Native American Tobacco Cultivation and Use
by Ben Rapaport
Tuesday, October 2, 2007
[Note: In this article, the expression “Native American” is used to
identify those people indigenous to the United States. However, I acknowledge
that the term, widely accepted and colloquially understood, has different
meanings based on context, regional use and customs, and scope.]
The Tobacco Plant
What is Tobacco? Tobacco is classified botanically as the genus Nicotiana belonging to the nightshade family which also includes the potato and the eggplant. It is a very powerful stimulant and, from a commercial point of view, the most important plant of the family. Between 60 and 70 different and discrete species of Nicotiana have been identified, but only two, Nicotiana rustica and Nicotiana tabacum, are cultivated for use. Tobacco is believed to be native to tropical America, and it was cultivated and used by the inhabitants of various parts of this continent long before its discovery by Europeans. Tobacco was of ancient origin, probably first found in North America in the southeastern region where tobacco is commercially grown today. “The earliest tobacco in eastern North America dates to Middle Woodland contexts as early as the first century B.C. in west-central Illinois. Its more widespread occurrence postdates A.D. 300.” (Wagner, 1991)
Below: Nicotiana tabacum as pictured on a cigar box
in the 1870's.
(Illustration courtesy of Tony Hyman: National Cigar Museum)
In many quarters, it is believed that the Native American obtained his knowledge of tobacco and learned the custom of pipe smoking from the wandering Mayas of Central America, because the tobacco plant originally flourished in the West Indies, Central America and Mexico. “The aborigines of Central America rolled up the tobacco-leaf, and dreamed away their lives in smoky reveries ages before Columbus was born, or the colonists of Sir Walter Raleigh brought it within the precincts of the Elizabethan court.” (Johnston, 1880)
Samples of tobacco crossed the Atlantic to Europe during the 1500s
with Spanish and Portuguese mariners. Francisco Fernandez introduced
it to Spain in 1558 and, in1560, the French ambassador to the Court
of Lisbon, Jean Nicot, sent tobacco seeds back to France. Twenty-six
years later, Sir Francis Drake and Ralph Lane, the first Governor of
Virginia, brought seeds and a pipe back to England and presented them
to Sir Walter Raleigh. Sometime between 1550-1600, tobacco was being
grown in Portugal, Spain, Belgium, France and the Netherlands. Perhaps
the very first written account of its uses and effects was from the
pen of a Spanish historian of the West Indies, Captain Gonzalo Fernández
de Oviedo y Valdés, in his La Historia general de las Indias(1535).
Oviedo called this plant perebecenuc, supposedly tobacco, a plant used
by the West Indian natives as a vulnerary (to heal wounds). European
botanists countered that Oviedo had confused perebecenuc for tobacco;
however, by the last quarter of that century, tobacco was generally
accepted as the most effective vulnerary known to that time. No matter
the confusion, in an era of disease, pestilence, and plague, tobacco
was accepted as a household remedy, the touchstone of all medical plants,
the wonder-working herb from God with the appellation Indorum sana
Sancta sive Nicotiana Gallorum, the holy healing [herb] of the Indians,
or Nicotiana of the French. “Our age has discovered nothing from the
New World which will be numbered among the remedies more valuable and
efficacious than this plant for sores, wounds, affections of the throat
and chest, and the fever of the plague.” (Pena & Matthias de l’Obel)
