“For us, tobacco is sacred. In the older teachings of what it was all about, it was very important to see that it was sacred. A lot of us have forgotten the sacred purposes of tobacco, for various reasons.” - Dennis Nicholas, Kanehsatake Elder, March 2002

It is a well-documented fact: tobacco use has a long history among First Nations people. Tobacco has been used in the Americas in rituals, ceremonies and prayer for thousands of years. Peter T. Furst has offered evidence to suggest that tobacco has been cultivated for over 8,000 years. Amongst First Nations, traditional tobacco has always been, and remains to this day, sacred. When misused outside of traditional ways, however, tobacco is no longer sacred, and has become a major problem for First Nations communities.
There is an important difference: traditional uses are sacred and an essential part of First Nations life, and non-traditional misuse is a deadly epidemic. This article will talk about the difference between traditional uses of tobacco and non-traditional tobacco’s consequences.



Traditional tobacco is considered to be a sacred gift given by the Creator and a main part of the religious ideas shared by many Aboriginal people. These traditions are as least as old as or older than all Western religions. Tobacco was accorded a very respected place in First Nations culture.
Before the arrival of Europeans, says Jeff Reading, “tobacco was by far the most important plant in the religious lives of indigenous North Americans.” As well as being used for a wide variety of medicinal purposes, it was used in many ceremonies and rituals. The ceremonial use of tobacco had deep spiritual meaning because it established a direct communication link between the person giving and the spiritual world receiving.
Tobacco leaves were traditionally placed on fires or on water as offerings to the spirits. These offerings were made for a number of reasons, from encouraging rain in times of drought to ensuring the safe passage of travelers on the water. Tobacco was also used as fertilizer around other medicinal plants.
As well, tobacco was smoked: but only ceremonially. In the traditional sense, the most powerful way of communicating with the spirits is to smoke tobacco in a sacred pipe.


Traditional Speaker Dennis Nicholas
of the First Nations & Inuit Tobacco Control Strategy Advisory Committee






Once the Europeans arrived, the non-religious use of tobacco became more common. Consuming tobacco became a welcomed part of trade meetings between Aboriginal people and Europeans. Tobacco was even grown in some areas specifically for trade. New types of (South American) tobaccos were introduced and considered non-sacred and therefore good for recreational use. Reading has noted that it became a Mohawk custom to “eat smoke” after a meal. It became a trade good and a luxury item.
Gradually this recreational use grew and grew until it spiraled out of control to the point that approximately two out of every three Aboriginal people are now habitual tobacco users. It is clear then that traditionally tobacco use was a highly spiritual and unquestionably legitimate part of First Nations’ cultures. Without a basic understanding of the important role tobacco has always played we cannot begin to understand the nature of the problem of non-traditional tobacco misuse in Aboriginal communities.

“First Nations need to know their history. History provides a context for understanding individuals’ present circumstances and is an essential part of the healing process.” – The Assembly of First Nations



Basically, tobacco misuse (also known as recreational tobacco use) is any use of tobacco in a non-traditional way. That means: smoking cigarettes; smoking clove cigarettes or light cigarettes; chewing tobacco or snuff; smoking non-traditional tobacco in non-sacred pipes or smoking cigars; second-hand smoke; smoking while pregnant; or giving children chewing tobacco as a pacifier.
All of these are very unhealthy and are not part of First Nations' traditional uses of tobacco. These are not sacred. These are dangerous, highly addictive killers.
To sum up, tobacco traditionally has occupied a very important place. We must see the difference between traditional use of tobacco and non-traditional, recreational tobacco misuse. It is urgent to maintain the use of tobacco as a traditional custom of First Nations instead of as a deadly habit.