Sacred Tobacco and the Colonial Impact on Indigenous Cultures


I recently decided that I wanted to get more serious about restoring the local ecosystem in my area. For work, I do a lot of evaluation and compliance with various government practices to assure that a set number of native grasses and forbs/legumes are preset in order for private land owners to receive money from the USDA. While buying seeds off of a common online native seed store I noticed they offered a unique plant that I had never really considered growing before, that plant being tobacco.

Now I know what you are thinking, why in the world would I decide to grow tobacco? I will state that I do not, nor have I ever used any tobacco/nicotine products during my time here on Earth, nor do I plan on doing so after growing some tobacco plants. The tobacco plant I am hoping to grow is not one of the varieties commonly used for recreational tobacco use anyways. This tobacco variety has very deep cultural, spiritual, and medicinal ties to the indigenous groups that once thrived here across North, South, and Central America.

Many of the tobacco varieties commonly used in commercial production are derived from this plant and artificially selected for greater leaf production so that there are greater yields per plant. There are a few issues with the modern use of these plants, but I will get into these issues later in this week’s blog. The reason why European settlers didn’t use the tobacco plant that I am growing (Nicotiana rustica) was due to the high levels of nicotine found in the plant and flavor of the leaf when dried/smoked. This variety of tobacco goes by many different common names such as Aztec tobacco and sacred tobacco to name a few. I will call this variety by its common name sacred tobacco within the blog for ease of communication. There are a few other indigenous varieties that are derived from this species/variety, but those are tied to their own cultures/ histories and uses.

Over the past couple days since I purchased the seeds to hopefully grow my own tobacco plants I have been obsessing over how people grow their own tobacco in their backyard and how people have utilized these plants over the past thousand or. I learned about the great significance of the plant to various cultures and the differencing perspective and health effects of using traditional/sacred tobacco when compared to tobacco grown commercially. I would like to further explain the cultural significance of this native type of tobacco, the medicinal uses, spiritual uses, European uses, the exploitation of tobacco, and the impacts of exploitation or “oppression”.

1. Cultural Significance

In regards to tobacco, many indigenous tribes have a deep rooted relationship/history with the tobacco plant. There are a couple different species of tobacco, but may seem to grow the previously mentioned Nicotiana rustica. It seems that through trade and regional proximity tobacco was made popular as a medicine and ceremonial piece. Native groups use tobacco for more than smoking and often use it as an offering or blessing for various interactions with nature, the spirt world, and/or the creator.

Many native ceremonies use tobacco as a means of gift or binding contract between an elder and an individual as to form some degree of obligation for the elder to mentor or inform said person about whatever topic was needed. There are other ways in which tobacco is used to bless an area, person, or event, but many of these traditions are kept secret and for good reason.

Despite the wide spread interaction/connection to sacred tobacco across North America, it should be noted that certain Inuit tribes did not have the same interaction/relation with tobacco and were not introduced to the plant until Europeans made contact with the tribe and introduced/traded tobacco as more of a recreational substance to alter one’s state of mind.

2. Medicinal Uses

It may seem hard to fathom, but tobacco was originally considered to be a medicine prior to the colonial manipulation of the plant. Tobacco was used in the past to help cure many ailments. It has been used as a poultice to help reduce pain from sores, boils, skin infections, bruises and sprains. The dried leaves of the tobacco were also used in a tea to help with intestinal parasites (due to its laxative effect), aided in helping induce vomiting, and was known to potentially help with headaches and dizziness. There is some discussion of using tobacco smoke to help with ear infections which seems bizarre, but sounds plausible to me. Tobacco leaves in their natural state were also applied to cuts as a form of antiseptic.

In a non-medicinal context the leaves of the tobacco plant are able to be crafted into an organic insecticide. I wonder if the high levels of nicotine in the plant are what helps prevent the infection from taking over or potentially kills the bacterial as a whole. I would like to see more studies on the use of tobacco for medicinal purposes as research seems to be slowly catching up, but still lacking.

3. Spiritual Uses

Unlike the common cigarette/nicotine users we see today, sacred tobacco was not something that you commonly smoked every day. You had to respect the plant and its gift and use it for special ceremonies or made as offers to deceased relatives or when taking a resource from the wild. The idea behind a lot of this is that when receiving a gift from the Earth or your local community it should be understood that you give back out of gratitude, not obligation.

