Sage Harvest

“Sage, Cedar, Tobacco, and Sweet Grass. These plants represent the four directions. They have a relationship with all the other plants, and all the other things that grow on Mother Earth. You might say, these are the guardians of Mother Nature.”
Elder Clarence Wolfleg Sr.

Due to COVID-19, social distancing and group size restrictions, Bow Valley College was unable to hold our annual land-based sage harvesting event. This event invites those interested in learning from a Traditional Knowledge Keeper, and experiencing a sage harvest, where we collect sage for use in the Iniikokaan Centre, the Indigenous Student hub and support centre at Bow Valley’s downtown campus. 

In lieu of our harvesting event, we had a safe, socially distanced visit with Blackfoot Elder Miiksika’am (Red Crane), Clarence Wolfleg Sr., from the Siksika Nation, where he shared an Omahkitapii isksinimatstaksin, stories and lessons on gathering sage. Clarence is a respected Elder and teacher, and we are deeply grateful for his unique Blackfoot perspective and traditional knowledge, and the insight it brings to the many different oral histories, perspectives, and Nations we welcome at Iniikokaan.

We joined Elder Clarence on a beautiful summer day in July. It was a perfect time to gather sage as many are also doing so preparing for seasonal traditional ceremonies. It was just after mid-summer, toward the end of July, when the plant starts to bloom but before it goes to seed. The season typically ends in the third and fourth week of August and before the first frost. 

The best place to look for sage on the prairie is where the seeds, blowing in the wind, settle near clusters of low bushes, most often in small depressions and valleys in the landscape. While they can survive in the dry of the prairie, it is here that they can find the moisture they need to grow. Pick sage only where you are permitted to do so.

Before you begin harvesting sage, make an offering of tobacco, another traditional medicine with its own history, to convey gratitude. For example, one might say, “We thank the Elders for teaching us the way of the Niitsitapi and we have not forgotten them. We are thankful to Mother Earth who gives us medicine for smudging and ceremony.” Place any sort of tobacco on the ground at the beginning of the harvesting with good intentions, a pure heart and think about what you will use the medicine for.   

When you pick sage, take only what you need – do not harvest the whole plant unless you have the transferred spiritual rights to do so. Cut or break the plant about four inches above the ground, leaving enough leaves for the plant to continue growing. 

Traditionally, sage is hung on a tripod on the west side of a teepee, near the teepee owner, or next to the Medicine Person. Today, it is common to bundle the sage, tie it together at one end, and hang it in a cool, dry place to dry. Once dried, the sage leaves can be wrapped in cloth for later use, formed into a small ball and used for ceremony, often called Smudging. 

All medicines are to be treated with respect and gratitude. Every step of the gathering process has a story. For the sake of brevity, we will limit this to some universal experiences that may help during this time of isolation. 

Elder Clarence says, “If you are thankful and take only the sage you need, you can use it to create balance and peace in your life. Burn sage when you are feeling sad or depressed. Sage is said to help calm you if you are restless and experiencing trouble with sleep. Sage is also used to cleanse the stomach and to clear up digestive issues. We use sage when we Smudge – this is the time we make our spirit ready for teachings, and to clear and calm our minds, our Spirits, and our emotions, according to the Elders.”

Elder Clarence concluded our lesson on sage gathering with these words, “Now that I have reached the winter part of my life, I will teach people who want learn about how to use sage, how to understand the way we use things we find on the land. If they like what I teach them and they want to learn more, I will teach them. But they need to ask for the right to know these things, which is why we have to burn the sage, why we Smudge. We must make an offering. We have to say thank you. And then, I can tell you my story.”
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