Our Native American tobacco traditions are from before recorded history. Several plants are considered tobacco and used as sacred medicines by our Native Peoples. There are protocols and traditions when using traditional tobacco; smoking only occurs ceremonially, and tobacco is just as often placed on the ground or in water for prayers as a way to give thanks to the Creator.
However, as soon after the Europeans arrived in the “New World,” they began corrupting this traditional medicine for commercial purposes. They began exporting tobacco to Europe, and eventually mass-produced cigarettes engineered for maximum addictiveness. Commercial tobacco companies show no respect for the sacred purpose of tobacco; instead, they encouraged consumers to use it recreationally, as often as possible – and for the rest of their lives.
Early ads using American Indian imagery were blatantly racist, mocking the cultures they were exploiting. Stereotypes were used for laughs. A 1939 ad depicted a white man wearing a traditional war bonnet and praising his cigarette’s “heap fine flavor.” A clear example of the shear disrespect for our ancient ways is shown in this advertisement seen to your right.
Gradually, the ads softened – but they still portrayed Native American culture in simplified and stereotypical ways to attract mainstream America. And items have sacred significance to Indigenous people – such as war bonnets and pipes – were often depicted mundanely, making the misappropriation all the more reprehensible.
Moreover, the trend continues as manufactures have become more sly in their advertising. Even recently, The Natural American Spirit cigarette brand uses a pipe-smoking Native in its logo. The brand seems to use cultural associations to suggest theirs is a “spiritual” cigarette. Its manufacturers wrote, “We feel tobacco is a powerful herb worthy of the respect it has been shown in American Indian tradition. Our product name, ‘Natural American Spirit,’ was chosen as a sign of respect for this tradition.”
A testimonial sent to customers stated:
[The] desire to smoke is as old and natural as humanity itself. It is [the] spirit saying, ‘I need . . . to step aside and get in touch with the peace within.’ . . . [Natural American Spirits] have put the ‘Spirit’ back into [cigarette] smoking—as it should be. — Phillip Morris Records, 1994. http://industrydocuments.library.ucsf.edu/tobacco/docs/lhbg0025
The impact of smoking on Native American communities is tremendous, and results from historical traumas compounded by the tobacco industry’s targeted marketing. In Minnesota, for example, the cigarette-smoking rate among Natives that live there is nearly 60 percent – four times that of the general population. Native communities also experience disproportionate rates of death and disease. Indeed, commercial tobacco has not brought about any advancement to our Peoples!