And acorns. So many acorns. Mashed into jellies, cooked into porridge, or ground into flour. Gilberto Morales, a chef in Baja California who works with local Kumeyaay ingredients and techniques, has called acorns “the rice, or the wheat” of the region.

Although it was never a staple like acorns, white sage played a major culinary role, both for its flavor and as a medicinal ingredient. (Healing traditions across the region hold that white sage is an effective treatment for cold and flu symptoms, tooth aches and bad breath, soreness and pain, and bladder issues.) Native communities chopped up sage leaves to use them as a spice, or to make teas. They ate white sage stalks and seeds, raw, roasted, or toasted, on their own. They also ground the seeds down, either using them as an all-purpose powder seasoning, or mixing them into a regional variant of pinole, a flour made of mixed grains and flavoring agents and used to make biscuits, flatbreads, and porridge.

Until her death in 2020, Drake drank sweet white sage tea regularly, and spoke passionately about its antimicrobial properties. The late Chumash herbalist Cecilia Grace called it a “daily medicine”—although she stressed ethical gathering and that a little sage goes a long way.

But teas aside, most of these foodways faded throughout the 1900s, like many others, in the face of America’s relentless push towards cultural homogeneity. In the 1950s especially, the U.S. government launched a concerted effort to burn away Native identity, systematically ending state recognition of tribes, selling off their lands, and coercing or outright forcing many to move to urban centers, where most could no longer access their lands or the local ingredients that grew upon them.

The same forces, however, boosted the visibility of another Native Californian use of white sage: smudging. Many Native communities across America have traditions of burning sacred materials to cleanse spaces, heal bodies, or sanctify events, but most traditionally used their own valued regional plants, such as cedar to tobacco. As Native people were pushed into Los Angeles, they adopted the use of white sage. (Although it was hard for many people to get fresh sage to use as food, the city was close enough to sage grounds to get bundles of dried leaves and stalks.) Eventually, smudging with white sage took on symbolic value as a pan-Native American act of unity, resilience, and resistance.

“Many people from Native tribes outside of white sage’s traditional cultural usage area still burn white sage,” says Ramirez, “but they are mostly unaware now of where it comes from.”

At the same time, Californian cities became hubs for America’s growing counter-culture movement, through which mostly white and middle-class youths, disenchanted with modern life, sought new meaning. They often “found it” by consuming and mimicking, although rarely with meaningful understanding, other cultures’ traditions. Pretty quickly, Ramirez says, new age spiritualists were using far more sage than Native groups—in part because they wanted to burn entire bundles to create a lot of flashy smoke, whereas Californian natives slowly wore down one sprig at a time. (This was especially offensive to Native communities, Ramirez adds, as they did not gain the full, guaranteed legal right to practice their spiritual traditions until 1978.)

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Over the last few decades, non-Native sage consumption increased exponentially as the internet spread interest in smudging and major brands such as Anthropologie, Sephora, World Market, and Walmart built mass markets around it. Similarly, the rising popularity of essential oils created demand for not just sage springs but for entire plants, as manufacturers need a lot of raw material to make a little essence.

It is possible to cultivate white sage plants. But it’s hard to farm them commercially; it’s much cheaper to pay undocumented laborers $0.25 to $1 per pound to pick over wild patches. Ron Goodman, a steward at the North Etiwanda Preserve, says they have seen sage poaching go from a once-every-few-weeks nuisance to a daily crisis over the past few years. Ramirez and her conservation compatriot, artist Deborah Small, note that commercialized harvests accelerated just as suburban sprawl and worsening wildfires started taking big bites out of sage grounds.

Heidi Lucero, chairwoman of the Juaneño Band of Mission Indians Acjachemen Nation, says that, while her community’s traditional gathering site has not been ravaged by mass harvesting, she and many others have stopped taking sage from the area. She now grows her own sage at home and gifts plants propagated by local nurseries she trusts. Several other communities have taken similar steps to safeguard white sage. (The Gabrieleno / Tongva Band of Mission Indians lists trustworthy nurseries on its Protect White Sage webpage.) But a few home-gardened plants can only yield so much.

