Used for medicine, hospitality, diplomacy and religion,
tobacco is highly regarded as the most sacred plant in Indian Country.
Since ancient times, Indians have used tobacco to show
reverence for the Great Creator, and respect for each other. Tobacco is used
in daily offerings such as sprinkling tobacco to ask the Great Creator for
strength or a safe journey to or from home.
In earlier times, both Ojibwe men and women smoked pipes
filled with kinnikinnik — the inner bark of the dogwood plant. Both men and
women smoked pipes made of blackstone, but the women’s pipes were smaller.
The men also made pipes with sandstone and cut designs into the stone, which
were then inlayed with other materials. They often decorated pipe stems with
eagle feathers, quills, hair, and beadwork.
When numerous tribes dominated North America, carrying a
ceremonial pipe signified peaceful intent. White explorers carried these
pipes in case of chance meetings with Indians because treaties with
non-Indians are sealed by smoking a ceremonial pipe. The term "peace pipe"
came from the idea that smoking the pipe during the signing of a peace
treaty signified peace and friendship.
Large and intricately decorated, the ceremonial pipes were
stored in beautiful bags which are still embroidered with beads and quills
usually by Ojibwe women. It is an honor to be selected to have a peace pipe,
a tradition that continues today.
In modern times, the term "peace pipe" has a much broader
definition that refers to many different kinds of pipes. One type of pipe is
used in Indian religious ceremonies to commemorate or bless an event, such
as the swearing in of an elected official, naming ceremonies for children,
and groundbreaking for new buildings and facilities. Indians believe that
the rising smoke carries messages to the Great Creator.
Tobacco's Ceremonial History
The use of tobacco today, for smoking as well
as other uses, is a global phenomenon. Tobacco, however, is a plant which
originated in the Americas and which was first used in a variety of ways by
American Indians. The history of tobacco is partially a history of American
First, some information about the plant. Tobacco’s genus, Nicotiana,
contains 64 species. Today, the most frequently used tobaccos are Nicotiana
tabacum (tall, annual, broad leafed plant) and Nicotiana rustica.
While tobacco grows wild in many parts of the Americas, the archaeological
evidence suggests that Indian people in the Andes region of South American
began to domesticate and cultivate tobacco about 7,000 years ago. The
practice of growing tobacco as a crop then spread north into the tribal
traditions of what is now the United States and Canada and also out to the
Caribbean Islands. Shortly after the beginning of the European invasion in
1492, the use and cultivation of tobacco began to spread to other parts of
Tobacco can be used by humans in many different ways: it can be sniffed,
chewed, eaten, smeared on the skin, drunk, used in eye drops and enemas, and
smoked. Smoking is the quickest way of getting the drug into the blood
stream other than using a hypodermic needle. Taken in small doses, tobacco
has a mild effect on those who use it. However, taken in large doses it can
produce hallucinations, trances, and death.
Smoking is an unusual way of ingesting a drug. At the time of the European
invasion in the 1500s, smoking was found only in the Americas and in a few
parts of Africa. Europeans were unfamiliar with this activity and were, at
times, amazed when they encountered it.
Tobacco was traditionally used by nearly all of the tribes of North America
and the most common way of using tobacco was to smoke it in a pipe. Indians
used pipes made from various materials in a variety of shapes. The most
recognized is the Plains Indian “peace” pipe with its stone bowl and long
wooden stem. The bowl of the “peace” pipe is often in an elbow shape or a
The people whom archaeologists call Basketmaker in what is now the American
Southwest were using a tube-like pipe about 3,500 years ago. For their
smoking mixture they used wild tobacco (Nicotiana rustica) which was
probably mixed with other materials. In a similar fashion, the Indian people
around the Great Lakes area about 3,000 years ago were using tubular-shaped
pipes for smoking tobacco. The pipes are flared on the tobacco end and
narrowed on the mouth end.
While some pipes are left plain, others are elaborately carved. The designs
can range from abstract patterns to realistic animal and human effigies. In
some instances the animal effigies represent the guardian spirits of the
pipe’s owner. Human heads, which are often carved so that they face the
smoker, sometimes represent an actual deceased individual and are smoked to
facilitate spiritual communication with that person.
The Indian people in the eastern part of the United States frequently made
pipes from clay. It was this clay pipe which the Europeans copied when they
began to smoke tobacco.
In addition to using stone and clay for making pipes, Indian also made pipes
from wood, bone, and antler.
While smoking could be a social event or a solitary undertaking, the act of
smoking always involved some ritual. When the pipe was first lit, smoke
would be offered to the directions: four directions in some traditions, six
in others, and often seven.
Often pipes were individual pipes: that is, there were privately owned. An
individual pipe could be used ceremonially to aid in the owner’s personal
spiritual quest or the owner could use the pipe to help other people. In
addition, an individual pipe might be used for recreational smoking. When
the owner of the pipe died, the pipe was either buried with the owner’s body
or it was destroyed.
Sometimes pipes were communally owned: that is, they were a part of a bundle
of spiritual objects. These pipes were used only ceremonially and were used
to spiritually help the people.
Today, pipes are still commonly used by American Indian people. Many of the
old bundles and their pipes still play an important role in the spiritual
life of the people. Many individuals also have pipes and, as “pipe
carriers,” they are often asked to conduct spiritual ceremonies.
Smoking and Tobacco in Indian Country
Condensed from the September 1997 American Indian
Felicia Hodge, director of the American Indian Cancer
Control Project, is in the process of educating American Indians about the
health hazards of smoking. The following are some of her findings.
Commercial tobacco use among American Indians varies from
region to region, but according to the Centers for Disease Control, on the
average, American Indians and Alaska Natives smoke more than any other
ethnic group in the United States.
There is an explanation for this. In many tribal cultures,
the tobacco plant has a sacred use: its smoke carries prayers to the
Creator. But health care professionals are afraid that the traditional use
of tobacco and the commercial use of tobacco have become one in the minds of
many American Indians, making it harder for them to consider smoking a
Traditionally, the use of ceremonial tobacco has been
reserved for special social gatherings or prayer ceremonies. Species of this
tobacco vary from one tribe to another. Some tribes never use tobacco at all
or they mix it with other plants to modify its harshness. Other tribes burn
tobacco instead of smoking it.
Over time, commercial tobacco has become a ready
substitute for the traditional varieties. Seeing the dangers of this, Elders
across Indian Country have begun teaching American Indian youth about sacred
tobacco use and discouraging the abuse of commercial tobacco.