The Four Sacred Medicines

Indigenous people have used plants, trees and other natural materials they call sacred medicines to promote healthy living and cure illness since the beginning of time. Four – tobacco, sage, sweetgrass and cedar are referred to as the four Sacred Medicines, and we have the first three growing in our St. Francis Indigenous Garden. Traditional belief is that each of the sacred medicines was given to the First Nations people as a means of communicating with the Creator.

Tobacco is the first plant the Creator gave to the First Nations peoples. It is perhaps the most frequently used medicine and is always offered first in any ceremony. It is said that the plant “activates” all other plants. It is a custom of almost all Indigenous people to give a gift of tobacco to an elder, healer, traditional teacher, knowledge keeper or other Indigenous person who is giving you their time, knowledge, expertise or guidance. The tobacco is usually wrapped in a cotton cloth with a ribbon or string that can be untied and is given at the beginning of a meeting to represent honesty that we carry in our hearts when words are to be spoken between two people or to the spirit world. It is believed that tobacco opens the door to allow communication to take place.

Sage is used to prepare people for ceremonies and teachings, releasing what is troubling the mind and removing negative energy. When burned, the smoke is used to ‘wash off’ the outside world when someone enters a ceremony or other sacred space, and may be used for cleansing homes and other sacred items. There are two forms, male sage (which only has leaves) and female sage (which flowers). In some traditions only women and children gather the medicine. It is considered to have feminine energy and is the only smudge women can use while menstruating.

Sweetgrass is used in prayer, smudging and purifying ceremonies. It is seen as the sacred hair of Mother Earth. It is said that when we burn sweetgrass, the grandfathers and grandmothers in the spirit world are as stars, and they see us and come close to hear our prayers, carrying them in the smoke to the Creator. When sweetgrass is harvested it is usually braided representing different things to different Nations including mind, body, spirit or our ancestors, ourselves, the children not yet here.

Cedar is the medicine that helps protect us from the unknown or unseen, and the emotions and feelings of others. It is used as a shield or a cleansing medicine against lingering spirits that can disrupt daily life. When cedar is put in a fire with tobacco, it crackles – calling the attention of the spirits to the offering that is being made.


One of the common uses of the four sacred medicines is as part of smudging. Forms of smudging vary from Nation to Nation but all consider it as a way of cleansing oneself, a space or item. Most often the four sacred medicines or each individual medicine are placed in a fire-proof smudge container. The container may be a shell, stone, copper, brass or cast-iron bowl or pan. The medicine is lit with a match or lighter. Once the medicine is lit, the flame is extinguished and the smoke may be pushed forward with a feather or a fan. Cleansing the body consists of using the rising smoke to smudge the five sensory organs, the head, the feet and the back.

~ by Marion Thomson Howell