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
HOW IS TOBACCO SACRED?
Traditional Speaker Dennis
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.
of the First Nations & Inuit Tobacco Control Strategy Advisory
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
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
WHAT IS TOBACCO MISUSE?
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.