Manitoba drought leaves women's centres short on sage for smudging, medicinal uses

WEWRC and the PDWC needs more sage to provide to community members in need.

'The places we normally go, the medicines are really low,' says program co-ordinator

A child holds a bowl with burning sage in a 2016 photo. Sage is used in the practice of smudging, but dry conditions in Manitoba this year mean some groups are having trouble finding it. (Martha Troian/CBC)

Indigenous women's centres in Winnipeg say their supply of natural medicines is short this summer due to Manitoba's drought conditions.

The West Central Women's Resource Centre says it's in need of prairie sage, which has been difficult to gather in usual picking spots during recent outings. 

"It's kind of scary for our medicines. The places we normally go, the medicines are really low," said Jolene Wilson, the co-ordinator for the centre's Restoring the Balance support program, which draws on traditional Indigenous values and teachings.

Sage is one of four medicines considered sacred in some First Nations cultures and is used for smudging, a practice that Wilson says "helps to clear the air, your mind, and brings a calming effect." 

"It's the women's medicine, so it's one here that we go through a lot of," said Wilson. "Community members come and ask for it when they need it. It's usually every day we have somebody in need."

Jolene Wilson is a program co-ordinator with the West End Women's Centre. Sage is in high demand but short supply at the centre, she says. (Gary Solilak/CBC)

The centre normally has a group of women go out and gather sage, "but this year is awful," she said — not just because of the drought but because of the heat as well.

The type of sage used in cooking, which might be more readily available, isn't generally used for smudging, Wilson said, because it is quite strong. 

She put a call out on Twitter in July asking for donations of sage, or help from people with property where it is growing.

She says so far the centre has received some from the community, but not enough to get through the rest of the year. 

"We really appreciate it. It goes out just as fast as it comes in sometimes."

Stunted growth in dry soil

Wilson notes sage is a plant that thrives in dry soil, but it does need some moisture to reach maturity. 

"The plant isn't growing very high, and then it's seeding quicker than it normally does," she said. 

"My worry is that it's seeding quicker [so] the pods will open and drop the seeds, but the seeds are going to burn up, because there's no moisture to bring them to the ground."

Little Mountain Park, Birds Hill Provincial Park and Beaudry Provincial Park are some of the usual places to pick sage in the community, Wilson says. Some grows in Assiniboine Forest, but those plants are smaller than normal as well, she said.

Picking sage when the plant is too small is not advisable, she said, because you want to leave as much of the plant behind as possible so there is regrowth for the next year.

Prairie sage seen near Little Mountain Park on Aug. 1. Sage crops are suffering in Manitoba this summer because of the lack of rain, say people who gather the plant for medicinal and cultural uses. (Renée Lilley/CBC)

Gladys Marinko, a knowledge keeper at the North Point Douglas Women's Centre, has also noticed there's less sage than usual this year.

She often takes community members out for sage picking around the city.

"We were very low on sage — our basket was pretty empty," she said.

After the group put out a call for sage, "we did get some — [now] the basket is full, but you know, with the using of medicines often, we tend to run out."

'Hoping and praying for rain'

It's not only traditional Indigenous medicine that's scarce right now, Marinko said — fruit used for baking is also hard to find. 

Saskatoons are already dried out, she said.

"A friend of mine goes to pick blueberries," which she uses in pies for the centre's annual pergoy dinner, Marinko said.

"This year, she said she could only gather a half a cup of blueberries. She usually gets about 30 litres every year."
Phillips sets fire to the sage in her smudging bowl to begin a smudge. Smoke from the burning sage, a sacred plant, is used to purify participants in ceremony. (Peggy Lam)

Marinko said she's worried that because of the effects of climate change, a lack of medicinal plants will become an issue for the Indigenous community. 

"Each year, I see more and more people healing, and we use the medicines more. I feel like there's a need to learn about sustainability, [which] is really important … and not over-picking places."

Wilson says her son showed her how dry it is in her home community in the Peguis-Fisher River area. Where muskeg water would normally be up to a person's knees, there's no water this year, she said.

"I'd imagine the sweetgrass [also used in smudging] there isn't very good," said Wilson.

"The whole drought thing is really concerning as far as our plants and our lands. I'm hoping and praying for rain every day.

"That's one of my main prayers right now — that it rains all over Turtle Island."


Renée Lilley

Reporter, CBC Indigenous

Renée Lilley is a reporter for CBC Indigenous based in Winnipeg. She is a recipient of the CJF-CBC Indigenous Journalism Fellowship for 2022 and is a recent University of Winnipeg grad with a BA in rhetoric and communications. She has reported for radio and online news in her hometown of Portage la Prairie, Man. She is also a proud Métis mama of four girls.