The historic evidence of the use of tobacco by Native Americans consists, principally, of observations by explorers, historians and ethnologists. Coincident with the discovery of America, two Spanish sailors sent ashore by Columbus, saw Indians smoking crude-looking cigars. Ramon Pane, a Catalan friar, who accompanied Columbus on his second expedition to America in 1493, detailed how the aborigines of Hispaniola (later Haiti) ingested a hallucinogenic snuff called cohoba, believed to be pulverized tobacco that was used in religious ceremonies by medicine men to induce a trance. In 1499, during his second voyage to America, Amerigo Vespucci observed the inhabitants of St. Margarita Island, off the coast of Venezuela, chewing green leaves mixed with a pulverized substance. The aforementioned Oviedo, a resident on Hispaniola from 1513-1514, is considered the first to have described the curious pleasure of swallowing smoke using a tube thetaboca (often spelled tabaco); through time, the word transitioned from describing the tube to describing the plant itself, and tobacco became a universal word thereafter. Oviedo wrote that the local natives considered this herb very precious, and they grew it in their gardens. Oviedo also traveled with Juan de Grijalva to Mexico and, in 1518, reported from Yucatan that the local Indian chiefs offered the Spanish small tubes containing tobacco that were burning at one end, and these guests were encouraged to inhale the smoke. During his second voyage to Canada, Jacques Cartier, a Breton mariner, observed Iroquoians at Hochelaga (Montreal) inhaling smoke through elbow-shaped pipes and recorded this event in Brief Recit (1545):
They have also a herb which they greatly esteem, and during the
summer they make great store of it for the winter time. Only the men
use it and in the manner following. They have it dried in the sun and
carry it about their necks in a little beast’s skin in place of a bag,
with a horn of stone or wood: then presently they make powder of this
herb, and place it in one of the end of the said horn, and putting
a tiny coal of fire thereon, they suck at the other end, and thus they
fill their bodies with smoke, so that it comes out by the mouth and
nostrils as by a chimney funnel.
Father Francisco Creuxio, a Jesuit missionary, found tobacco in abundant use among the Indians of Canada. Many more European, Canadian and American narrations about Native American habits included commentaries about their smoking customs in various tracts and monographs now archived in libraries around the world.
Above: European label, c1900, depicts Indians giving
tobacco to Cortez
(Illustration courtesy of Tony Hyman: National Cigar Museum)
As detailed in this brief survey, the use of tobacco was one of the
most widely diffused of all Indian culture traits – and not merely
within North America because, with the exception of the Eskimo, the
native people of North, Central and South America, all indulged in
the tobacco habit. With the discovery of America and the establishment
of trade between the West Indies and Spain, the history of tobacco
smoking passed from the New World to the Old; from the Americas, then,
the use of tobacco spread with astonishing rapidity throughout the
Native American Cultivation of Tobacco
The methods of planting, harvesting, curing and later preserving tobacco varied among Native Americans, just as these operations vary in different regions of the world where tobacco is grown today. It is believed that land was prepared for planting tobacco by gathering and burning dried grass where the tobacco patch was to be sown in order to keep the ground clear of weeds. Once planted, no further attention was paid to it; the crop was allowed to grow thick. Then, the whole plant was dried for smoking, the leaf cured while hanging in huts until the leaves turned yellow. The leaves were then arranged side-by-side and tied in bundles until they were completely dried, and kept free of moisture. The unripe seed capsules were dried separately, because these were especially prized for their smoking flavor. The cultivation of tobacco was often surrounded with prescriptions and prohibitions designed to assure its ritual potency. Among the Hidatsa and Mandan of North Dakota, for example, growing tobacco was entrusted not to the women, but to the men although, customarily, among Native Americans, agriculture was almost uniformly and exclusively a female task. Among many Plains tribes, such as the Crow and Blackfoot, the cultivation of tobacco survived the total abandonment of agriculture that otherwise took place with the arrival of the horse.
