Popular Science Monthly/Volume 43/June 1893/The Ceremonial Use of Tobacco



COMPARING the stone age of the New World with that of the Old, an important point of difference comes at once into view. The American race is distinguished in culture from all other savages by the possession and use of an implement to which nothing analogous is found among the prehistoric relics of the Eastern hemisphere. That implement is the tobacco pipe.

Among the aborigines of America the use of tobacco was widely prevalent. The practice of cigar-smoking was observed by the companions of Columbus on his first voyage; and m the brilliant series of discoveries which followed the great admiral s achievement, as well as in the slower process of exploration and colonization, the pipe, the cigar, and the snuff mortar revealed themselves at every step. Even if written records were wanting, the ancient American smoking implements which enrich the museums of this country and Europe would enable us to assert the general use of tobacco throughout the New World. Combining the written and unwritten records, our information on this point is complete. On the southern continent, although pre-Columbian pipes are occasionally found, smoking was not so extensively practiced as in the north. Still, several varieties of the tobacco plant occur here, and the natives were doubtless well acquainted with its use. Cabral, in 1515, observed in Brazil the practice of chewing tobacco, and on the western coast the abundance of small mortars, carved like the mound pipes of the Mississippi Valley in the shape of various animals, attest the extensive use of tobacco as snuff. Leaving South America and crossing the tenth degree of north latitude, we approach the native land of the pipe. A province of Yucatan is thought by some to have given a name to the tobacco plant. A tubular pipe occurs in the sculptures of Palenque. In Mexico the common custom of smoking was noted by Cortes in 1519, and the truth of his statement is evinced by the quantities of elaborately decorated clay pipes since unearthed in that country, as well as by some of the pictured figures of the ancient manuscripts. Pipes of clay or stone are found in abundance throughout the United States, those from the mounds, sculptured in the form of various quadrupeds and birds, and occasionally of men, being among the most interesting examples of native art. Still farther north the great narcotic had established its sway, prior to the advent of Europeans, beyond the Great Lakes, in the far Northwest, and in the East, where the French gave to a tribe of inordinate smokers the name of Petuns, from petune, a native name of the tobacco plant.

The use of tobacco excited in the first Europeans who witnessed it feelings of astonishment and disgust. If Montesquieu is to be believed, the Spanish casuists of the fifteenth century offered to the public conscience, in extenuation of the enslavement of the Indians, the fact, among others, that they smoked tobacco. There is other evidence to show that the early explorers of the New World regarded the custom of smoking as the extremity of barbarism; nor have advocates of this view been lacking from that day to this. But, in spite of all objections, tobacco has extended its reign over the entire earth; it is an important source of revenue to the most enlightened of modern governments; it numbers among its devotees men of all races and of all ranks; it solaces the dreary life of the Eskimo and of the Central African savage; but a little while ago it furnished inspiration to the genius of one of the world's great poets. Concerning the adoption by civilized people of a barbarous custom like that under discussion much might be said; but leaving this for the present, I desire to call attention to a phase of the subject which has received but little attention, namely, the ceremonial use of tobacco by the natives of America.

Since the world-wide diffusion of the tobacco habit, its earliest, and perhaps original, use has been in a great measure overlooked. With the aborigines of America, smoking and its kindred practices were not mere sensual gratifications, but tobacco was regarded as an herb of peculiar and mysterious sanctity, and its use was deeply and intimately interwoven with native rites and ceremonies. With reasonable certainty the pipe may be considered as an implement the use of which was originally confined to the priest, medicine-man, or sorcerer, in whose hands it was a means of communication between savage man and the unseen spirits with which his universal doctrine of animism invested every object that came under his observation. Similar to this use of the pipe was its employment in the treatment of disease, which in savage philosophy is always thought to be the work of evil spirits. Tobacco was also regarded as an offering of peculiar acceptability to the unknown powers in whose hands the Indian conceived his fate for good or ill to lie; hence it is observed to figure prominently in ceremonies as incense, and as material for sacrifice. It will be my task to collect here some of the many observations of travelers, and of students of Indian custom and belief, which illustrate these remarks.

