Tobacco Use by Native North Americans: Sacred Smoke and Silent Killer

By Green, William | Plains Anthropologist, February 2004 | Go to article overview
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Tobacco Use by Native North Americans: Sacred Smoke and Silent Killer


Green, William, Plains Anthropologist


Tobacco Use by Native North Americans: Sacred Smoke and Silent Killer. Edited by JOSEPH C. WINTER. University of Oklahoma Press, Norman. 2000. xviii + 454 pp., 78 photographs, 30 maps, 50 figures, 60 tables, references, index. $65.00 (Cloth, ISBN 0-8061-3262-0).

Here is the comprehensive source on the past and present relationships between Native Americans and tobacco from the Arctic through Central America. Tobacco use among Native South Americans has received coverage in other works (e.g., Wilbert 1987), although with relatively little attention to the archaeological record. The strength of Winter's book is that it incorporates material from historical, archaeological, medical, and public health perspectives from much of North America. Importantly, Native voices are heard in several chapters.

Winter intends the book to show "how and why Native Americans use tobacco, how they created the domesticated species of the plant, and how they are affected by its positive religious values and negative health consequences" (p. xvi). Several chapters originated as papers presented at a symposium Winter and Karen Adams organized for the 1991 Society for American Archaeology meeting in New Orleans. Those papers have been revised and kept fairly well up to date as indicated by literature references through the mid-1990s. Several papers not presented at the SAA session have been added to this volume, notably those on western North American tobaccos and on the health implications of tobacco use.

The book's 18 chapters are grouped into six parts: traditional uses of tobacco, description of the North American tobaccos, the archaeobotanical study of tobacco, the identification of tobacco pollen, evolution of Native American tobacco use, and the negative health effects of tobacco use. Winter wrote or co-authored six of the chapters, and he obtained contributions by scholars in tobacco's archaeobotany (Karen Adams, Mary Adair, Mollie Toll, Gail Wagner), palynology (Linda Scott Cummings, Glenna Dean, Jennifer Gish, Richard Holloway), and ethnohistory (Alexander von Gernet). Other authors include educators, epidemiologists, ethnobotanists, and environmental health researchers.

Winter describes in detail the seven species of tobacco Native Americans historically and currently use, two of which were domesticated (Mcotiana rustica and N. tabacum). The five "wild" tobaccos include several varieties that were intensively utilized and cultivated, including types used by Missouri River valley tribes which apparently grow only under cultivation (N. quadrivalvis vars. quadrivalvis and multivalvis.)

In a series of well-documented summaries, Winter reviews traditional tobacco use for each major geocultural region from the Arctic through Mesoamerica. For the Plains, references to standard ethnographic and historical sources provide at least minimal data for 16 groups. Short discussions of Cheyenne, Mandan, and Hidatsa tobacco use in this section are supplemented by fuller descriptions of these and other groups in Adair's chapter and by Winter's extended treatment of the Crow tobacco society in an informative cross-cultural discussion of the role of tobacco in Native American religious organization.

Von Gernet's encyclopedic ethnohistorical survey cites and quotes scores of first-hand European reports of Native tobacco cultivation, preparation, and use between 1520 and 1660. Given that time frame, nearly all of the reports of course apply to Eastern Woodlands groups. Von Gernet is convinced that the numerous reports of "habitual" tobacco use indicate common addiction, which he interprets as showing that tobacco use in the earliest contact period already had expanded beyond the strictly sacred realm. The widespread, routine, and apparently "secularized" use of tobacco is interpreted as a practice of "democratized shamanism," which permitted all members of society to regularly employ tobacco to "acquire spiritual power for themselves and their community" (p.

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