Pictured at left is an early Caribbean farm. At first only low born Spanish planted, but when upper classes saw there was money to be made...well the rest is history. Negro slaves weren't imported until the mid 1700's but a few surviving Indians were used as laborers. (Illustration courtesy of Tony Hyman: National Cigar Museum)
It was the colony of Virginia, destined to become the greatest tobacco producer, in which the first account of the tobacco plant’s presence was recorded. Thomas Hariot, a tutor and advisor of Sir Walter Raleigh, went to Virginia on the second English expedition in August 1585. Having been instructed by Raleigh to survey the new possession and report on its natural resources, he described a tobacco plantation in a Virginia Indian village in A Briefe and True report of the new found land of Virginia, (London, 1588):
There is an herbe which is sowed apart by it selfe & is called by the inhabitants uppówoc. In the West Indies it hath diuers names, according to the seuerall places & countries where it is groweth and is vsed: The Spaniardes generally call it Tobacco. The leaues thereof being dried and brought into powder: they vse to take the fume or smoke thereof by sucking it through pipes of claie into their stomacke and head. (Brooks, 1937)
Tobacco Uses and Sacred Rituals
According to the sacred origin of tobacco – although no two tribes exactly agree in the details about the way in which this invaluable boon was conferred upon Man – ages ago, at the time when the spirits considered the world yet good enough for their occasional residence, a very great and powerful spirit lay down to sleep by the side of his fire in the forest. While lying, his arch enemy came by and thought it would be a good chance for mischief, so he gently approached the sleeping spirit, rolled him toward the fire until his head rest among the glowing embers, and his hair was set ablaze. The roar of the fire in his ears roused the good spirit and he jumped to his feet, rushed through the forest, the wind catching his singed hair as it flew off, carried it away and sowed it over the earth. It sank, took root, and grew as tobacco!
At least one additional version manages to reverberate in the Native American community. It is a Huron Indian myth that is more colorful and imaginative than that of the sleeping spirit. In ancient times, when the land was barren and people were starving, the Great Spirit sent a woman to save humanity. As she traveled, everywhere that her right hand touched the earth, potatoes grew, and everywhere that her left hand touched the earth, corn grew. The world became rich and fertile, and so she sat down and rested; when she got up, tobacco grew in that place.
Tobacco was seldom consumed in its pure state. In general, the Native American’s tobacco, the “true tobacco” originally grown by the aborigines – Nicotiana rustica, not the tabacum imported by Europeans from Central and South America – was mixed with other matter before it was smoked. Methods and matter varied. For example, dogwood was a popular addition to tobacco, and the Indian name for the resulting mixture, kinnikinnick – from the Cree and Chippewa dialects of the Algonquin language referring to various wild plants mixed with tobacco before it was smoked – became the mixture that almost all northeastern Native Americans used. According to Ritzenthaler (1955), “whatever plant material was used, it usually dominated the final mixture which generally contained about one-third tobacco.” Other representative tobacco mixtures were Pl’likinick, with red osier dogwood; Viburnum acerifolium, with arrowroot; and Rhus glabra, with sumac (Rutsch, 1973). (These other plants mixed with tobacco have an association with the color “red,” representing blood, the essence of life.) Often, herbs and sweet grasses were added, as well as laurel leaves, squaw bush, maple bush, poplar, birch and cherry. Sometimes, tobacco was even laced with buffalo dung.
It is as difficult to generalize about tobacco’s customary uses as it is to generalize about the tobacco mixtures. Some chewed the tobacco mixture; others ground it up as snuff; yet others, such as those living in the Southwest and in the Great Basin region between the Sierra Nevada and the Wasatch Mountains, rolled it in cornhusks and smoked it like a modern cigarette or cigarillo, sometimes inserting it in a tubular cane configuration. In the greater part of North America, tobacco was smoked in pipes of all shapes, sizes, and mediums (see next section).