Embalmed in poetry and frequently described in prose, perhaps the most familiar example of the ceremonial employment of tobacco is the use of the calumet, or peace pipe. In its pungent fumes agreements were made binding, enmity was disarmed. It was at once the implement of Indian diplomacy, the universally recognized emblem of friendship, the flag of truce used in approaching strange or hostile tribes, the seal of solemn compacts. Upon its use was founded the widely diffused calumet dance, a performance reserved for occasions when it was desired to express special friendship. Like many other usages connected with the pipe, the calumet, with the traditions which surround it, have survived to the present day. In many parts of Canada and the western United States the visitor to the Indian villages is still expected to present pipes and tobacco as evidences of amity and good will.

There were other sacred pipes besides the calumet, and these were called into requisition on every possible occasion—in the election of chiefs, in the ceremony of adoption into the tribe, at the beginning of a hunt, on going to war, at the end of the harvest, and in innumerable other acts of Indian life, both public and private, as well as in many dances and festivals. Tobacco, in short, was intimately connected with the entire social and religious systems of the Americans. References to these minor usages are so abundant in the writings of those who have described the customs and arts of the aborigines, and so familiar to the general reader, that they may be here omitted.

Of more importance are the accounts of the employment of tobacco as sacrifice and incense. Hariot, the historian of Sir Richard Grenville's expedition to Virginia in 1584, after speaking of the cultivation and use by the natives of tobacco, or uppowoc, says: "This uppowoc is of so precious estimation among them that they think their gods are marvellously delighted therewith; whereupon they sometimes make hallowed fires, and cast some of the powder therein for a sacrifice. Being in a storme upon the waters, to pacifie their gods they cast some up into the aire, and into the water; so a weare for fish being newly set up, they cast some therein, and into the aire; also after an escape of danger they cast some into the aire likewise; but all done with such strange gestures, stamping, sometimes dancing, clapping of hands, holding up of hands, and staring up into the heavens, uttering therewithal, and chattering strange words and noises." In the narrative of the voyage of Drake, in 1572, it is noted that the natives brought little rush baskets filled with tabak, offering them to the whites, as the narrator says, "upon the persuasion that we were gods." The Jesuit missionary AUouez, in 1671, visited the Foxes, in the neighborhood of Green Bay, and after some trouble succeeded in inducing them to listen to his preaching, which was, as Parkman relates, so successful at length that when he showed them his crucifix they would throw tobacco on it as an offering. An early missionary among the Hurons states that they worshiped an oki, or spirit, who dwelt in a certain rock, and who could give success to travelers. Into the clefts of the rock they were accustomed to place offerings of tobacco, praying for protection from their enemies and from shipwreck. Early explorers frequently refer to offerings of tobacco found near prominent hills, rocks, and trees, and in the vicinity of dangerous rapids and falls—places, as the poet Moore has it—

"Where the trembling Indian brings
Belts of porcelain, pipes, and rings,
Tributes, to be bung in air.
To the fiend presiding there."

In the narrative of his captivity among the Indians of Lake Superior John Tanner gives a prayer which he heard recited by the leader of a fleet of canoes upon the lake, asking for a safe voyage. At its conclusion the chief threw tobacco into the water, and the occupants of each canoe followed his example. Coming down to more recent times, the presence of two sacred bowlders near the famous red pipestone quarry of the Coteau des Prairies is mentioned by Catlin, who says that the Indians never went quite to them, but standing some distance away they would throw plugs of tobacco to them, thus asking permission of the indwelling spirits to dig and remove the precious pipestone.

