By Aaron Barth for The Edge Of The Village
My commentary is in italics.
This evening from my post office box I retrieved several envelopes, one of which was the “SmokeFree!” announcement to inform North Dakotans of the latest smoke free Century Code 23-12-9 to 23-12-12. This got me thinking about tobacco in both a local and global historical context. Tobacco as a cash crop is one of the reasons Great Britain continued colonizing Virginia, and tobacco was cultivated by Native America long before the Columbian Exchange.
Sometimes, I find myself thinking of history-related things. I probably would have stood out there beside Aaron with glazed eyes and a far off gaze until a pressing need brought me back to reality. I received not just the smoke-free mailer, but an e-newsletter. I didn't realize that I signed myself up for that until Monday.
As for a local historical context, tobacco appears in a variety of sources. One of them is through Guy Gibbon’s thorough work on the Sioux. Gibbon indexed the word “tobacco” seven times in The Sioux: The Dakota and Lakota Nations (Malden, MA and Oxford, UK: Blackwell Publishing, 2003). Gibbon notes the archaeological sites around Mille Lacs Lake in east-central Minnesota as yielding a variety of botanics, or plant remains, including locally cultivated tobacco.
The native varieties of tobacco on the Northern Plains are maybe a quarter to half the size of the commercial tobacco which is grown today. One leaf is about as big as my open hand.
From Paul Goble's "White Buffalo Cal Woman"
A cultural and socio-religious story concerning tobacco in the Lakota historical record comes in the form of “The White Buffalo Calf Woman,” a story set down by Black Elk, an Oglala wicasa wakan (“holy man”) and Catholic catechist. In 1931 and in the late 1940s, Black Elk embraced a hybridized version of Euro-American Christianity and Native ways, and he narrated a story where “the sacred messenger of the Great Spirit, brings the People the peace pipe, tobacco, and seven rites.” Students of American literature have considered this story for quite some time, and as Gibbon also notes, “A popular current trend is to devalue Black Elk’s teachings because they seem compromised by Christianity.” (Gibbon, 2003: 149) Whether it is used in customs on behalf of old and new ways, the role of tobacco remains central throughout Native America.
There are variations of the story of the coming of Pte Hincala San Win, The White Buffalo Calf Woman, and Black Elk shared one. In one variation I've become familiar with, the pipe was first seen by the Cheyenne, Tsitsistas as they name themselves, at the sacred site Mahto Tipila, Bear Lodge, popularly known as "Devil's Tower." When a Cheyenne was made to choose between the pipe and seven arrows, he took the arrows back to his people, and when he turned back to look the pipe and the tunnel in Bear Lodge had vanished. The Cheyenne heard later that the pipe was brought to the Lakota.
The story of the pipe is different than the story of tobacco. The Teton Lakota, or Western Sioux, didn't cultivate tobacco but traded it from the Arikara, Hidatsa, and Mandan.
I don't smoke, but I always carry a bag or twist of tobacco in my car in case I need it to express gratitude or if someone renders a traditional prayer. In the long ago days, when the northern lights filled the night skies, the Lakota people would burn incense. On foggy mornings people would leave a pinch or twist of tobacco for the relatives who've taken their journey. Once I gifted someone from Fort Berthold a tie of tobacco and his relatives whispered, "That's a Sioux thing," but he and they graciously received my gift in the spirit it was given. Maybe it is a "Sioux thing," but I'm happy to carry the tradition.
The second history of tobacco text to come to mind upon receiving the update to the new ND tobacco free century code was from James VI and I, a primary source from 1604 entitled, “A Counterblaste to Tobacco.” As the English found ways to bring this cash crop across the Atlantic from the new to the old world, King James felt provoked to respond for the sake of the mainland British common wealth. The paradox remained: England profited financially from tobacco on the one hand, and yet the aristocracy critiqued it on the other. Keeping in mind his use of elitist language, and his complete and raging mischaracterization of the use of tobacco throughout Native America, in 1604 the King of England, verbatim, said,
“…For Tobacco being a common herbe, which (though vnder diuers names) growes almost euery where, was first found out by some of the barbarous Indians, to be a Preseruative, or Antidot against the Pockes, a filthy disease, whereunto these barbaous people are (as all men know) very much subject, through the intemperate heate of their Climat: so that as from them was first brought into Christendome, that most detestable disease, so from them likewise was brought this vse of Tobacco, as a stinking and vnsavourie Antidot, for so corrupted and execrable a Maladie, the stinking Suffumigation whereof they yet vse against that diesease, making son one canker or venime to eate out another.
And this goes on for some length.
Don’t smoke cigarettes, kids, because yes, they do stink, they are unhealthy for you, and they no doubt will cause and/or contribute to cancer. Yet also remember that not every culture uses or has used tobacco the same way, individually and throughout history. Every cultural historical perception toward tobacco is always in flux. And also there is a difference between cigarettes and leaf tobacco: the former are jammed with additives (even with fiber glass, they tell me!) while the latter is not.
I don't smoke as a recreation or past time. I tried it once down by the Missouri River after school with some friends when I was in the sixth grade and coughed so bad I nearly threw up. It was such an awful experience I never tried again. In high school, I never kissed a girl who smoked either. So, to reiterate what my friend Aaron said, don't smoke. If you do, grow your own tobacco, there's less additives.