Indian Tobacco: The Non-Abusive Use of Tobacco by Native Americans
by Terry Simpson, M.D., F.A.C.S.
Wednesday, July 23, 2008
[Note: The current article is an opinion piece written by an author who has studied Native American history and is himself, part Athabascan. In this article, the term "Native American" is used to identify those people indigenous to the United States. The author also uses the term “Indian” to describe what Columbus thought he found, and does not consider the term in any pejorative manner.]
There is a difference between abuse of tobacco and its responsible use. Responsible use of tobacco dates back thousands of years. The Pre-Columbus use of tobacco was widespread throughout the North and South American continents. Having thousands of years of experience with tobacco, Native Americans were able to develop a manner of tobacco use that was not abusive. Those who enjoy fine cigars often share something in common with ancient Native Americans: a manner of smoking tobacco that is non-abusive.
Below: Nicotiana tabacum as pictured on a cigar
box in the 1870's
Photo Courtesy of Tony Hyman, National Cigar Museum
In contrast and throughout history, most of Western Civilization has consistently found ways to abuse tobacco following its discovery 500 years ago. Western civilization, in general, adopted none of the ancient traditions of smoking and fell into a 500-year history of abuse and addiction leading to regulation and attempted tobacco control. While many Native Americans still use tobacco in a traditional manner, I believe the most responsible widespread use of tobacco is found among premium cigar and pipe smokers.
When I first arrived in Arizona in 1991, my job was working for the Phoenix Indian Medical Center (PIMC) as a surgeon and in various clinics in outlying areas. I was also on staff at the Veteran's Hospital in town, and these two government hospitals had contrasting populations when it came to tobacco. Many Veterans (Caucasians) were highly addicted to cigarettes. The most striking example of cigarette addiction was when one wheelchair-bound Vet asked me to light up his cigarette. What was remarkable was the fact that he could not hold a cigarette in his hand since his fingers had been amputated secondary to disease from tobacco and he was smoking through his tracheotomy, having lost his larynx from carcinoma secondary to cigarette addiction.
In contrast, at the Indian Hospital, many of the Natives admitted to smoking, however, when asked further about their smoking habits they reported that they smoked what they called "Indian Tobacco." This was a native tobacco plant that they would harvest, dry, cure, and then roll and use for ceremonies, or to sit down and smoke with relatives when they would visit. They used it sparingly and they indicated that they did not inhale. When I asked one of the Natives about the difference between the two he said, "White tobacco is stale and old, and not very strong. Indian tobacco has a good, fresh flavor, and is a lot stronger."
The traditional Native American use of tobacco sounds similar to cigar smokers today. Premium cigar smokers today are enjoying a fresh, not-chemically-altered tobacco. They smoke it without inhaling (naturally, there are a few exceptions), in a variety of settings, and typically do not abuse it. Premium cigars are generally used for occasions of friendship, celebration, relaxation, and occasionally, business. In contrast you have cigarettes, the use of which easily leads to addiction and is more commonly responsible for tobacco related illness, disability, and death.
Native Americans had used tobacco for thousands of years before the white men arrived into the "New World." They had an opportunity to learn to use tobacco in a non-abusive manner and it became a part of culture, tradition, and lore. Tobacco use was regulated by these traditions and abuse was not common. In contrast, tobacco for Western Civilization is a little over 500 years old -- and instead of adopting the customs of the "noble savage," the product was taken quickly back to Europe, grown, cultivated, used, and, very often, abused.
Below: Since the pre-literate days of the 1600's, silent wooden Indians
announced the presence of tobacco for sale.
Photo courtesy of Tony Hyman, National Cigar Museum
Plant geneticists believe they have located the first cultivated tobacco plant in the Andes Mountains near the border of Peru and Ecuador. If true, that would place the first cultivated tobacco plant at around 3000 to 5000 years BC, which is about the same time that Moses purportedly brought the ten commandment tablets down from Mount Sinai. Prior to this, the native plant, Nicotiana tabacum, was found throughout North and South America, and had been present in this form for at least 18,000 years.
