Traditional Tobacco

Traditional Tobacco

By Grandmother Kim Wheatley


Aaniin, Boozhoo, She:kon, Kwe Kwe, kinawiiya (Greetings my relatives)!

I have been asked many times to explain the usage of Traditional Tobacco, why it’s important, and how to present it. It is my hope to cover some of the ways I have learned about this sacred medicine and how it’s used in particular in Anishinaabe communities because that is the community I belong to and the teachings I am responsible for. Preparation and use varies across this vast island as well but all believe that you must hold a good mind or attitude when working with this medicine.

There are many Indigenous communities across Turtle Island that carry sacred ancestral practices & beliefs about tobacco and research is useful if you wish to access specific knowledge about it. It has both cultural and spiritual importance.   Perhaps go to a local knowledge keeper, ceremonial practitioner or relative within your community to learn more specific details. I encourage you to also learn what it’s called in your language and what that means and why. To round out your knowledge I also encourage you to learn the academic (Latin) references to the various species as different territories interact with various species in specific ways. This makes it easier to identify accurately if trying to secure through purchase.

My first exposure to tobacco was watching my parents smoke commercial cigarettes. This as a child was always uncomfortable and caused coughing if I was exposed too long. It was an acrid smell that made my nose feel like it was burning and it would begin to drip. This was my body letting me know that it was trying to help protect me not from the tobacco but the chemicals themselves.

So now you might ask so what is traditional tobacco? Traditional tobacco and/or other plant mixtures that are grown or harvested and used by Indigenous people of Turtle Island for ceremonial or medicinal purposes and its believed that the smoke carries thoughts or prayers to the spirit world and the Creator. Traditional tobacco is considered a sacred medicine, which can be used in various ways to promote physical, spiritual, emotional, and community well-being.

As an adult, I never took up this habit of smoking but I continued a relationship with tobacco through ceremonial practices. I learned many things by watching, listening carefully, sometimes emulating practices until I understood the “why’s” behind those practices and doing personal research.

Learning how to address tobacco as a sacred being was one of my first lessons…addressing the medicine in a good way with its Anishinaabe name asemaa (pronounced “say-ma”) and acknowledging its sentiency or life-force.  In Mohawk I learned the word for tobacco is O- ye-aug- wa.

Now… what is a sentient being you may be asking, well for me it is something that holds a spiritual life force that can be engaged meaningfully with.  It’ s  a physical and spiritual being with the ability to hold our requests through prayers, gratitude and assist us in various ways such as demonstrating respect, asking for something in a good way, honouring, connecting with the unseen and seen worlds alike & for making traditional offerings.

These were all lessons I learn as unwavering truth over time. Protocols around the usage vary greatly from community to community and region to region but a commonality that I have found that is universal is that this particular plant is considered sacred and very important.

In Anishinaabe cosmology, we are taught that asemaa was the first sacred medicine given to Anishinaabeg (The People).  It was the plant being who sacrificed for our prayers, for our efforts to demonstrate respect & gratitude, to ask for something, to connect to other beings such as plants or animals during harvesting time which has been practiced for time immemorial.

Now, this plant is not the one we see in commercial smoking cigarettes. It is common knowledge that cigarette tobacco is laced with a long list of chemicals that have addictive and detrimental effects on the body.

Traditional tobacco has a completely different way of being raised, harvested, and utilized. It is cared for like a baby and gently raised.  The seeds are placed into an earth blanket with songs and much care while regular feedings of water and visitations take place encouraging it to grow above ground and again be welcomed with song and celebrations. Explanations of why we are growing this medicine being are carefully explained and once mature, apologies are offered for taking its life but explanations of how it will be used and why we are so grateful for its sacrifice are given.

That is one traditional way of using a protocol to access this first medicine given to us. We thank and address the being with clear truthful conversation just as we would a human being. Ideally, we are speaking in our original languages but we do our best with what we have or what we know. It is understood that over time you will learn more.

Once this traditional tobacco is harvested, it is dried and any seeds are carefully gathered for next seasons planting. It is an annual plant that requires annual relationship-building engagement to be available for usage in subsequent years.

I was taught that if you are going to use traditional medicines you also have the responsibility to learn about them including how to grow, interact, store, use and share what you have learned. I am still learning today and feel so grateful for this knowledge and ancestral belief system. I have read about  many practices online & in books but also have engaged in conversations with various relatives from other Nations over the years.

The type of growing conditions I have found best is one of lots of sunshine and good well loved soil that is not soggy. I actually sing to my plants which is one of the secrets of a green thumb and start them indoors in early spring ready for transplant outside once all frost possibility has gone and the plant itself is well established. Growing in a planter or right in the earth herself is equally possible. In fact I have seen friends who grow year round in mini greenhouses, on window sills etc.

There are various Latin names for traditional tobacco that I would like to share with you if you might be considering growing some of your own right here in Canada. In terms of types, there are over 70 varieties known around the world and in common usage today across the planet. In Latin, the term nicotiana is used these plants and in Ontario, commonly grown varieties of Traditional tobacco include Nicotiana rustica sometimes called “wild tobacco”.

If you have never grown tobacco or maybe never knew you could maybe you will try it this year. The seeds are tiny like pepper grains and one pod has hundreds of seeds so be sure to harvest the pods at the end of your growing season to share with others and encourage them to develop a heartfelt connection to our sacred medicine “asemaa” tobacco.

I hope this conversation has been helpful in understanding some of the beliefs and practices of the First Peoples of these lands called Turtle Island. Best of luck!