Use of sacred Tobacco

For tribes throughout North America, the use of traditional tobacco for spiritual, ceremonial, and medicinal purposes goes back thousands of years. There are many types of what is called “tobacco.”

The most commonly known form is tobacco derived from the tobacco plant (Nicotiana tabacum). This type of tobacco is commercially grown in the Southern United States (as well as in Africa and South America) and used to make commercial tobacco products. Commercial tobacco products are known to have many added chemicals that are harmful.

There are also types of tobacco known as natural tobacco, wild tobacco, or mountain smoke which were used by traditional Indian people. Because of the increased accessibility and marketing of commercial tobacco, many tribes are losing the practice of planting, harvesting and preparing tobacco for traditional or spiritual purposes. There are now fewer people who know the proper way and attitude to care for true natural tobacco.

Traditional tobacco among the Northern Plains tribes is not the same as commercial tobacco such as cigarettes or spit tobacco. South Dakota tribes use ċanśaśa which comes from red willow bark. Growing along creek beds, these red willow trees have a deep red bark that makes them easy to find during winter harvest. Larger branches are cut and the outer bark is shaved off exposing a green film which is stripped off, and the green shavings are then dried. Ċanśaśa may contain a mixture of herbs and berries and can be mixed with kinnikinnik, bear root, berries, rosehips and petals, grape leaves or white ash.

Among South Dakota tribes, tobacco is an important part of spiritual life. Tobacco helps connect the human experience by providing a means of communicating with the spirit world and the Creator. Traditional uses of tobacco include:

  • Helping in the journey back to the spirit world
  • Offerings and gifts to Elders and others
  • Offerings to Mother Earth
  • Blessings
  • Ceremonial pipe
  • Prayer
  • Bug repellant
  • Keeping evil spirits away

Tobacco is also used for healing and medicinal purposes. Some uses include relieving chills and fevers, headaches, toothaches, healing cuts or burns, muscle soreness, and ear infections.

Traditional tobacco is smoked using ceremonial pipes and the smoke is not inhaled. Pipe design varies among the different tribes, with pipe stems often made of ash or sumac and pipe bowls carved from various types of stone and clay.

“It has no chemicals, there’s nothing in there that a person can get addicted to other than prayer.” – Jess Taken Alive Standing Rock Sioux Tribe

Ċanśaśa is used to pray to the 4 directions and the Creator. It also is used in tobacco ties as an offering to the spirits. A tobacco tie is a small sacred bundle to hold the tobacco. Making a tie for the tobacco makes it easier to carry, to make an offering of tobacco to another person, and to hold on to for longer periods of time. Offerings of loose tobacco are made as well, in particular to the Sacred Fire. The ties are also burned so that spirits can receive the ċanśaśa. When ċanśaśa is smoked, prayers are carried up in the form of smoke. Ċanśaśa is sacred and the smoke is not inhaled. There are no known health risks when native tobacco is used in a sacred and respectful manner.

The age at which sacred tobacco is typically introduced to children and when adolescents start to use ċanśaśa varies. Children who are involved in Lakota traditional customs are introduced to sacred tobacco at a very young age through prayer offerings and tobacco ties. As or actually smoking ċanśaśa with the sacred pipe – this is usually done after the child completes their man and/or womanhood ceremony (when the child reaches puberty) or if the traditional healer sees that the child has reached a certain maturity level. If the child is too young to smoke the sacred pipe, the pipe holder will touch the child on the head with the pipe to receive those prayers.

Most Indigenous nations have traditional stories explaining how tobacco was introduced to their communities, many of which emphasized the sacred properties of the plant, which holds both the power to heal if used properly and the power to cause harm if used improperly. An example of one of these traditional stories is the Lakota creation story from Chief Arvol Looking Horse of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, keeper of the sacred caŋnuŋpa (pipe).

At that time, not long after the Flood, the People still followed the buffalo, but they had forgotten the Creator and the teachings of the buffalo. They were trying to control one another, be more than who they are. The buffalo disappeared and the People were starving and crying. They grew too weak even to move camp, and so they sent out scouts to look for buffalo or other game. But always they returned empty-handed.

