An Overview of Sacred Tobacco, The First of the Four Sacred Medicines

A highly ornamented, Native American ceremonial pipe (aka calumet), Pearson Scott Foresman

While we as pipe smokers have a certain reverence for the leaf we put in our pipes, there is a whole other side to tobacco, one of cultural and religious significance to many Native populations across America. Today, we're going to explore sacred tobacco, how it was banned, the damage caused by this decision, and the healing that's now performed.

In most Native American cultures, there are four Sacred Medicines: The first plant is tobacco, given by the Creator to the Native people that acts as the main activator of the plant spirit. The three that follow tobacco are sage, cedar, and sweetgrass. These four Sacred Medicines are used in both everyday life and ceremonies for many Native cultures with most Elders saying that the spirits enjoy the aroma produced when we burn these sacred plants.

The Peace Pipe by Charles Marion Russell, 1898

The Peace Pipe by Charles Marion Russell, 1898

In Woodland Indian culture, tobacco is the unifying thread of communication between humans and the spiritual powers. The manidoog (Ojibwe for spirits) are said to be extremely fond of tobacco and that the only way they can get it is from the Native people. Whether it is by smoke or offerings of dry tobacco, there are many ways the manidoog receive this gift. For Native people of the Great Lakes, there is often reason to solicit the spirits for acts of kindness or to give thanks for past favors.

Dry tobacco would be placed at the base of a tree or plant from which medicine was gathered while a pinch might be thrown into water before a canoe trip as an offering for a safe return. During hunts, Native hunters would pause for a smoke and leave pinches of tobacco as an offering when encountering certain features of the land that were said to harbor spirits, and when they killed their game, an offering would be left for the spirit as well. Tobacco would be placed at graves as offerings to a departed spirit and requests to elders or healers would be accompanied with a gift of tobacco.

The manidoog (Ojibwe for spirits) are said to be extremely fond of tobacco and that the only way they can get it is from the Native people.

It's important to understand how vital tobacco was, and is, to Native culture and religion because, until fairly recently, Natives weren't allowed to practice their culture or religion.

The Peace Pipe - painting by Eanger Irving Couse (MET, 17.138.1)

The Peace Pipe - painting by Eanger Irving Couse, 1901 (MET, 17.138.1)

The Code of Indian Offenses

In 1883, the United States, along with other topical legislation, passed The Code of Indian Offenses that largely restricted the religious and cultural ceremonies of Native American tribes. This was done as part of the U.S.'s attempt in the late 19th century to culturally assimilate Native people. The Code of Indian Offenses led to the creation of the Court of Indian Offenses, which operated under the jurisdiction of U.S. government agents assigned to reservations that allowed them to interfere in Native American criminal justice.

The U.S. government largely viewed Native culture as a barrier to "true civilization," this belief specifically held in the mind of Henry M. Teller, a Colorado senator and U.S. secretary of the interior who held jurisdiction over the Bureau of Indian Affairs from 1882 to 1885. Teller wrote at length of particular ceremonies and practices that he deemed detrimental to Native "progression towards civilization." The resulting code largely dealt with criminalizing Indian culture, with punishable offenses including sacred dances and rituals, traditional courting and marriage customs, funeral practices, gift-giving, and the practice of medicine men. Teller believed that not criminalizing these Native practices would have Natives follow "wicked conduct," and that the desire for acceptance in their tribes would overpower any sense of white morals that had been forced upon them.

The resulting code largely dealt with criminalizing Indian culture, with punishable offenses including sacred dances and rituals, traditional courting and marriage customs, funeral practices, gift-giving, and the practice of medicine men.

Resistance was to be expected, but it came in a variety of forms. Some Tribal leaders chose to fight for cultural liberties, with many categorizing some rituals as religious ceremonies. Others simply misdirected government agents by claiming they were engaging in harmless social gatherings or celebrating holidays like the Fourth of July. Other tribes were allowed to continue practicing sacred rites if they altered them to be more closely aligned with American Christianity. However, misinterpretation of this practice as a militaristic uprising eventually escalated to a full-scale conflict that ended with the Wounded Knee Massacre of 1890. The Wounded Knee Massacre is the deadliest mass shooting in American history with roughly 300 hundred Lakota natives shot and killed by the United States Army during the Pine Ridge Campaign following a failed attempt to disarm the Lakota camp. Some historians argue that this event is what catalyzed the death of Native culture in many American minds.

The opening of the fight at Wounded Knee

The opening of the fight at Wounded Knee, Federic Remington, 1891

If you had the thought that all of this sounds unconstitutional and was an affront to everything the United States was founded on, then you'd be correct. However, Native Americans weren't considered true citizens of the United States until 1924. Even if this weren't the case, most white Americans considered the First Amendment to apply only to Christianity during this time period, which explains why there was little protest over the unconstitutional legislation. To many Americans, "religious freedom" meant Natives had the right to choose only whatever Christian sect they deemed best.

