Historical Background on Tobacco

By Colette Vidal





According to the literature, the tobacco plant is native to Central and South America. With over fifty varieties, tobacco belongs to the nightshade family which includes belladona (deadly nightshade), peppers, tomatoes, potatoes, eggplant, and okra (also called lady fingers) 8-9.

Two varieties of tobacco interest us here. One is Nicotiana rustica, or "true tobacco", which was used by Native peoples in the Americas long before the arrival of Europeans. This variety, although not native to North America, has adapted successfully to the climate. Commercial tobacco such as the one used in cigarettes, is Nicotiana tabacum which was originally grown in South and Central America but was later cultivated successfully in Virginia where it became a major cash crop 1. "True tobacco", a milder form than the tobacco used in commercial tobacco products, was widely regarded by North American Indians as a sacred plant and was often cultivated separately from other crops involving specific rituals for sowing and harvesting. It was used in a great number of ceremonies as an essential element of ritual. It could be burnt over the fire, thrown on water, left on the ground or smoked in a pipe that was passed around a circle of people or in individual pipes.

In South and Central America where the stronger, larger- leafed Non-Traditional use of Nicotiana Tabacum grew, Indians smoked tobacco in pipes of many shapes and sized, or in the form of cones or "smoking rolls", sometimes elaborately decorated. In some parts of South America, tobacco was chewed or used as snuff to "clear the head". In addition, tobacco was also used as a remedy for many ailments. The Mayas took tobacco for such varied conditions as asthma, bites and stings, bowel complaints, chills, fever, convulsions, nervous ailments, sore eyes, skin diseases and urinary ailments" (Tierra:56).

Some tribes also cultivated tobacco "as an insecticide against certain fly larvae parasite to the skin" (Idem). But whatever the method of use, tobacco was present in every aspect of life and was essential in various occasions such as sowing or harvesting, births, marriages and burials, and praying and offering thanks to the gods.

Among North American Indians, tobacco traditionally also served many purposes including sealing the peace with other tribes; healing various ailments such as earaches (Malecites) snake bites (Choetaws), cuts and burns (Crees); preventing lightning and storms (Seminoles) or aiding in the fish catch (Carolina Indians) (N.N.A.D.A.P:28). The most prominent use of tobacco smoke however, was "as an offering to the spirits" (Paper: 5). This could be achieved by smoking it in a pipe or placing it directly on the fire. In some cases, tobacco was "placed on the ground as an offering to the earth, thrown on water, or placed on or by sacred rocks or trees" (Idem). But the most powerful way of communicating with the spirits was to smoke the tobacco in a pipe "because the sharing of the smoke between the one making the offering and the spirit receiving it created a communion between the two" (Schissel:3).



The sacred pipe was used virtually by all Native groups in North America except for the Arctic where tobacco was introduced well after European contact.

"The centrality of the pipe to the religious life and understanding of many of the native peoples of North America can best be compared to the role of the Torah in Judaism and the Koran in Islam; it is the primary means of communication between spiritual power and human beings (Paper: 13)."

Archeological research has turned up large quantities of pipes found in "mounds" (burial places) dating from prehistoric times. These pipes are often made of bone, stone or baked clay showing a great variety of shapes, designs and decorations. Moreover, the materials they are made of are not always found in the surrounding area suggesting that far-flung exchanges between tribes occurred thousand of years before the arrival of Europeans. "Regardless of the differences in its integration, the ritual of the Sacred Pipe was and is the common religious ritual of pan Indian situations throughout sub-Arctic North America" (Ibid:98).

It must be noted that pipes were in some cases used in the absence of tobacco, for Native peoples had many different plants which could be smoked or burnt either alone or mixed with tobacco. Such a mixture is Kinnikinnick which includes "tobacco and C.sericea, a type of dogwood shrub (Rutsch:31)." Bertha Blondin' also mentions that before tobacco was introduced to the Dene as late as the 1930's, they smoked "red willow" in their pipes but did not inhale the smoke.

Attached to the pipe ritual is a religious philosophy and symbolism which is shared by most North American Indians and which contrary to EuroAmerican belief, pre-dates white contact and is "as old or older than the dominant religion of the invading Europeans". (Paper:97)



Some of the common symbols in North American Indian religion include the medicine wheel which stands for the cycle of life and the rising and setting of the sun. The cross in the circle stands for the four directions: North, South, East and West, as well as the four seasons of the year. The Sacred Pipe, which like the "Sweat Lodge", is a pan Indian ritual, carries its own powerful symbolism. North American Indians attach meaning to the materials used in the making of the pipe and to its shape and decoration. For instance, the separate-stem pipe most commonly used in ceremonies, represents the earth-sky, female-male complementarity, the bowl symbolizing the female element and the stem the male element. When used in ritual, it is joined to the bowl at the beginning of the ceremony. Only "true tobacco" that is Indian-grown tobacco, is used in these rituals. The pipe is passed around the circle usually in the direction of the sun's path from east to west and only after the ritual leader has made offerings of smoke to the Creator, the four directions and to the earth.