Still later survivals of the ancient customs connected with the use of tobacco may be noted. According to Colonel Garrick Mallery, an instance of the use of tobacco as incense was furnished by the Iroquois as late as 1882. The following words were addressed to the fire: "Bless thy grandchildren; protect and strengthen them. By this tobacco we give thee a sweetsmelling sacrifice, and ask thy care to keep us from sickness and famine." The Iroquois still make an annual sacrifice of a white dog, on which occasions tobacco is solemnly burned. The idea underlying this employment of tobacco is well shown in the prayer which accompanies the ceremony: "I now cast into the fire the Indian tobacco, that as the scent rises up into the air it may ascend to thy abode of peace and quietness; and thou wilt perceive and know that thy counsels are duly observed by mankind, and wilt recognize and approve the objects for which thy blessing has been asked." Another late custom of the Iroquois is thus related by Mrs. Erminnie A. Smith: "In a dry summer season, the horizon being filled with distant thunderheads, it was customary to burn what the Indians call real tobacco, as an offering to bring rain. . . . Every family was supposed to have a private altar upon which its offerings were secretly made; after which that family must repair, bearing its tithe, to the council house where the gathered tithes of tobacco were burned in the council fire. . . . Burning tobacco is the same as praying. In times of trouble or fear, after a bad dream, or any event which frightens them, they say, 'My mother went out and burned tobacco.'" The Cohuilla Indians of California believe in evil spirits called sespes, and when they can not sleep they make offerings to these of tobacco. In making their buffalo medicine the Dakotas were accustomed to burn tobacco to bring the herds. Some American Indians before killing a rattlesnake would make an offering to its spirit by sprinkling a pinch of tobacco on its head. Others would beg pardon of a bear which they had killed, and by placing the peace pipe in its mouth and blowing the smoke down its throat, ask its spirit not to take revenge. The Sioux in Hennepin's time looked toward the sun when they smoked, and when the calumet was lighted they held it aloft, saying, "Smoke, sun." A like custom prevailed among the Creeks. Gordon William Lillie ("Pawnee Bill"), speaking of the pipe dance of the Pawnees, says that "before lighting their pipes they throw a pinch of the tobacco into the air. This, with the first three puffs of smoke, which are also blown high in the air, goes to the good spirit. The ashes they are very particular to throw to the fire, and this is ill luck to the bad spirit. The pipe (the Indian's idol and shrine) is to the Pawnee what the Bible is to the white man, and goes hand in hand with all the Principal dances."

The facts of this paragraph are gleaned from the interesting reports made by Miss Alice C. Fletcher upon her studies of various Indian tribes: At the Uncpapa festival of the white buffalo, a priest must be present to fill the pipe, a ceremony performed with a ritual of words, and it is believed that should the person saying it make a mistake, or omit a word, he would incur death from the sacrilege. Relating the details of this festival for publication, the narrators seated themselves toward the sunrise, lighted the pipe, bowed to the earth, and passed it, uttering a prayer. In the Elk mystery or festival of the Ogallala Sioux the pipe is introduced, together with little bunches of tobacco rolled in cloth. It figures also in the ghost-lodge ceremony of the same Indians. The pipe dance of the Omahas is an elaborate ceremony which can not here be adequately described. It is sometimes exchanged between different gentes of the same tribe, but generally between two tribes. The two "pipes" peculiar to this dance are not pipes at all, but only stems, the pipe-bowls being replaced by the heads of ducks. The stems are hollowed carefully, however, and smoking is sometimes simulated, in which cases the symbolism is as binding as when the fumes are present. The perforation of the stems is made quite large, to prevent clogging, which is regarded as a great calamity. Among the Pawnees, if a stoppage occurs in smoking a peace pipe, the bearer loses his life. Only a man who has proved himself valiant in battle, or wise in council, or who has given away horses, can make one of these pipes. The pipes are wrapped in the skin of a wild cat, and the bearing of this roll is a special office. This ceremony, which is accompanied by an elaborate ritual comprising a number of songs, handed down with their archaic words through many generations, was one of the means in ancient times by which possessions were accumulated and exchanged, and honors counted and received. It seems to symbolize fellowship or kinship. The same dance, with a few minor points of difference, is common to the Omaha, Ponca, Otoe, Pawnee, and Sioux tribes. In their journeys to and fro the dance parties are regarded as peacemakers by all who meet them, because of the presence of the pipes. Should a war party come in sight, the warriors would make a wide detour to avoid the group, even though it belonged to the tribe about to be attacked.

