The Cultural and Ceremonial Significance of Tobacco Use in Indigenous Peoples of the Americas.
The earliest recorded instances of tobacco use stem from the Andes Mountains in Modern Day Argentina dating back nearly 2,000 years. By 600CE it is theorized that tobacco was found throughout the entirety of the Americas. Indigenous cultures from the very lowest tip of South America all the way to the Metis and First Nation tribes of northern Canada cultivate, harvest and even revere the plant as a sacred gift to be respected and used in a variety of functions. These ranged from gift giving as a sign of respect when asking counsel or advice from an elder to armistice in war, and convening with the gods. This cultural significance carried over into the old world as tobacco was introduced into Asia and the Middle East, not so much as a religious tool, but as an important table mate among family and political affairs in the form of Narghila.
Wide Spread Use
The tobacco genus Nicotiana originated in the Andes Mountains. The snuffing of wild tobaccos is prevalent throughout the oral histories of the indigenous residents of the Jujuny Province, a prominent tobacco growing region in the South. Pachamama is one of the oldest ceremonies incorporating tobacco and is still in practice today. Pachamama is an Andean deity who is the Earth/Time Mother and her festival takes place right before the harvest at a time when good behavior is necessary in order to avoid the mischief of the season. This agrarian celebration is meant to give thanks for what the land has provided and to ponder the complimentary nature of opposite forces such as hot vs. cold, good vs. evil and the intertwined connection between the material and spiritual world. The ritual is led by a tribal spiritual leader (or family elder in the case of smaller, personal ceremonies) and starts with the digging of a hole for “challar” which means to feed and give drink to the land. The hole is filled with a fermented corn liquor, coca leaves and tobacco. Burning tobacco bundles are placed around the hole by each member, with parents lighting the bundles for the younger members of the tribe. This tobacco takes on a supernatural characteristic and as the smoke rises upward it carries messages to and from the spiritual world.
Much further to the north the Metis and First Nation People of Canada incorporated tobacco in their own unique and slightly more utilitarian way. It was often used for smudging and clearing the area of any unwanted spirits or entities before commencing with other rituals. The Metis inhabited the great lakes area and were notorious open-water voyagers. They typically rowed arduous 14 hour days on trips over several hundred miles. A stop was required for a couple minutes every hour in order for the rowers to rest and regain their strength and to enjoy a pipe. This became so important that a journeys distance could be measured in “pipes”, which was a little over two miles. A nine mile lake could be said to be about 4 pipes in length. This paddling tradition lasted for hundreds of years before more modern steam and later gas engines became a more useful way to navigate the lakes of the area.
Further to the south the Lakota tribe smoked from a long and decorative pipe they called Chanunpa. Coming from the Sioux language for sacred or ceremonial, the Lakota believe that the Chanunpa was a gift from the White Buffalo Calf Women to be used in one of Seven Sacred Rites needed in order to bridge the gap between the physical world and “the great Mystery” known as Wakan Tanka. Tobacco was given as a gift from people seeking shelter or protection or as an offer of peace in times of war. Before smoking the pipe, it was required to place a small amount of the leaf into a hole or a pool of water as a way of sharing with the earth and rooting the smokers to the land that they occupied at that present time. All of the separate pieces of the pipe have a specific ceremonial meaning and are symbolic of the relationships between humans, plants, and animals and their individual roles and presence within the cosmos. With each ceremony the Lakota not only pray for themselves, but for every individual and the entirety of all creation.
It is interesting to note that French missionaries in Illinois used a pipe called a Calumet during Catholic conversion ceremonies with the Mi’qmak. Later historians have criticized this as a subversive move by the church to use a peoples own culture in order to “trick” them into converting. This practice is one of the only documented Christian rituals concerning the use of tobacco as a spiritual tool and its consumption is generally rejected by all denominations.
The Taino Indians of the Caribbean gave the Spanish conquistadors their very first look at tobacco in 1492 and have what is probably the most consistently celebrated Tobacco ceremony. The Ritual is performed the evening of every Full Moon, during both the Equinoxes and Solstices and the late fall ceremony to honor the ancestors. First a piece of Caribbean Sandalwood known as Tabonuko is lit and the pipe is passed over the smoke to represent the four sacred directions. A hit of the pipe is taken and the smoke is blown in each direction one at a time to honor the spirits of Open-Mindedness, Inner Sight, Wisdom and Enlightenment. Next a puff is taken and blown into the ground to honor mother and grandmother, and one is blown upwards to honor the Father and Brother. The pipe is then smoked as often as one needs to in order to send all of their prayers upwards to the spirits and set in front of an image of an ancestor until it burns out. The tobacco is then emptied outside into the soil and buried in the Earth.
It is clear that tobacco has played a pivotal role throughout a widespread and diverse selection of people over the course of millennia. Nearly every ceremony from South America, through the Caribbean and upwards toward northern Canada have similarly over-riding themes: Connection with Mother-Earth, convening with the spiritual world and the mysteries that lie beyond our physical realm, keeping the peace and honoring the ancestors that came before. The pure scope of influence that tobacco has had is a testament to the versatility and importance of the plant among the indigenous cultures of the ancient world.