Usually everyone, except the children, is offered the sacred pipe. Menstruating women however, do not participate "because their innate power at this holy time will overwhelm the power of the pipe" (Paper:38).

An important aspect of Native belief is that the pipe as well as tobacco are seen as gifts from the Creator even if this is expressed in different stories. "According to Blackfoot legend, the Medicine Pipe was given to them by Thunder Chief" (Schissel:5). On the other hand, the Sarcee "received the tobacco seeds from a water serpent with instructions not to pass them on to other peoples" (Ibid.: 11). In many tribes, tobacco and the Sacred Pipe played a role in the origin of the people.



If tobacco is Great Turtle Island's gift to the rest of the world, one can submit that the gift has been so misused and abused that it has turned into a curse affecting both Natives and non-Natives and destroying the lives of millions of people around the world.

In 1520, the Spanish inconquistadors of Mexico noted "that the Aztec emperor Motecuhzoma, had smoked beautifully painted and gilded smoking rolls"'. These were the early ancestors of our modern cigars. But before the cigar became popular with Europeans, tobacco was first seen as a "cure-all" medicine and used to treat all kinds of disease.

Jean Nicot who became "French Ambassador in Lisbon (Portugal) in 1560... played a particularly important part in establishing snuff on the market ... (His) name is perpetuated in the botanical designation Nicotiana and the active substance in tobacco, nicotine"'.

In England, the navigator Walter Raleigh popularized pipe smoking, a habit that spread quickly to the rest of the continent in the 17th century. At the same time, tobacco continued to be used for chewing and as snuff.

The last development in the spread of tobacco worldwide was the commercial production of cigarettes which trace their ancestry to the South American papelitos. In 1853, Luis Susini who designed a cigarette-maker producing 3,600 cigarettes an hour, founded the first cigarette la Factory in Cuba. In 1883, James Bonsack designed a machine capable of making 15,000 cigarettes per hour. By 1921, cigarettes had overtaken all other tobacco products as articles of mass production and consumption. After the Second World War, filters were introduced and with the development of automation, machines can now produce 8000 cigarettes per minute making the filter cigarettes the most popular tobacco product in all industrialized countries9.In this rapid historical survey of the spread of tobacco from the Americas to the rest of the world, the plant being discussed is Nicotiana tabacum, the stronger, larger-leafed variety around which a powerful industry has been built. Thus, what was originally a sacred plant, used sparingly and with respect, was turned into a highly marketable product to be exploited for profits. Tobacco, a Native token of friendship to the white man, was taken, altered and sold back to all the peoples of the world. As a consequence, nicotine addiction is taking a terrible toll on the victims, many of whom are Native people. "The European acquisition of tobacco has been one symbol of the colonization of America"7.It is urgent to restore the use of tobacco as an Indian custom instead of an unregulated and dangerous habit.



1. Blondin, Bertha, "Traditional use of Tobacco Among the Dene", Arctic Medical Research, 1990;49:Suppl.2:51-53.
2. * N.N.A.D.A.P.; Liz O'Bomsawin, The Smoke-free Kit for Native Communities; Health and Welfare Canada 1991.
3. National Association of Friendship Centres; Bill Dare; Sacred Plant, Sacred Ways:", NAFC Tobacco Demand Reduction Strategy; N.A.F.C., Ottawa, 1995.
4. * Paper Jordan, Offering Smoke, The Sacred Pipe and Native American Religion, The University of Idaho Press, Moscow, Idaho, 1988.5. Pendell Dale, Plant Powers, Poisons and Herbcraft, Mercury House, San Francisco, 1995.
5. * Rutsch, Edward, S., Smoking Technology of the Aborigines of the Iroquois Area of New York State, Associated University Presses Inc., Cranberry, New Jersey, 1973.
6. Schissel, Catherine, "Traditional Tobacco Use in Plains Indian Societies", Report Commissioned by Canadian Cancer Society, Alberta, N.W.T. Division; Jan.1994;8. Tierra, Michael, "Healing Herbs - Tobacco: Native Blessing or Whiteman's curse"; Shaman's Drum; Summer 1986; 56-58.
7. Voges Ernst, Tobacco Encyclopedia (extract) Tobacco Journal International; N.D., 363-369.

copyright © 1997 NIICHRO 05/01/98