Ojibwe Tobacco and Pipes

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Much has been written and debated about the origin of Native Americans. Scientific anthropology insists that they must have come over a land bridge or the ice during the last ice age and that they are descendants of Asiatic forbears.

Mormons claim that they are descendants of the Lost Tribe of Joseph through one of his sons, Manasseh.

There is evidence that there was traffic and trade across the Atlantic between West Africa and South America with migrations into what is now Mexico and the southeast region of the United States. Even genetic ancestors from Europe are not yet ruled out. Other esoteric claims of alien spacecraft push credulity to the limit.

Some people, especially the Hopi, believe that they arrived through a "hole" in time. "Most Native Americans reject these saying that their ancient stories say that they originated on the American continent. 

 

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Tobacco (ah-say-ma) and Pipes (o-pwa'-gun)

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 Indians.

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 the planet.

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 T-shape.

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 Report

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 hazard.

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.

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© 2007,  Allen Aslan Heart / White Eagle Soaring of the Little Shell Pembina Band, a Treaty Tribe of the Ojibwe Nation