The investigations of the Rev. J. Owen Dorsey among the Omahas also reveal many survivals of ancient ceremonies which illustrate the sacred characteristics pertaining to the pipe. This tribe possesses but two sacred pipes, which are in the keeping of a certain gens, though seven gentes are said to have once possessed pipes which were reserved for ceremonial usages. The two now in existence are called sacred pipes, or red pipes, and are made of the famous red pipestone. The filling of the pipes is not done by the keepers, but by a man of another gens; and, when this official does not go to the council, the pipes can not be smoked, since no one else can fill them. The ancient ritual for this ceremonial filling of the pipes must not be heard, so he sends all the others out of the lodge. He utters some words when he cleans out the bowl, others when he fills it. The pipes are then lighted by the keeper, and are ready for use. In opening, handling, smoking, and emptying them certain regulations must be carefully observed. Any violation of these laws they believe will be followed by the death of the offender. In smoking they blow the smoke upward, saying, "Here, Wakanda, is the smoke." If the presence of enemies renders necessary the sending out of scouts, the pipes are filled and offered to them, and they are solemnly admonished to report on their return only the exact truth, and to be careful to observe well. When the first thunder is heard in the spring the sacred pipes are filled and held toward the sky, while the thunder-god is admonished to depart and cease from frightening his grandchildren. In the time of a fog the men of the Turtle subgens draw on the ground the figure of a turtle with its face toward the south. On the head, tail, middle of the back, and on each leg are placed small pieces of breechcloth with some tobacco. This is to make the fog disappear. Should an enemy appear in the lodge and put the pipe in his mouth, he can not be injured by any member of the tribe, as he is bound for the time by the laws of hospitality, and must be protected and sent to his home in safety. These Indians use the pipe when declaring war and when making peace. Among the Poncas at the election of chiefs, the chiefs-elect must put the sacred pipes to their mouths and inhale the smoke. If they should refuse to inhale it they would die, it is thought, before the end of the year. The election of Omaha chiefs is similar.

Major J. W. Powell states that when the Wyandot tribal council meets, the chief of a certain gens fills and lights a pipe, sending one puff of smoke to the heavens and another to the earth. The pipe is then handed to the sachem, who fills his mouth with smoke, and, turning from left to right with the sun, slowly puffs it out over the heads of the councilors who are sitting in a circle. He then hands the pipe to the man on his left, and it is smoked in turn by each person until it has passed around the circle, after which the sachem explains the object for which the council was called.

A possible evidence of the religious veneration with which the pipe was regarded in America is furnished by the mound pipes, upon which the native sculptors expended a much greater amount of patient and careful labor than they devoted to any other implement. So skillfully executed are they that Dr. Rau does not hesitate to affirm that modern artists would find no small difficulty in reproducing them, even with the great advantage of metallic tools. These facts seem to have impressed themselves strongly upon the mind of the late Sir Daniel Wilson, who many years ago investigated thoroughly the narcotic arts and superstitions of the Americans, and to whom the writer is indebted for the main idea of the present paper. The mound pipes are, indeed, a suggestive theme, though the conclusions which archaeologists have drawn from them are by no means unanimous. A remarkable depository of carved pipes was unearthed by Squier and Davis in one of the mounds of the group known as Mound City, in Ohio. From a single hearth they took nearly two hundred finely sculptured pipes, many of them, however, being broken and injured by the action of fire. Recalling the sacred associations connected in the mind of the Indian with the tobacco plant and the instrument of its use, theorists have found in this mound a possible altar devoted exclusively to nicotian rites. Without discussing the motives which may have led the builders of the mounds to deposit so many of these pipes in one place, we may assume with some confidence that the carved pipes were most probably totems. "Their sacred nature," remarks Henshaw, "would enable us to understand how naturally pipes would be selected as the medium for totemic representations."