Then one day they sent out two scouts, who saw not even a rabbit the whole day. Dejected, they started back to camp from their failed hunt, traveling through the woods and rolling hills, northeast of the sacred Black Hills.

It was a beautiful day, the sky blue with few white clouds. As the two scouts were returning to the camp, they saw a woman come over a hill, and they watched in awe, wondering what a woman alone could be doing out here in the middle of nowhere. Dressed in a beautiful white buckskin dress, this woman approached them carrying a bundle in her arms. One of the scouts, seeing the beauty of the woman, felt lust for her. He said, “She’s so beautiful. I think I’ll take her for a wife.”

As they were talking, she came closer and she pointed to the one with the bad thoughts, as if beckoning him. He went towards her, thinking to take her.

The other scout tried to stop him saying, “She’s sent by the Great Spirit. She’s the answer to the People’s prayers for help. She must be a Spirit-woman. Don’t approach her with such thoughts on your mind.” But the lustful scout refused to listen.

As he reached for the woman, a swirling cloud suddenly came down and enveloped him. When the cloud lifted, he was laying there at her feet all bones, a skeleton with snakes crawling from his head.

Then the Spirit-woman pointed to the other scout, who trembled before her, and she said, “Go, tell your People what you have seen here. Tell them to build an altar of sage and cherry branches, and also to put up a great tipi, and I will come tomorrow from where the sun sets. Tell them I have a great gift to give them, a gift kept in this sacred bundle. And she told him, “Tell them just what I have said. Don’t make more than what it is and don’t make less than what it is!”

The scout thanked her for the Message. Still filled with fear, he backed slowly away from the woman, then ran back to the camp and told the People what had happened and what the Spirit-woman had told them – no more, no less.

In the camp, the Buffalo People followed the instructions given by the scout and put up their tipi and prepared the altar with sage and cherry branches to each cardinal direction. Behold- the very next day, as she had promised, she returned out of the sunset. As she moved toward them, carrying the Bundle in her outstretched arms, she sang a beautiful song that we still sing today. Walking clockwise around the altar of sage and cherry branches, she set down the Sacred Bundle in the altar, then opened it to reveal the sacred caŋnuŋpa. She told them, “This caŋnuŋpa, you will make direct personal contact with Wakaŋ Taŋkaŋ.”

She said, “Following the way of this sacred caŋnuŋpa, you will walk in a sacred way upon the Earth, for the Earth is your grandmother and your mother and she is sacred.” She told them, “The red stone of the caŋnuŋpa’s bowl represents the blood of the People, and it also represents the female. And the wooden stem represents the Tree of Life, and it also represents the male. The Tree of Life also represents the root of our ancestors, and as this Tree grows so does the spirit of the people.” She said “When you put the caŋnuŋpa’s bowl and stem together, you connect the world above and the world below. The only time the caŋnuŋpa is put together is when you are in prayer. And when you pray with the caŋnuŋpa, humble yourself. Present your prayers to all 4 Sacred Directions, and then pray to the Great Spirit above and Mother Earth below. Sing your songs and pray for life, peace, harmony and happiness.”

She warned, “You must have a good heart and a good mind to go to the ceremonies. Honor the Sacred Places, the Sacred Ceremonies and the Sacred Sites. Each Sacred Site is an altar to the Great Spirit. Gather there often and pray the prayers and sing the songs I have taught you. In time, you will understand the meaning of the Seven Sacred Rites that come with this sacred bundle.”

She left in a clockwise motion returning to where the sun sets. On top of the hill, she stopped and looked back, then rolled over and became a young beautiful black buffalo. The second time she was a red buffalo, then a yellow buckskin buffalo, and finally a white buffalo. This is where she received her name Pte Saŋ Wiŋ and our Seven Rites were given.

Source: Sacred Willow: Keeping Tobacco Traditional

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