By Lu McCraw, NC Native Americans Commercial Tobacco Use Prevention & Treatment Coordinator, NCDHHS
November is National American Indian Heritage Month, a time to honor the first people of North Carolina and other tribes nationwide. Tribes celebrate by sharing their culture with presentations, dancing, storytelling, and language. These traditions reflect the rich and diverse heritage of Native Americans who have contributed to the history, culture, and development of this country.
One of the most important and sacred traditions of many American Indian tribes is the use of sacred tobacco for healing and prayer. Sacred tobacco, also known as nicotiana rustica, is a plant that has been cultivated and used by American Indians for thousands of years. It is different from the commercial tobacco (nicotiana tabacum) that is widely available today and contains harmful additives, including cancer-causing toxins.
Sacred tobacco is not only a plant but a symbol of the resilience, strength, and diversity of the American Indian people.
Sacred tobacco is used in various ways, such as smoking, chewing, and as a poultice. It is also given as a gift to honor a person such as an elder or tribal leader. But most importantly it is used medicinally to treat and heal wounds, infections, headaches, sunburns, and other ailments. It is also used to give comfort in times of hardship and loss. Sacred tobacco is not meant to be abused or used for recreational purposes and not used daily but for ceremonial use only. In fact, many tribes do not inhale sacred tobacco during ceremonies. It is important to note, however, that not all tribes use sacred tobacco. Some northern tribes may use red willow bark and Alaska Natives do not use any of these.
The history of sacred tobacco is also a history of oppression and resistance. For centuries, tribal people have faced discrimination, violence, and genocide from the colonizers, who sought to erase their culture and identity and be assimilated. They weren’t allowed to speak their language or engage in ceremonial dances, and the use of sacred tobacco was banned.
Despite hardships, many tribes did not give up their sacred tobacco traditions. They substituted commercial tobacco and continued their ceremonies in secret, risking harassment, and/or imprisonment. Some tribes preserved their seeds and knowledge of sacred tobacco, passing them down from generation to generation. However, most tribes lost nearly everything including, land, language, children, and much of their culture.
In 1978, after decades of struggle and activism, the American Indian Religious Freedom Act was passed, which recognized the right of American Indians to practice their religion without interference from the government. This was a significant victory for the tribes; however, there were still challenges. Many suffered from the health consequences of commercial tobacco use, such as cancer, heart disease, and diabetes. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, American Indians have the highest smoking rates and the lowest quit rates among all racial and ethnic groups in the United States. In the past two decades some tribes have fought to regain what they have lost by researching and re-educating themselves and then passing that knowledge to their children and grandchildren.
It is important to raise awareness and support the efforts of American Indian communities to reclaim their sacred tobacco traditions and to promote their health and well-being. Sacred tobacco is not only a plant but a symbol of the resilience, strength, and diversity of the American Indian people. By honoring and respecting their sacred tobacco, we honor and respect their heritage and their contributions to this country.
The American Indian Quitline provides telephone support for those trying to quit smoking or vaping. Call them today at 888-7AI-QUIT (888-724-7848 or I-800-QUIT-NOW.
Here are some additional resources to help your American Indian patients and population quit commercial tobacco use:
Keep it Sacred: https://keepitsacred.itcmi.org/
Indian Health Service: https://www.ihs.gov/
Smoke-free Text Program: https://www.ihs.gov/HPDP/tobaccoprevention/smokefreetext/
As part of our Comprehensive Tobacco Treatment Specialist Training, we engage the North Carolina American Indian Tobacco Coordinator, Lu McCraw, who shares information on how to address health disparities created by commercial tobacco use in the AI/AN community. Check out our upcoming trainings here!