Ceremonial Use of Tobacco

In Woodland Indian rituals, ceremonies, and religious observances, tobacco is the unifying thread of communication between humans and the spiritual powers.

The manidog (spirits) are said to be extremely fond of tobacco and that the only way they could get it was from the Indians, either by smoke from a pipe or by offerings of dry tobacco. According to tradition, the Indians received tobacco as a gift from Wenebojo who had taken it from a mountain giant and then given the seed to his brothers.

In almost all facets of their lives, Native people of the Great Lakes had reason to solicit the spirits for acts of kindness or to give thanks for past favors. Dry tobacco was placed at the base of a tree or shrub from which medicine was gathered, and a pinch was thrown in the water before each day of wild rice gathering to assure calm weather and a bountiful harvest. Before setting out in a canoe, a safe return was assured by offering tobacco on the water. On journeys or hunts, Indian men paused for a smoke and left a pinch of tobacco as an offering when they encountered certain features of the landscape, including waterfalls, misshapen trees, oddly shaped rocks, and lakes or islands said to harbor spirits. When storms approached, families protected themselves by placing a small amount of tobacco on a nearby rock or stump. Tobacco was placed at graves as an offering to the departed spirit. Requests to elders to relate oral traditions or other special knowledge were accompanied with a gift of tobacco.

Importance of Tobacco

Before all religious ceremonies, tobacco was offered to the spirits. The universal method of inviting people to feasts or notifying them of ceremonies was the delivery of a small amount of dry tobacco by a runner sent out for that purpose. When a shaman agreed to accept a client's case, he indicated it by taking the offered gift of tobacco.

Tobacco also sealed peace treaties between tribes and agreements between individuals. For such a purpose, the chief often kept a special pipe with a long decorated stem. While pipes of this sort have been called "peace pipes," the stem, called a calumet, was actually more important. During disagreements between individuals in a tribe, the pipe or the stem could be held between them to stop the quarrel, an they would be encouraged to smoke together to end their disagreement. Smoking together was also a way to seal bargains or agreements between leaders of different groups, and offering a pipe to someone meant an end to hostilities.

Smoking Mixtures

Smoking a pipe as part of a ceremony or spiritual offering seems to have been about as common as smoking it for personal satisfaction. For personal use, tobacco was consumed primarily in pipes and was smoked by both men and women, but never by children. Kinnickinnick -- various other herbal substances, usually red willow -- was mixed with strong native tobacco in varying amounts to suit the individual smoker. Personal pipes were small with a short stem.

Kinnickinnick (an Ojibwe word) literally means "what is mixed," and refers to plant materials that Indian people mixed with tobacco for smoking. Use of kinnickinnick was widespread in North America, but the ingredients varied regionally. In the Woodlands, the favorite ingredients were the inner bark of certain willows, dogwoods, or sumac leaves. The final mixture usually only contained about one-third tobacco.

Preparation of Kinnickinnic

To prepare Kinnickinnic, a man cut red osier dogwood stems and carried them back home where he scraped off the outer bark with a pocket knife. With the back of the knife blade, he then scraped curlicues of inner bark from the stem, and allowed them to fall in a cloth placed over his lap. He then made a drying rack by splitting one of the peeled stems halfway down and opening the end to form a Y. The opened portion was then woven with criss-crosses of other split stems to form a grid, and on this, he placed the curlicues of inner bark. He forced the rack into the ground diagonally just above a low fire, so the bark was about a foot above the flames and could dry in the heat without being burned. In about 20 minutes, the bark was toasted and crisp, and could be pulverized to the consistency of a rough-cut tobacco by rubbing it between the palms.

Potawatomi Story

Long ago, when the Potawatomi still lived on the ocean in the east and close to their grandfathers the Delaware, an old man had a dream that something extraordinary would grow in his garden which was in a clearing he had made nearby. In his dream, he was warned never to let any women approach his farm, so he cut down trees so they fell down over the stumps and made a natural fence. The people of his village grew to suspect that something was going on, but they could see nothing. His uncles and nephews teased him about his garden and asked him how he expected a crop of anything when he had planted no seed. They teased him so much that he became angry, and when everyone else went on the summer hunt in July, the old man stayed at home to tend to his field.

At length, plants sprang up in his garden even though he had not planted anything. The old man did not know what to call the plant, but he hoed it well, and it grew up strong and thick. At last, a neighboring Delaware came to visit him, and he showed his friend what he had and explained that it had come as the result of a vision sent by the Great Spirit.