This may explain why white sage has not featured in recent efforts to revitalize Californian Native foodways. Notably, the Chia Café Collective, a nexus for Indigenous educators reacquainting people with traditional uses of and relationships to California’s native plants, published a cookbook in 2010: Cooking the Native Way. (Drake, Lucero, and Small contributed to the text.)

The book features recipes for acorn dumplings, venison stew, and chia cornbread, but nothing with white sage. Drake and other Collective members have given a few lessons on how to make tea and lemonade using white sage. But they mostly talk about the profound threats the herb faces.

“I can’t go into what we use it for exactly,” says Cordeo-Lamb, when asked about cooking with white sage, “because it would just cause bigger problems if you published what I said.” Too many people might decide, context be damned, that they want to cook with it now.

“That’s happened a lot,” she adds.

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Early one morning in spring 2018, three men and one woman trudged through a remote section of the North Etiwanda Preserve, carrying five pendulous duffle bags. They’d nearly hiked out when they saw local sheriff’s officers en route to intercept them. Two of them dropped everything and ran, but the officers successfully rounded them all up. When they opened the duffles, they found around 400 pounds of freshly picked white sage.

Local press reported the bust, and the tale made the rounds online as a criminal oddity. But the case was not unique. As one of the few places where white sage is explicitly, legally protected, Etiwanda staff take their duty to protect the plant seriously. Goodman, the preserve steward, regularly calls in authorities to bust poachers that he and volunteers spot. He says he’s even convinced the cops to lend him bloodhounds and helicopter fly-over support.

“We’ve had numerous busts where we found 100, 200 pounds,” Goodman says. “Or more.”

Goodman’s zealous approach to preservation has led to a few encounters that uncomfortably echo America’s history of paternalistic control over Indigenous life—like the time he threatened to have authorities arrest a Native woman who asked if she could pick a few sprigs in a conscientious manner. But he’s tried to find some balance, developing partnerships with local Indigenous groups to help him monitor the preserve and educate visitors about the importance and vulnerability of white sage, and allowing some limited, traditional harvesting. He’s also worked out a system of distributing confiscated sage to local Native groups.

The confiscated sage, though, is rarely usable by the time it’s donated, and the busts usually only catch laborers who are themselves exploited. Ramirez and Small point out that authorities have never, to their knowledge, cracked open the complex supply chains fueling the poaching.

Monitoring protected sage grounds also pushes harvesters into ever more remote areas, including secret communal sage grounds, or even people’s property. One of Ramirez’s friends lives on 20 acres of mostly undeveloped land, where she grows white sage. She’s caught people driving over her fence to steal shrubs. “She got pictures. She got a license plate,” Ramirez says. “But the sheriff there thinks it’s ridiculous for her to complain about somebody pulling weeds out of her yard.”

Native activists have mostly tried to curb the over-exploitation of white sage through public education and pressuring commercial users and retailers. They have had some success—albeit usually with people who were already inclined to care. “I spoke to a man from the Tohono O’odham Nation in Arizona who’d been using white sage,” says Ramirez. “He was flabbergasted—in total pain. He didn’t know.”

But Ramirez points out that some Chumash groups have been trying to educate the public for more than 20 years “and they’ve made no dent for all their work.” And when Cordero-Lamb raises the issue with retailers, she says, they usually give her a “green-washed statement” about their commitment to sustainable harvesting, but offer no evidence that they follow through.

That’s why Ramirez and Small have teamed up with a statewide conservation group to draft legislation for California that would extend protections to all white sage, and not just penalize individual poachers but mandate that retailers be able to trace their sage back to sustainable farms. “We believe that state-level protection legislation will happen,” Ramirez says, resolutely. “We just don’t know when it will happen.”

If white-sage cooking is to be revived in Southern California, this type of legislation probably needs to pass. The region’s Native cooks are brimming with new ideas on how to use traditional, local ingredients. Recipes ranging from chia power bars and terpary tarts (from Craig Torres, a Tongva cultural educator) to cholla bud succotash and nopales stir fry (from Lorene Sisquoc, a member of the Fort Sill Apache tribe with Mountain Cahuilla heritage) have gained visibility in recent years. But if recent trends continue, soon there won’t be enough white sage left to make so much as a weak, faintly peppery-sweet cup of tea.

Posted by Contributor