Every phase of smoking tobacco among Native Americans seems to have been invested with a ritual significance. It was a plant of enormous ritual potency and enormously variable use, but behind all the variety of uses was the idea that tobacco had the power to put one into a spiritually exalted state that was necessary even for secular enterprises. Depending on the culture and the ceremony, tobacco for the spirits was placed on the ground as an offering to the earth, thrown on water, placed on sacred rocks and trees, or deposited by waterfalls and other striking natural features; it was placed on burning coals and thrown on the fire, as a fumigant; or, it may have been offered by a person inhaling smoke through a pipe or a crudely fashioned cigar or cigarette as a means of communication with the spirits. Although it was often smoked for personal pleasure, it also was used to fumigate ritually important objects such as scalps, the body of a dead chief or a bear; steamed to a vapor for use in sweat baths; tied onto a prayer stick; left in front of an effigy house placed over a grave; and applied to the body in solid and liquid forms as a medicine. To ensure good hunting, the Native American smoked on his hunting trips. A certain John Bartram, botanist and keen student of Indian customs, documenting his observations during a trip from Philadelphia to the Oswego River in 1743, wrote:
As soon as he had killed a bear, the Indian proceeded to make peace
with the animal’s departed spirit. Placing the stem of his lighted
pipe in the dead bear’s mouth, the hunter then blew into the pipe bowl.
As smoke from the pipe filled the bear’s mouth and throat, the hunter
begged the bear’s departed spirit not to resent the injury done to
its body and not to thwart the Indian’s good hunting in the future.
[National Geographic Magazine, June 1947]
Others offered incense of tobacco smoke to their god Manitou and to
feed the sacred fires with tobacco leaves, believing that the spirit
of their all-powerful god lay concealed in the rising clouds of smoke.
“From this belief sprang the elaborate system of the religious and
political rites of the North American Indian, culminating in the pipe
of peace and war, the sacred calumet which occupied amongst the tribes
a position of peculiar significance, and was the object of profound
veneration.” (Hardy, 1934) There were ceremonies at the sowing and
harvesting of the tobacco plant, and the embroidered pouches in which
the tobacco and the associated pipe were kept, and the pipe itself,
were surrounded by a sacred aura.
Native American Smoking Pipes
No work of aboriginal art found at present commands as much attention of the student of archaeology or the general collector as the smoking implements crafted for and used by Native Americans; just as the origin of tobacco is steeped in lore, so is the tale of the pipe. At the beginning of the Eighteenth Century, expanding contacts of Europeans with interior tribes around the Great Lakes, eastern plains, and the Ohio and Mississippi River basin brought reports of the ceremonial use of the pipe. The distinguishing characteristic of the “sacred” pipe is that the bowl and the stem are two distinct components, each having its own symbolic significance; the two are kept apart except during ritual use. The Native American attached much belief to his pipe. In life, it was his dearest companion, a symbol of hospitality and amicable intercourse, to be used only on the most solemn occasions, or in the transaction of important business to be sanctioned by the Cabinet Council. In death, the pipe was inseparable, because it was laid in his grave to give him solace on his journey to the happy hunting ground. In a word, the first pipe was among the most sacred, because none other than the Great Spirit, Gitchie Manito, the Master of Life, was the original smoker. As it is told, the Great Spirit called all his people together and, standing on the precipice of the Red Pipestone Rock, he broke a piece from the wall. He kneaded it in his hands, made a huge pipe, which he smoked over them and to the four corners of the globe. He told them that this stone was red, that it was their flesh, and that of it they might make their pipes of peace, or peace pipes. The Great Spirit smoked his pipe, talked to them until the last puff, and then his head disappeared in a cloud. Immediately thereafter, the surface of the rock, for several miles, was melted and glazed. This is just one version of the legend of the pipe. Other legends and myths abound, and three Plains Indian tribal variants are briefly offered (Murray, 1968):
The Arapaho creation story: A sacred tribal pipe existed even before the creation of land, people, and animals, when only a vast expanse of water existed. In this water stood a tripod, and on the tripod rested a spirit-person, Nih’ançan, and a pipe. The spirit-person asked birds to bring him help. The birds and a turtle lifted large quantities of mud from beneath the water, which he placed on the pipe to dry. Then, he dispersed the dried mud, creating a vast area of land. The places he missed became rivers and lakes. Then Nih’ançan created men and women from this same earth.
