Holy Water and Lakota Smudging: The Similarities and Differences

Students take part in smudging at St. Joseph’s Indian School.

St. Joseph’s Indian School, located in Chamberlain, SD, has a unique way of incorporating both Christian and Native American traditions into daily activities. Two of these practices are the use of holy water and Lakota smudging. Although they may seem different, both traditions have important spiritual significance and are valued in their respective cultures.

Using holy water is a common practice in the Catholic Church, used for blessings and purification. The sprinkling of holy water represents the washing away of sin and the welcoming of the Holy Spirit. The water itself is blessed by a priest and is a symbol of Christ’s saving grace.

A student is baptized at St. Joseph’s Indian School with their guardian present for the event.

On the other hand, Lakota smudging is a Native American tradition used for spiritual cleansing and connection with the Creator. Smudging involves the burning of sacred herbs such as sage, sweet grass, and cedar to purify a space or a person’s aura and bring back a sense of balance.

Despite being from different cultures, both holy water sprinkles and Lakota smudging share the belief in the importance of spiritual purification and connection with a higher power. St. Joseph’s Indian School recognizes and respects both traditions, and has incorporated them into daily or weekly routines.

“The ability to use both forms of purification helps center our students and staff while reminding them of their personal relationship with the creator,” said Joe, Mission Integration director at St. Joseph’s.

By incorporating both holy water and Lakota smudging, St. Joseph’s Indian School has created a unique and inclusive environment that values and respects both traditions. This integration allows for spiritual growth and connection for all students, regardless of their background.

Here is some more comparing and contrasting between these two customs:


In Christianity, holy water represents purification and protection from evil. Sprinkling water on oneself or others symbolizes cleansing of sin and sanctification.

This Native American practice of smudging involves burning medicinal plants, such as sage or cedar, to purify one’s energy, body and environment. Smudging removes negative energy, enhances spiritual awareness and connects one with the Creator. It prepares a person for their next steps, whether it be their day, a ceremony, work, etc.


Holy water is a sacramental element in the Catholic Church, which dates back to the first centuries of Christianity. The water is blessed by a priest, who invokes the Holy Spirit upon it.

Smudging has been a traditional practice of many Indigenous tribes for thousands of years. The Lakota Nation is one of the tribes that use smudging to communicate with the spirit world and honor the Creator. It is believed that the burning smoke can carry prayers heavenward.


Christians believe that holy water is a tangible sign of God’s grace and mercy. It has the power to protect from physical and spiritual harm and heal.

Native American people believe everything in the world has a spirit and smudging helps to balance and harmonize those energies. Smudging is a sacred ritual that connects people with their ancestors, traditions and beliefs.


The priest dips his fingers in the holy water and makes the sign of the cross on the forehead or sprinkles it on the person or object. Alternatively, he may use an aspergillum, a small liturgical implement with a handle and a brush-like top, to sprinkle the water.

The smudge stick, which is a bundle of dried herbs, is lit and allowed to smolder. The smoke is then fanned with a feather or a hand to direct it to the desired areas. The person may breathe in the smoke or brush it over their body, starting from the head and moving down, or by fanning the smoke over their mind, body, heart and spirit.

Overall, both rituals involve the use of sacred elements to purify and bless. However, they differ in their origin, beliefs and methodology, reflecting the diversity and richness of human spirituality.

“The Significance of Holy Water.” Catholic Exchange, catholicexchange.com/the-significance-of-holy-water/
“Traditional Native American Smudging.” Indian Health Service, www.ihs.gov/newsroom/factsheets/smudging/.
“Lakota Culture.” St. Joseph’s Indian School, www.stjo.org/lakota-culture/.

Author: St. Joseph's Indian School

At St. Joseph's Indian School, our privately-funded programs for Lakota (Sioux) children in need have evolved over 90 years of family partnership, experience and education. Because of generous friends who share tax-deductible donations, Native American youth receive a safe, stable home life; individual counseling and guidance; carefully planned curriculum based on Lakota culture and individual student needs and tools to help build confidence, boost self-esteem and improve cultural awareness. All of this helps children to live a bright, productive, possibility-filled future.

2 thoughts on “Holy Water and Lakota Smudging: The Similarities and Differences”

  1. Perfect, thank you,,, interesting to know,,, I use both, but really like smudging…..Blessings,,,

  2. To all my friends at St. Joseph’s Indian School. While rituals are not “bad” it is the belief in our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, and his Gospel that are most important. Remember this, with love, your friend Wayne.

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