On Čhaŋšáša and Traditional Tobacco

Winter projects, continued: Peeling the red outer bark away to reveal the green cambium layer on a fresh čhaŋšáša branch.

Another, more abstract waníyetu wóečhuŋ: reflecting on what “traditional tobacco” means.

If you are wondering about ceremonial uses of čhaŋšáša and would like to know more about the traditional teachings around it, there are a few good resources available online. A student from the University of Minnesota who read this blog and recently contacted me for an interview shared some of the other sources she had found with me. In particular, “Use of Sacred Tobacco,”a 7-page PDF from Find Your Power (a South Dakota-based campaign against commercial tobacco) may be of interest. This one, “Sacred Willow,” from Keep it Sacred, is a good 36-page PDF on the same topic that cites elders from across Lakota & Dakota country. There is also a good PBS video, “Reclaiming Sacred Tobacco,” on the topic.

One thing I disagree with some of these sources on is what constitutes “traditional tobacco.” Many sources state or imply that tobacco (Nicotiana species) is not native to North America. They say it is all imported from the Caribbean, and that Native North American peoples have never traditionally used any tobacco (i.e. any Nicotiana species) in our ceremonies. The PBS video makes this claim, all the while showing footage of Native people cultivating a plant that is clearly Nicotiana rustica, i.e. native North American tobacco. These sources’ perspective is that real “tobacco” for Native peoples is čhaŋšáša.

But this does not reflect my experience — I have grown many types of tobacco over years, and I believe the above perspective oversimplifies the issue. Nicotiana tabacum, which originated in the Caribbean, is very different from our native North American tobaccos, which are (mostly) Nicotiana rustica. (I have cultivated both, and can attest firsthand that there are major differences — I may write about that in a future post.) Many tribes have cultivated their own distinct local varieties of N. rustica, which are adapted to their particular climates and needs. Plenty of tribes and indigenous seedkeepers have continued to grow their people’s N. rustica tobacco varieties in an unbroken lineage for many generations. As far as I can tell, we have used our traditional tobaccos (N. rustica varieties), in addition to čhaŋšáša, for a very long time.

Some of this may be a translation issue, where the English word “tobacco” is used to represent several very different plants. This is one reason why I like to include Latin (botanical) names for plants — unlike English, where many plants may share a name, each plant has its own unique botanical name.
The plants I have heard called “tobacco” in English:
-Cornus sericea (čhaŋšáša, red willow)
-Nicotiana tabacum (Caribbean tobacco, čhaŋlí in Lakota)
-Nicotiana rustica (North American indigenous ceremonial tobacco, , čhaŋlí in Lakota)
-Arctostaphylos uva ursi (Bearberry or kinnikinnick, the latter being a Cree word that also has its name applied to a large number of plants, or waȟpé čhaŋlí in Lakota)
There are probably more names, but those are the ones that come to mind at the moment.Another contributing factor here is the fact that with so many different Indigenous Nations across Turtle Island, there is a huge diversity of traditions and practices. People (including me) often want an easy, simple answer about what is “traditional” or what is “the right way” to do things. But the reality is that these answers are as diverse as the original peoples of this land are — and, arguably, even more diverse, since individual families within tribes sometimes may have different ways of doing things. I am no authority on things, and can only report what I have observed and been taught myself. I don’t want to present the ways I have been taught as the right ways or the only ways — and if I accidentally do so anywhere in this blog, I would offer my apologies and ask readers to kindly point it out so I can correct myself. In my experience, the people who present their teachings on any topic as “the one and only true way” are fundamentalists, so I try to avoid them.Oops, I think I accidentally delved into theology for a minute there. Back to plants. The shorter version of this is that there is no one right/true/correct answer about traditional North American relationships with the many plants that we call “tobacco” in English.

For readers who aren’t satisfied with the ambiguity in this answer, my best advice is to go find the trusted and respected knowledge-keepers in your own community. And ask them, according to your own protocols (whether that means making a tobacco offering, or something else), for their help and guidance in understanding the relationships that your people have with these plants. And if nothing else, go ask these plants themselves. The answers may surprise you.

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