The non-cultivated tobacco leaf of Nicotiana tabacum was far stronger than the cultivated leaf used today, with nicotine levels that made it toxic to humans. Tobacco smoke was used as a pesticide in early agriculture and may have led to the first inhalation of the burning leaf, eventual smoking, and use as a stimulant. Over time, and with cultivation, the leaf has produced a plant that has lower nicotine content and is more easily tolerated.
In the ancient ruins of the great Mayan civilizations, we see evidence that tobacco was smoked and used for relaxation, contemplation, worship, and enjoyment. Ancient pottery depicts smoking leaves that were rolled and tied. These depictions have been found throughout Central America. The Mayan word for smoking was sik'ar, which had an obvious phonetic connection to our word, “cigar.” Mayans settled throughout Central America, even in the Mississippi Valley, and had elaborate rituals with tobacco. Two of the principal Mayan gods were habitual smokers, and smoking tobacco was an essential part of prayer.
The use of tobacco eventually found its way to Alaska. While many of the cultural traditions of Alaska Natives were lost as occupying forces forcibly converted the Athabaskan’s, some of the customs still survive. Smaller villages, such as mine in Chickaloon, carry on traditions involving the use of tobacco at various ceremonies. Tobacco is used in ceremony of the potlatch, when welcoming a visitor, and when men are around the fire and talking. As a matter of long-standing custom, the daily use of tobacco (i.e., frequent, addictive pattern) by Native Americans is simply not considered. Tobacco's use is regulated by custom, not by addiction. When asking a modern Native why they don’t smoke more the answer is simply that the situation does not dictate its use. Much like the use of fine China at your grandmother's house, the traditional use of tobacco by Native Americans is relegated to specific and appropriate times and places.
I witnessed a traditional potlatch service in Chickaloon, Alaska after my father's stepbrother died. The tradition requires cured tobacco leaves to be placed in a stone bowl, crushed, and then lit. As the smoke comes out it is fanned and the person in charge of the ceremony will bring the bowl under the face of the participants. When this is done the proper motion is to, with both hands, sweep the smoke to the face and inhale. This allows a fanning of the tobacco as well as pulling in the smoke and inhaling it. This is in part to honor the spirit of the one who died, to let us know that we are like the smoke, here for a moment and gone. The tobacco, which is grown locally, is much stronger than most and is supposed to affect a person by transporting their spirit. This tradition is identical to that used among tribes of the Colorado River basin. Though the potlatch service does involve the inhaling of tobacco smoke, most Native American uses of tobacco does not require inhalation of smoke and the traditional use of tobacco does not require daily use.
Native Americans valued their tobacco. It was something to be used sparingly, something that was sacred, something that would help transport a soul to a different place (anyone who has smoked a Fuente Forbidden will get this same reaction). So, when the European's came, they were welcomed and in hospitable tradition, the pipe was smoked as a way to signify peace. Tobacco was ubiquitous and its non-addictive traditions present for thousands of years before the arrival of Columbus. It is useful to contrast ancient traditional use of tobacco by Native Americans with the convoluted uses within Western civilization since its inception. While nicotine is every bit as addictive now as it was in ancient times, when the use of nicotine is limited to specific events (as is the case with Native traditions), it can be considered much like a prescription. While prescriptions can be addictive, if used in a specific and prescribed manner, their use is limited to the treatment and will not necessarily lead to addiction, even when “treatments” are prescribed for the long-term.
In 1492 when Columbus first arrived on North American shores, he was greeted and given leaves of a pungent smelling plant. (Plants that they threw out!) Eventually Columbus became aware that the tobacco plants were very precious to the Natives and that they were used in trade and for bartering.
Below: Caribbean Indian woman enjoys a cigar
Photo courtesy of Tony Hyman, National Cigar Museum
One of Columbus’ sailors, Rodrigo De Jerez, took up smoking and brought it back to Europe. But the sight of smoke coming out of his mouth and nose (the first white retrohaler) was so frightening that he was imprisoned for seven years. The inquisitors of Spain thought tobacco was evil. By the time Rodrigo De Jerez was released from prison, the “evil tobacco” was the latest craze in Europe.
