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Indians and Tobacco


INDIANS AND TOBACCO. There are more than a dozen species of tobacco, all of them native to the New World. Although Nicotiana tabacum is the most prevalent form in present-day commercial use and was the species encountered by Columbus, N. rustica was more widely distributed in Native America. Its range was largely coincident with the distribution of maize agriculture, spreading from Chiloe Island in Chile, to New Brunswick, Canada, but many nonfarmers among American Indians raised or traded tobacco. Another species, N. attenuata, grew in the Great Basin and southern Plains, and was spread into western Canada. The fact that the Inuit lacked tobacco before Russian contact and that the northwestern tribes of the continent made only limited use of the plant suggests that tobacco in its various forms was still in the process of diffusion at the time of first contact with Europeans. The various tobacco types were the most widely raised plants among natives in the New World.

Given so bewildering an array both of species and of uses, it is virtually impossible to point to origins. Tobacco appears wild both in the tropics and in desert areas. Its spread and hybridization by man, the fact that it was smoked in many forms, eaten, chewed, sniffed, and drunk, and employed ceremonially, socially, and individually are all features suggestive of considerable antiquity. The tropical forests of South America offer the greatest aboriginal variation in uses of tobacco and are probably where tobacco domestication began. The narcotic properties of the various species of tobacco may have been discovered not once but several times in the course of American Indian cultural development.

Generally, even among farmers, tobacco was planted separately, always by men, and was frequently associated with ritual. The sacred element in tobacco, reflected in ceremonies and offerings, often diffused with the plant itself. Full inhalation of smoked tobacco was common in native America, as was holding the breath to produce intoxication. Some tobaccos had so pronounced a narcotic effect that they were adulterated with bark and grasses. In California, the Great Basin, and southeastern Alaska, tobacco was commonly eaten with lime. In southern California some Indian tribes drank a mixture of tobacco and datura (the jimsonweed, or toloache). Tropical South America and the Antilles had the cigar, Mexico and the Pueblo region knew corn-husk cigarettes, and pipes appeared all over in great variety.

Pipes of stone, wood, clay, and bone were used among various tribes of the differing culture areas of the present United States. Tubular pipes, not unlike a modern cigar holder, had a scattered distribution. The elbow pipe, with stem and bowl, appeared mostly in the Plains and Woodlands. In the Great Lakes region, where smoking took on a ritual aspect, the association of the pipe with peace deliberations gave rise to the American "peace pipe" concept. Folklore, not all of it accurate, surrounds the American Indians' use of the pipe. The common idea of the peace pipe, for example, is somewhat overdrawn, at least in respect to the sharing of a pipe to symbolize cessation of hostilities. Pipe-smoking rituals, it is true, were stressed by the Plains and Woodlands peoples, but tobacco and the items associated with it were sacred almost everywhere they appeared. A Plains Indian bundle, the wrapped tribal or group fetish, frequently contained a carved pipe bowl of catlinite, along with the reed or wooden stem, the calumet; the latter, carved, incised, and otherwise decorated, was often the more important element. In the Woodlands, the eastern Plains, and some of the Gulf area, the calumet, like wampum, might be carried by ambassadors between federated tribes and might symbolize states of war and peace, but it might also be employed in an appeal to spiritual beings. The passing of the pipe, solemnly ritualized as it was, became a social adjunct to its intertribal symbolic use.

Pipes with stem and bowl were introduced in the mid-sixteenth century to Europe, which by then was familiar with smoking tobacco. In 1559 Portugal and Spain were already importing leaves for their alleged medical properties. Tobacco pipes became current in England after 1586, when Sir Walter Raleigh is said to have made it current among the members of the court. Tobacco spread across the world remarkably rapidly. By 1600 tobacco was raised widely in Europe despite initial adverse reactions from both church and state. In the seventeenth century the Russians fined, imprisoned, and even tortured tobacco users, while the Ottoman Turks made the use of tobacco a capital offense. But despite such opposition, tobacco spread from Russia across Siberia, and into Japan, China, and Southeast Asia; by the beginning of the nineteenth century it had reached the Alaskan Inuit, bringing the American plant to a people who still did not use it.


Gill, Sam D. Native American Traditions. Belmont, Calif.: Wadsworth, 1983.

Goodman, Jordan. Tobacco in History: The Cultures of Dependence. New York: Routledge, 1993.

King, Jonathan C. H. Smoking Pipes of the North American Indian. London: British Museum Publications, 1977.

Robert F.Spencer/j. h.

See alsoAgriculture ; Indian Religious Life ; Indian Technology ; Medicine, Indian ; Tobacco Industry .

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