Native American cultures are rich with oral tradition celebrating the spiritual and psychological benefits of tobacco, including origin stories about how this special plant came into the lives of the people. Among the most powerful stories is that of how tobacco came to the Crow tribe.
Long, long ago, according to legend, when the people were scattered, before there were tribes, a woman of ethereal beauty gave birth to twin boys, but she did not know the identity of their father. It saddened her that her sons were fatherless, and each night she sang a song to help her boys sleep, a song of such surpassing sorrow and pathos, so overflowing with melancholy, so harmonious with nature, that the Earth and Stars took notice and each claimed one of the boys as their own. The sons were henceforth known as Star-Boy and Earth-Boy.
As the boys matured into adulthood, differences in their personalities became apparent. Earth-Boy preferred staying near home beneath the willow trees. He explored everything about the locality, examining stones and rocks and earth, the flow of water, and the gradual growth of living things. The earth and streams, soil, trees and plants became part of his family and his home.
Star-Boy, however, loved to wander under the stars, sleeping during the day so he could commune with the night and watch his star family cross the heavens. As he travelled far from home, he found himself at the base of the tallest mountain. No human had ever climbed it, but Star-Boy decided he would see how close the precipice would bring him to the stars. He climbed and climbed, slipping, almost falling, backtracking around immovable obstructions to move ever upward, ever closer to the stars.
The Oath Apsaroke by Edward S. Curtis depicting Crow men giving a symbolic oath with a bison meat offering on an arrow
The mountain proved too tall for Star-Boy, though, and he lost consciousness in the thin air still far from the top. A strange man appeared to him, gleaming and shining and silver, radiating a golden light. He was a star, and he was Star-Boy's father.
The star man explained that his life was spent travelling far from earth and that he would be unable to return in Star-Boy's lifetime. This would be their only meeting. However, to demonstrate his love for his son, the star man bestowed on him a gift of great strength and all the colors of the sunset. "Most important," said the star man, "is this great gift. A plant." He plunged his hands into his own shining chest and pulled forth a double handful of tobacco leaves.
"This plant will help you in times of peace and war, in times of relaxation and following feats of great endurance. Keep it with you wherever you wander. Plant it in the spring, tend to the earth that nourishes it, and harvest the plants when they are tall." He explained that tobacco would make his family strong and free, and more understanding of nature. But anyone he chose to share it with must first be adopted into Star-Boy's family. Star-Boy listened with gratitude but was too overcome with emotion to speak. His father delivered his message and gifts, and he streaked into the sky and returned to the heavens.
This plant will help you in times of peace and war, in times of relaxation and following feats of great endurance. Keep it with you wherever you wander. Plant it in the spring, tend to the earth that nourishes it, and harvest the plants when they are tall.
The first person Star-Boy looked for when he returned home was his brother. He told Earth-Boy about his father and the tobacco, and Earth-Boy laughed. "You needn't climb great mountains to achieve visions," he said. "While you were away, I met my father Earth and he gave me gifts as well, including the way of the Medicine Pipe. Now, whenever we smoke, your tobacco together with my pipe, our fathers will grant us peace and all the colors of the sunset."
Earth-Boy withdrew from its pouch a beautiful pipe, made from the stone and willow of his home, and Star-Boy filled it with tobacco from the heart of his father the star. Together, they smoked.
Star-Boy soon left again, for he could not stay in one place for long. "I will follow the buffalo and the eagle, and be as free as the wind," he said. He took with him people who hoped to be adopted into his family, while others stayed back with Earth-Boy. The people who followed Star-Boy called themselves the Crow, and those who stayed with Earth-Boy to become farmers were the Hidatsa, after the willow trees of their home. That is how the tribes were formed, separating the people into sustainable groups.
Fig. Large Tobacco bags from The Tobacco Society of the Crow Indians by Robert Lowie (p. 160)
However, even though they now lived independently of one another, they would never be enemies, because the combined power of the Medicine Pipe and of Tobacco from the heavens would assure peace between them.
That's the end of the legend, and it is among the most wonderful of all the stories and myths surrounding the use of tobacco by Native Americans. Most especially, the story emphasizes that the miracle of tobacco consumption is thanks to a combination of elements from both the Earth and the heavens. So significant was tobacco to the Crow and Hidatsa cultures that a miraculous origin story was necessary to explain its existence.
We modern pipesmokers know the peace, contentment and thoughtfulness associated with tobacco, and clearly those who came before us did as well, incorporating it into the very substance of their cultures. Tobacco has influenced humanity since its discovery, and humanity has been grateful.