The Europeans who took tobacco back to the Old World started a pattern of abuse and addiction that has colored the use of tobacco. Tobacco seeds and tobacco were brought back to Europe in the 1500's and sometime before 1600's tobacco was grown in many European countries.
As tobacco made its way through Europe, it was likened to “snake oil.” It was promoted as a cure for almost every ailment from pneumonia, to stomach problems, to the plague. It was prescribed for use in enemas as a cure for colitis. The effect of nicotine to calm colitis is well described in medical literature and still used today. But the early descriptions of this "cure all" for disease, quickly led to concern about addiction.
The rapid rise in the use of tobacco, in spite of some obvious medicinal uses, led to concern over its use and abuse. Attempts were made to regulate its use. The concern over tobacco from De Jerez (tobacco as a "thing of the devil"), to general health concerns, to concerns about what this meant for the moral fabric of society, can be seen through a variety of regulations, bans, and decrees throughout the years. While some of these regulations were designed to promote health, some were meant for sheer monopoly of the product. In 1575 the church passed the first indoor smoking ban -- banning smoking in churches of the New World. Later, Pope Urban VIII threatened excommunication for its use, stating that the effect of tobacco was too close to sexual ecstasy.
Tobacco was used in North and South American continents, long before Caesar's Roman Empire, and was not used in an addictive manner, but with great ceremony. In the Court of Montezuma there were two classes of smokers: those who used pipes, and those who rolled the first cigars -- but smoking had a defined place. When tobacco use is regulated by ceremony, and not by an "urge" or a "desire" you have the means for an internal regulation of the activity.
The scourge of cigarettes may very well have been the true Montezuma's revenge. It is ironic that while Europeans joked that Indians could not handle whiskey, the Indians joked that Europeans could not handle tobacco. Europeans, in a typical response, attempted to ban tobacco, or regulate it, or shame people out of using it -- and that was 400 years ago -- things have not changed. They also attempted to tax it, for which there were great rebellions, or to monopolize it, and even execute those who used it. Some anti-smoker types would probably be interested to note the penalties of Czar Alexis: the first use of tobacco resulted in whipping, a slit nose and exile to Siberia. And the second offense resulted in execution!
I believe that cigarettes provide a form of consuming tobacco that is inconsistent with the moderate, non-abusive examples set by Native Americans, an example which is more easily reproduced in cigar and pipe smoking. Cigarettes are provided in a "dose pack" of 20. They burn quickly, are inhaled and provide rapid release of nicotine into the blood stream. Cigarettes rapidly become addictive and are smoked in an addictive manner: frequently throughout the day and night and because of a physical need to smoke. Cigarette smoking easily becomes a habit, an addiction and is considered a disease to be treated by physicians. The cigarette smoker is always looking for the place to have their next cigarette; their life is ruled by their addiction.
In contrast, most cigar and pipe smokers have established simple rituals of tobacco, utilizing it and enjoying it without abuse. They limit the use of tobacco to specific times and places, in part because cigars take a long time to smoke. Since most cigars cannot be readily smoked throughout the day, but require ample time and a location that is conducive, cigar smoking is most often limited to periodic consumption and is therefore commonly a self-regulated and moderated activity.
Tobacco cannot be regulated without seriously jeopardizing the basic civil and constitutional rights of the people. Although tobacco can be abused it can also be used responsibly, it can be helpful with some ailments, it can be a pleasure, and it can represent life itself: here for the moment and enjoyed, then gone into the great ether. Within the walls of every Brick and Mortar shop that allows smoking, we share the seeds sewn by my ancestors in centuries past: a responsible use of tobacco products.
About the Author
Dr. Terry Simpson is a physician - surgeon, writer, and avid cigar smoker. Dr. Simpson is Native American, being one quarter Athabascan. He is still involved with his village of Chickaloon, and on the board of the Alaska Native Medical Center, traveling to Alaska six times a year.blog comments powered by Disqus