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Tobacco Education and Prevention Technical Support Center: Native tobacco traditions emphasize health


Guest Column

In spite of the effects of non-Native assimilation and acculturation strategies on Native families and communities over long periods of time, many Native elders know much of the history and traditions of their people. These elders practice their cultures, like the elders before them and the ones before them and so on back to the ancient times. These elders transfer all or parts of this sacred knowledge to select individuals who demonstrate key leadership abilities and have specific attributes. Given that all Native cultures place primary importance on taking care of the people and the earth, it is not surprising that the attributes of responsibility, respect, role modeling, understanding, consistency, compassion, love and being thankful are highly valued.

Native elders of the Pit River Nation teach their younger generations to wake up before sunrise and give oop [tobacco] to the sacred fire, then raise a hand high and look to the big blue sky, ask for help and blessings, give thanks to the maker for the good things in life and then to get to work. They also quickly point out that without the maker’s help we are nothing.

Of all the Native medicinal plants, herbs and roots in the Native world, the newcomer often wonders why Native tobacco is such an important and positive part of many Native cultures. Native tobacco is important for prayer and purification, and to support, strengthen, heal and nurture people, mother earth, the universe and all living things. It is gathered or grown in adherence to strict cultural protocols and used during cultural ceremonies, gatherings and other important events. Some Native elders indicate that Native tobacco was placed on the earth at the beginning of time for animal people and then human beings to use for healing and other good things. Understanding the meaning of words shared by Natives is an important step in becoming more knowledgeable of Natives and their cultures and the role of Native tobacco in their lives.

In some Native cultures, only certain people may handle and work with the sacred tobacco plants. Native tobacco and its smoke are effective for curing a number of ailments, including muscle aches, earaches, swelling, skin infections and toothaches (“Early Uses of California Plants,” Balls, 1962). The U.S. Surgeon General acknowledged that many Natives consider Native tobacco to be a medicine that can improve their health and assist in spiritual growth when used in a sacred and respectful manner (Surgeon General’s Report, 1998).

Native tobacco does not contain the harmful chemical additives found in commercial tobacco products, such as cancer-causing agents, and is many alterations from being in a form that is sought after by those who are addicted to commercial tobacco. There are more than 210 Native languages spoken today and most, if not all, of these languages do not include a word for “cancer” (“Native American cultural aspects of nursing oncology care,” Hollow and Burhansstipanov, 2001). When Native tobacco is administered in accordance with traditional Native cultural rules it is neither addictive nor harmful.

<i>The Tobacco Education and Prevention Technical Support Center is a program of the California Rural Indian Health Board Inc. in Sacramento. Call (916) 929-9761 or visit