"Why," said the Delaware, "My people have this sacred herb, also. One of our number also dreamed of it, the same as you did."

"How do you use it?" asked the Potawatomi.

The Delaware answered, "My grandson, if this was a gift to you from the Great Spirit, you ought to know. You should be shown by the Great Spirit how to use it. But if that doesn't happen by fall, come to me and I will show you how we use ours."

The old man was more puzzled than ever, so he decided to fast and see if the Great Spirit would tell him what he wanted to know. When he had gone without food for two days, the Great Spirit appeared to him and told him to gather the leaves and dry them to pray with, to burn in the fire as incense, and to smoke in his pipe. He was told that tobacco should be the main offering at every feast and sacrifice.

After he had had this dream. the old man went to a place near the sea where there was a hill of soft black stone. He broke off a long rectangular piece, and started to make a pipe. It was very hard to make and he went to his Delaware friend for help. Then, they made a pipe stem out of wood. By this time, the Delaware saw that his Potawatomi friend had learned the use of tobacco, so he took out his own pipe, filled it with tobacco from his pouch, lighted it, and passed it to his Potawatomi friend. The Potawatomi man laughed and said, "I intend to smoke, but I certainly did not understand before." The Potawatomi man had his wife sewed a buckskin wrapper around the stem and made him a tobacco pouch. Then, he harvested and dried his tobacco.

When the hunters returned from the hunt, the people all went over to see what had grown in the mysterious garden. They were surprised at the peculiar appearance and the strong taste of the broad leaves. No one knew what to call it. The old man soon saw that the people had been taking the leaves from the garden, and he asked the chief to keep them out. So the chief walked all around the village himself, announcing that the people must keep out of that garden and respect its owner on account of his age. "Wait until he is ready to tell us about it," he ordered.

One day, the old man gave a feast, and seated the chief on his left. He said, "I am glad that you all have been quiet about my garden, and have listened to my wishes. You all know that it was impossible for me to make this herb, and that it is a gift from the Creator because I did not plant it. We all believe what is given to us in our dreams, and this was given to me in a dream. I dreamed that something was going to grow where I had burned and cleared the earth for a garden, so I fenced it off as though something sacred was there. That was to keep the women away from it, because you know they usually tend the gardens. I fasted for another vision to know how to use this plant and then the Great Spirit appeared and told me how to use this herb in sacrifices, and to place it in the fire and smoke it. I give this feast in honor of the new blessing that is to be with us now for all our lives."

The chief now stood upon his feet and thanked the old man for being so faithful to his dreams. He said, "My people, always think of this man, Wakusha the Fox of the Fox clan, who got this for us. Now, I will burn the tobacco, and we will all pray for him. He brought it here, and he will divide it among you all. I want you all to take it and use it when you are hunting. Put it in the fire and tell Our Grandfather the fire where you are going, and for how long. Never leave without telling Our Grandfather these things, and pray to the Great Spirit."

The assembled people all rejoiced and thanked the old man Fox. Everyone had heard that the Delaware had such a sacred herb, but no one knew what it was until  it was given to Fox to pass it on to all Indians. Fox rose once more and said that he would distribute the seeds to everyone, and they were to plant it far off where the women would not come. They were also to set up a pole with leaves left at the top in the middle of the tobacco patch as a sign and a warning to the women to keep away from it.

Cedar leaves were burned and food was blessed by the chief, and all ate the feast thanking the Great Spirit that tobacco had come to them. When they had finished, a man stood up and said that he thanked the Great Spirit, and each person went over and squatted by the fire and burned tobacco and prayed to the Great Spirit. When this was over, they all thanked Fox again and rejoiced over the coming of the tobacco.

Then Fox took his tobacco bag and filled and lighted his stone pipe and said, "This stone pipe I copied from that used by our Grandfather, the Delaware. I have mixed the tobacco with dried sumac leaves, just as he does." He passed the pipe for all to see and smoke, and it was only a few days before everyone had made a similar one of stone or wood.

From that time on, the Indians smoked as part of their prayers. When Whites came, they took up smoking tobacco, but never used it as part of their prayers, which is definitely not what it was intended for when it was given to the Indian people by the Great Spirit.

(Adapted from Alanson Skinner, "The Mascoutens or Prairie Potawatomi Indians, Part III, Mythology and Folklore," Milwaukee Public Museum Bulletin 6[3]:327-411.)