The Dakota (Sioux) buffalo maiden story: Two men were hunting and saw, at a distance, something white and shining coming toward them. At first, the image appeared to look like a white buffalo calf; on closer inspection, they noticed that the image had changed into a beautiful young maiden dressed in white buckskin, and she was carrying a pipe. Because one of the hunters had evil thoughts of the girl, his flesh withered away and his bones fell into a heap. The other hunter, respectful of the maiden, received the pipe with an instruction to use and care for it. The maiden walked away and eventually turned into a white buffalo calf, then disappeared over the horizon. The hunter returned to his camp to become the keeper of the sacred pipe until his death.
The Blackfoot medicine pipe story: The Blackfoot tribes had many
special sacred pipes, and each was made in accordance with instructions
received in a vision. The best were medicine pipes, the original of
which the Blackfoot received from Thunder, the spirit-person responsible
for thunder and lightning. At least 12 copies of this pipe were made,
and each was kept in a bundle with other sacred objects. The keepers
of these bundles were respected members of the tribe and were bound
to observe many taboos and complex rules for the care and use of these
pipes. The single most important ritual occurred when the bundle was
opened just as the first spring thunder was heard. Prayers were rendered
in the hope that lightning would not kill a tribal member in that year.
Cigar label illustrations often do not make good history.
At left, a Spanish soldier introduces Midwestern plains Indians to cigars, which was not a likely historical scenario. (Illustration courtesy of Tony Hyman: National Cigar Museum)
Smoking the pipe sealed all contracts. The pipe was an earnest of peace, a token of brotherhood, and it was carried around among friends, allies and former combatants. It also served as a passport. Father Jacques Marquette, the famous Jesuit explorer, received a pipe from his Indian hosts, and it was his security as he traveled among the Great Lakes peoples. The red-garlanded war-pipe, however, was the sign of hostility. Another Jesuit missionary, Father de Smet, offered the following regarding the people of this same region:
On all great occasions, in their religious and political ceremonies,
and at their great feasts, the calumet presides. The savages send its
first fruits, or first puffs, to the Great Wakonda, or Master of Life,
to the Sun which gives them light, and to the Earth and Water by which
they are nourished; then they direct a puff to each point of the compass,
begging of heaven and all the elements for favourable winds. (White,
It is near impossible to generalize about these early household utensils,
because the various utensils that the Native American fabricated to
ingest tobacco smoke represent an infinite and fascinating array of
shapes, sizes, and materials, depending on the tribes and the materials
indigenous to their respective geographic areas. Pipes were fashioned
from red porphyritic stone, limestone, steatite, clay, argillite, granite,
marble, wood, bone and many other materials as expressions of assorted
symbolic effigies – primitive animals, birds, reptiles, human heads,
etc. – which were executed with great skill and fidelity to nature.
The most famous of Native American pipes still prized today is the
peace pipe made of Catlinite (after George Catlin [1796-1872] the artist
who journeyed west five times in the 1830s to paint the Plains Indians
and their way of life), a dark, rich-hued orange-red stone, also known
as pipestone, existing in a few locations in northern Minnesota. The
tribes who lived around the Great Lakes, in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan
and Ontario made such a prominent cult of the pipe that they are sometimes
called Calumet People. The word calumet is an adaptation of the French
word Chalumeau, meaning a reed or a reed pipe. Their pipes, beaded,
feathered, beribboned and sculptured, resembled an exotic musical instrument.
The calumet, one fashioned for peace and one for war, was decorated
in lavish fashion, particularly if it belonged to a priest or a chief,
because it was, in fact, a sacred object. The pipe stems were often
quite elaborate, and the calumet, customarily carried by the leader
of rites and his assistant, typically included a stem decorated with
feathers, bird skins, carvings or paintings. The tomahawk-pipe or pipe
tomahawk, often identified as a hatchet-pipe combination or battle-ax,
was an occasional substitute for the calumet. “The significance of
the pipe-weapon equation was appreciated by Europeans, who produced
steel hatchet-pipes for trade to the Indians.” (Springer, 1981) The
elbow-pipe (in the shape of a right angle), used predominantly by east
coast Native Americans, became the prototype configuration for what
is, today, the conventional briar pipe.
