Use of Sacred Tobacco

Stories of tobacco’s origins are as varied as the Tribes that used tobacco, but these stories all have a single common theme: Tobacco is sacred and ought to be used with respect.

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.

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 for 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.

“The importance of pipes throughout the Americas speaks to the symbolism of ritual smoking. This sharing of a pipe affirms peaceful relations among individuals and between nations. Smoking has also always been seen as a way for human prayers to reach spirit beings.” National Museum of the American Indian

Seven Uses of Ċanśaśa (Sacred Red Willow)

1. Ceremonial

  • Opaġi (fill a pipe with tobacco)
  • Offering as a gift to the spirits
  • Strengthening the house or Tipi
  • A form of binding a contract
  • Marriage ceremonies
  • Naming ceremonies
  • Wopila (thanks, joy, gladness)
  • Vision Quest
  • Seven Sacred Rights
  • Sundances

2. Social

  • Intertribal and interpersonal gatherings (i.e. enemy tribes or for trading)
  • Marriage counseling
  • Binder of contract with treaties (i.e. 1860 Treaty)
  • As a means of forming relationships or bonding with families and peers
  • Political or diplomatic gatherings
  • Source of social cohesion for the Lakota people

3. Prayer

Ċanśaśa is used to pray to the 4 directions and Ťuŋkaśila (God, the Supreme Being or Great Spirit). It is used in tobacco ties as an offering for the spirits for asking them to do something for whoever is praying. They are burned so that the spirits can receive the ċanśaśa. When ċanśaśa is smoked, whoever is smoking should think about their prayers and when they exhale, their prayers are carried up in the form of smoke. What makes the ċanśaśa sacred is when it is smoked, the smoke is NOT inhaled.

4. Smudge

When burned, ċanśaśa gives off a really pleasant aroma. But it is also used to smudge or purify oneself and it cleanses the spirit and body.

5. Medicinal

  • Cut, wound or burn: ċanśaśa cleanses the wound
  • Headache
  • Flu
  • Soreness, ear infection or muscle ailments
  • Helps individuals to stay sober, happy, to be stronger spiritually and put them on the ċaŋku luta (Red Road; to be on a good path)

6. Gift

A way of saying thank you and exchanging ċanśaśa for what is being asked:

  • Wamakaśkaŋ oyate (the animal kingdom in general; all things that move on the earth)
  • Spirits
  • Medicine Man
  • Drum
  • Seven Directions
  • Ťuŋkaśila (God, the Supreme Being or Great Spirit)

7. Trade

In earlier years, a handful of ċanśaśa would be traded for a horse. It is seen as gold to indigenous peoples because of its scarcity.