Leaving for a time the regions where the pipe occupies so prominent a place in religious rites, we find, on approaching the Rio Grande, that the use of tobacco becomes of far less frequent occurrence. In the pueblos of the Southwest very few pipes have been found. The Indians of this region have, however, a sacred cigarette, the antiquity of which is indicated by repeated allusions to it in the pueblo folk lore. The Navajos share with the Moquis the smoke-prayer, in which the sacred smoke of the cigarette is blown east, north, west, and south, to propitiate the good spirits and drive away the evil ones. Gushing observed that the older men of Zuñi, in smoking cigarettes, would blow the smoke in different directions, closing their eyes, and muttering a few words which he regarded as invocations. In Mexico and Central America the pipe reappears, though here it is evidently of much less importance than in the North. One prominent example of its application to religious uses is furnished by Diego de Landa. In his Relación de Cosas de Yucatan, describing the curious native ceremony of baptism he says: "Tras esto (the priest) ivan los demas ayudantes del sacerdote con un manojo de flores y un humaço que los indios usan chupar; y amagavan con cada imo dellos iiiieve vezes a cado mochacho, y despues davanle a oler las flores y a chupar el humaço." That this is not an isolated instance of the use of tobacco in religious practices in these regions is shown by the pipes and cigars pictured in some of the ancient manuscripts. Bancroft states that after some of the hideous human sacrifices made by the people of Central America, great fires were built, into which the men threw pipes, among other offerings. Among the remarkable sculptures of the "Palace of the Sun," at Palenque, occurs the figure of a priest dressed in a leopard's skin, a complicated head dress, and ruffles around his wrists and ankles. In his mouth, supported by both hands, is a tubular pipe, similar in shape and decoration to many that have been found in California and in other parts of the United States. In this figure the learned Dr. Hamy sees, and doubtless correctly, the performance of an act of worship. He says: "Le pontife souffle en l'honneur du Dieu dont l'image est sculptée au fond de la chapelle une large bouffée de tabac," and proceeds to trace the analogies which exist between this practice of the builders of Palenque and the rites of the mound-builders and California Indians, of whose tubular pipes he says: "Elles servent à souffler une fumée consacrée, dans certaines cérémonies religieuses, et le medicine-man sait, suivant les besoins, les transformer soit en tubes à ventouse, soit en porte-moxa."

The treatment of disease by means of tobacco and tobacco pipes, which is here suggested, may now claim attention. The "sucking cure," in which the medicine-man or sorcerer applies to the patient's body a tube of stone or bone and pretends to extract through it some small object, such as a stick or stone, is of worldwide distribution. In America the tube used is frequently the tobacco pipe, sometimes empty, and sometimes filled with burning tobacco. Vanegas, an early historian of California, asserts that stone tubes sometimes filled with lighted tobacco were often applied to the suffering part of the patient's body. Forbes states that in the same region, in 1728, Father Luyanto, of the Loreto Mission, "as a preliminary to baptism insisted on the abjuration of faith in the native jugglers or priests, and demanded the breaking and burning of their smoking tubes and other instruments and tokens of superstition in proof of this." Among the modern Apaches the medicine-man's diagnosis of a case is made by the pretended swallowing of a pipe filled with burning tobacco. It works out of his arm or leg, and if white the patient will recover; if colored, he is likely to die. Tubular pipes occur in many parts of the United States, and in California they are numerous. While they were designed primarily as smoking implements, they were no doubt often used, as here indicated, in the treatment of disease.

From the point of view here taken in regard to tobacco its most interesting use hy far is for the purpose of producing a state of ecstasy or delirium in which, according to the barbaric theory of animism, the person under its influence could hold communication in dreams and visions with the spirits who brought disease and death, and also with those to whom the savage felt himself indebted for life and all its blessings. The importance attached to dreams by savages is well known. Schoolcraft, in 1823, noted the besotted and spellbound condition of the Indians of the Great Lake regions, due to their implicit belief in the prophetic nature of dreams. "Their whole lives," he remarks, "are rendered a perfect scene of doubts and fears and terrors by them. Their jugglers are both dreamers and dream interpreters." In ancient Mexico the will of the gods was made known to the four chief medicine-men in dreams, and Bandelier recalls the familiar story that Montezuma, previous to the coming of the Spaniards, being alarmed by mysterious prognostics, called upon the old men and women, and upon the medicine-men, to report what they might dream or had dreamed within a certain lapse of time. In the same country certain men were particularly expert in dream interpretation, so much so that they were generally applied to for that purpose.