Native American Celebration in Washington…with Tobacco
It was most appropriate that, on September 20, 2004, Native Americans
from all over the Americas met with Smithsonian Institution officials
in Washington, D.C. to celebrate the opening of a new museum, the National
Museum of the American Indian, a $214-million national showcase of
the history and culture of America's native peoples. This museum, the
last Smithsonian museum on the Mall, celebrates Native American art
and culture; it houses the world's largest collection of Indian artifacts—some
8,000 altogether— including many fine examples of handcrafted smoking
pipes from North, South and Central America. Interestingly, the groundbreaking
ceremony, five years earlier, on September 28, 1999, included songs
and ritual offerings of earth, water and, of course, tobacco!
Tobacco in North America probably had its origins as early as the first century B.C., but its widespread use on the continent postdates A.D. 300. Although still speculative, it’s widely held that Native Americans learned of tobacco from the Mayas of Central America. It is clear that they were using tobacco long before the birth of Columbus, let alone the discovery of America.
For the Native American, tobacco had great supernatural power, and
smoking was an intimate part of ceremony. Furthermore, nothing could
better exemplify the symbolic nature of Native American art than such
commonly used objects as the paraphernalia associated with tobacco
smoking. The pipe bowl, pipe stem, and pipe bag all had sacred meaning
and were decorated in accordance with honored roles.
Brooks, Jerome E. Tobacco. Its History Illustrated by The Books, Manuscripts and Engravings in the Library of George Arents, Jr., Volume One, 1507-1615. New York: The Rosenbach Company, 1937
Hardy, T.L., “The Smoking of Tobacco. A Historical Review,” Cambridge University Medical Society Magazine, 121-132. Cambridge, England: Easter 1934
“He blew smoke into a dead bear’s mouth,” The National Geographic Magazine, June 1947
Johnston, James F.W. The Chemistry of Common Life. New York: D. Appleton Company, 1880
Murray, Robert A. Pipes on The Plains. Minnesota: Pipestone Indian Shrine Association, 1968
Pena, Pierre, and Matthias de l’Obel. Stirpium Adversaria Nova. London: 1570-1571
Ritzenthaler, Robert E. “Kinnikinnick,” Lore, Volume 6, Number 1. Milwaukee: Milwaukee Public Museum, 1955
Rutsch, Edward S. Smoking Technology of the Aborigines of the Iroquois Area of New York State. Cranbury, New Jersey: Associated University Presses, 1973
Springer, James Warren, et. al. “An Ethnohistoric Study of the Smoking Complex in Eastern North America,” Ethnohistory, Volume 28, Number 3, 1981, 217-235
Wagner, Gail E. “Tobacco in Prehistoric Eastern North America,” Paper Presented at the 56th Annual Meeting, Society for American Archaeology, April 24-28, 1991, 1-37
White, Jon Manchip. Everyday Life of the North American Indian. London:
Book Club Associates, 1979
About the Author
Ben Rapaport is a regular contributor to Pipes and tobaccos magazine, Ben's primary expertise includes antique pipes, pipe tampers, tobacco art and tobacco literature; he is considered a leading authority on smoking antiques. He has published six highly regarded books on tobacciana and has written innumerable articles on a wide variety of tobacco-related topics that have appeared in dozens of publications. He holds what is probably the largest and most comprehensive personal library of tobacco-related information anywhere, some say rivaling the Arents collection in the New York Public Library.
Dedicated to this hobby and to the tobacco industry for five decades, his knowledge and experience are unparalleled. In 1985, he was designated the U.S. founding member of the Académie Internationale de la Pipe, inducted into the Confrérie des Maîtres-Pipiers de Saint-Claude in 1989, and received the prestigious Doctor of Pipes award from the Chicagoland Pipe Collectors Club in 2004.blog comments powered by Disqus