It would not be until 1978 that the American Indian Religious Freedom Act (AIRFA) was enacted to return basic civil liberties to Native Americans, Native Hawaiians, Inuit, and Aleuts, allowing them to practice, protect, and preserve their cultural, spiritual, and religious heritages once again.

Survivors of Wounded Knee Massacre

Survivors of Wounded Knee Massacre, John C. H. Grabill, 1891, Library of Congress

Commercial Tobacco Moves In

With the passing of The Code of Indian Offenses, sacred tobacco in a traditional sense was included in the ban. With this oppressive maneuver against Native culture, some companies in the tobacco industry saw dollar signs. Since traditional tobacco was banned, major tobacco companies began to market toward Native populations with brands like Natural American Spirit, Big Red, and Red Man to blur the lines between traditional and commercial tobacco, heavily distorting the cultural value of sacred tobacco.

Many Native groups used commercial cigarettes as a way to operate under the nose of the government, replacing traditional gifts of sacred tobacco with packs of commercial cigarettes. In addition to the cultural aspect, many tobacco companies targeted Native populations due to their unique sovereign status that avoided state cigarette taxes and smoke-free laws. The result was that Native groups had the highest commercial tobacco use compared to any other ethnic group in the U.S..

Advertisement: Red Indian Cut Plug, American Tobacco Company, 1900

Advertisement: Red Indian Cut Plug, American Tobacco Company, 1900

In an interview with WHYY, Native American Sean Brown discussed the role of commercial tobacco and sacred tobacco in the Seminole people. When they were forced to relocate to Oklahoma, they had to leave their local plants and medicines thousands of miles behind them, requiring them to relearn where to find and cultivate these sacred plants. Around this time, commercial tobacco was on the rise and many tribes began the process of replacing sacred with commercial tobacco. Brown shares, "You're an Indian, so you need to smoke tobacco. Nobody really said that, but that's the kind of the impression [I got] because it is sacred, we have to now use commercial tobacco to still maintain sacredness..."

Later in the article, Brown explains the disconnect that he felt when he tried to quit smoking for the first time. "I gave them a call, nice people, but I had a problem initially with just giving up tobacco, I couldn't in my soul just give it up."

Brown's first attempt at quitting did help to lead to change within the National Jewish Health, who operates hotlines in 20 states across the United States for people trying to quit tobacco. Brown's case, among other Native cases, showcased a pattern that the traditional coaching sessions didn't seem to work for Native clients. This led the NJH to have conversations with Native leaders in Montana and hire Native coaches to work on an overhaul of the program. The result was more Natives staying in the program longer.

Many tobacco companies targeted Native populations due to their unique sovereign status that avoided state cigarette taxes and smoke-free laws.

But the NJW aren't the only ones in the fight against commercial tobacco. Many native populations face the issue of undoing the damage that commercial cigarette companies have done on their own front. Several Native communities have banded together with the Keep Tobacco Sacred Collaboration. This community collaboration was created to improve the ability of Native Elders and Knowledge Keepers to develop programs that support First Nations' youth in learning about their cultural meaning and traditional use of sacred tobacco to decrease the use of commercial tobacco in indigenous youth. The program is seeing success, as other traditional "quit smoking" campaigns failed to take root in Native populations due to the very blurred lines of sacred and commercial tobacco.

One way Keep Tobacco Sacred educates is by highlighting the differences between commercial tobacco plants and traditional tobacco plants. Commercial tobacco is Nicotiana tabacum, indigenous to southern North America, Central America, and the Caribbean. It grows tall, over five feet with flowers that are white with pinkish purple tips that resemble a horn. The leaves vary in size, but grow largest at the bottom and smaller at the top.

Traditional tobacco is Nicotiana rustica, one of the plants used alone or in combination to create traditional tobacco. It's indigenous to many areas over the world, including the Great Lakes region. It grows to a maximum height of three feet, and while the flowers resemble that of Nicotiana tabacum, its flowers are yellow. The leaves vary in size, but the largest grow on the bottom and the smallest on top. The leaves of N. rustica reach a maximum length of nine inches and are wider than those of commercial tobacco. N. rustica is also four to 15 times more potent in nicotine than commercial tobacco.

Part of educating Native youth goes beyond just the differences in the species but also how to cultivate their own sacred tobacco and how to use it in everything, from day-to-day life to religious ceremonies. As Native populations work to heal from the wounds of the past, it's important to honor their culture and history with the respect and reverence they deserve. Now more than ever, tobacco needs to be kept sacred.

A sacred bundle with a medicine pipe of the Blackfoot

A sacred bundle with a medicine pipe of the Blackfoot, 1912


Category:   Pipe Line
Tagged in:   History


    • Félix on November 19, 2023
    • Excellent article! This was very fascinating to read. On a somewhat related note, does anyone have any experience with smoking Nicotina Rustica? It’s something that has piqued my interest, to see what smoking tobacco in its most wild form is like.

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