It should be remembered that the capacity of the Indian to withstand the effect of narcotics is much less than that of the European, and that the native practice of inhaling the smoke secured a far deeper and more lasting effect than the modern method. Oviedo is authority for the statement that tobacco was greatly valued by the Caribbees, "who call it kohiba, and imagined when they were drunk with the fumes of it that they were in some sort inspired." The Carib sorcerer, in evoking a demon or spirit from his patient, would puff tobacco smoke into the air as an agreeable perfume to attract the spirit from the afflicted body. With the aid of tobacco smoke and darkness he could also hold communion with his own familiar demon or guardian spirit. "In La Española and the other islands," says Benzoni, "when their doctors wanted to cure a sick man, they went to the place where they were to administer the smoke, and when he was thoroughly intoxicated by it the cure was mostly effected. On returning to his senses he told a thousand stories of his having been at the councils of the gods, and other high visions." The Indians of California sometimes stupefied children with narcotic drink, in order to gain from the ensuing vision information about their enemies. Dr. E. B. Tylor notes similar practices in Darien, Brazil, and Peru. The Brazilian tribes took tobacco to produce ecstasy, and in this state had supernatural visions. The same custom obtained in North America. A peculiar use of the sweat lodge (a common institution in America) was observed by Loskiel among the Delaware Indians. After a feast in honor of the fire-god and his twelve attendant manitous, a hut was constructed of skins stretched upon twelve poles tied together at the top. Into this hut twelve men were crowded, twelve red-hot stones were placed among them, and upon these stones an old man threw twelve pipefuls of tobacco. The men had to remain inside as long as they could endure the heat and smoke, and when taken out at last they were almost suffocated, generally falling in a swoon. The precise object of this ceremony is not mentioned, but it is probable that the dominant idea was that of a spiritual intercourse between the swooning men and the deities.

The origin of the custom of smoking tobacco may, with some degree of probability, be traced to the ceremonies here recounted. That stage of primitive culture which is characterized by a strong belief in the reality of dream figures and the prophetic nature of visions tended inevitably to engender a class of professional dreamers and soothsayers. When dreams were in great demand, it was natural that some man in every savage community, on account of a mental peculiarity—a taint of insanity, or some powerful nervous derangement—should become distinguished above his fellows for vivid and frequent visions. As the business of the prophet and seer increased, it became necessary for him to adopt artificial measures for bringing on the condition of stupor which was essential to the exercise of his calling. He therefore resorted to fasting, or, more frequently, to the use of narcotic drugs. Along the Amazon the seeds of Mimosa acacioides were thus employed; among the Peruvians and the Darien Indians it was the Datura sanguinea; in Brazil, the West Indies, and North America the great narcotic was tobacco.

In like manner it may be reasonably conjectured that tobacco did not become an article of sacrifice and incense until it had passed out of the hands of the medicine-men, by whom alone it was at first used. In every age men have offered in sacrifice that which they valued most—the best and first fruits, and the most precious of their flocks. Tobacco must have come into general use and become one of the Indian's most prized possessions before it was offered as a gift to his deities. It is not difficult to trace this advance from its restricted use by professional dreamers as just described. When men had learned that the sacred herb could drive away disease, recall the past and reveal the future, they naturally wished to try its effects upon themselves—to walk in person in the hidden land of spirits, instead of sending the medicine-man as a deputy. Thus, in time, every man became his own seer, tobacco rose in the estimation of the Indian above all his other possessions, and smoking became a common practice.