Tobacco is used to symbolize this gratitude across many indigenous tribes with each tribe having similar, but different interactions with tobacco. Many spiritual ceremonies are blessed using tobacco and if you are able to attend a powwow you may see individuals carrying small tobacco pouches to give to the earth or to bless a site. Each tribe has their own relationship and desired use for tobacco as not all natives smoke sacred tobacco or even chew it. Often time’s tribes will gift it symbolically or use it like incense and burn it while wafting the smoke over people, places, or objects as a form of blessing.

There is a great PBS document going over the traditional use of sacred tobacco and some of the ways in which tradition was taken from them. They were eventually forced to use commercial tobacco for these ceremonies which caused a greater rate of addiction and may be correlated to an increased tobacco/nicotine addiction among Native Americans and higher rates of cancer. All of this is mentioned in the document so I will link it here if you are curious.  

4. European Exposure

It was not until the arrival of Christopher Columbus to Cuba in 1492 that Europeans had been exposed to tobacco. It is said that Columbus and his crew were gifted a variety of food and a basket of dried tobacco leaves which he later brought to Europe. The spread of tobacco across Europe was not initiated by Columbus, but rather Jean Nicot de Villemain who was a French diplomat. Jean Nicot introduced tobacco to the French Queen Catherine de Medice to help combat her issues with headaches and the rest is history. By this point in time the tobacco of choice was Nicotiana tabacum in Europe, another species of tobacco native to tropical and subtropical regions of the Americas.


5. The Exploitation of Tobacco

After the introduction of tobacco to Europe and the later gained popularity to Europe, the Spanish took the name itself of tobacco from indigenous language and claimed it as their own, indicating a degree of possessiveness/entitlement towards the plant. Later in time the plant was artificially selected for better traits in an industrial setting and modified to be more addictive with the additives. In the past tobacco was readily available and easy to obtain leading to an easier means of attainability, thus increasing the rate of addiction across multiple ethnicities and demographics.

As I mentioned earlier, native groups across the United States and Canada were banned from practicing their cultural ceremonies based on the Code of Indian Offenses in 1883 (US) and the Indian act of 1885 (Canada). Canada even went as far as banning the use of tobacco. Both of these restriction remained in place until 1978 (United States) and 1951 (Canada) leading to a use/reliance of commercial tobacco in replacement of traditional tobacco as many of these ceremonies/traditions were done in secret.

6. Impacts of Exploitation

The impacts of this mistreatment and abuse/manipulation of the sacred tobacco plant(s) by colonialist are present in modern society. It is now clearer than ever that the tobacco industries has had their hands in a lot of poor ethical choices and have constantly chosen to prioritize greed and profit over the health and wellbeing of countless humans. I understand the common perspective of adults being able to make their own decisions, but I often question the ethics/morality behind making a product designed to be addictive and selling it for years as though there are little to no impacts or implications in regards to living a healthy, quality life.

The image of tobacco in a majority of the world has been tarnished due to the abuse and presence of greed and maliciousness in the industry. I find it interesting looking at the statistics of natives in regards to commercial tobacco use and the prevalence of cancer/smoking related health issues, and low success rates of quitting. I constantly remind people that correlation does not always imply causation, but there are times when things are more than coincidental.


Tobacco has a rich and diverse cultural connection to many native tribes across North, South, and Central America. The plant has been utilized and cultivated by humans for thousands of years to be used as a medicine and in cultural, medicinal, and religious ceremonies for just as long. It wasn’t until the last few hundred years that we begin to see a different side of tobacco, one that doesn’t seem to fit the traditional narrative that tobacco played in indigenous societies.

This is due to the exploitation of people due to and because of the tobacco industry. This was no one entity and has led to numerous implications across the globe and tarnished the name and sacred meaning that tobacco once held across the land for many indigenous tribe.


Grzybowski, Andrzej. “Historia działań antynikotynowych w okresie ostatnich 500 lat. Cześć ii. Działania o charakterze medycznym” [The history of antitobacco actions in the last 500 years. Part. II. Medical actions]. Przeglad lekarski vol. 63,10 (2006): 1131-4.

Nez Henderson, Patricia, et al. “Decolonization of Tobacco in Indigenous Communities of Turtle Island (North America).” Nicotine & Tobacco Research : Official Journal of the Society for Research on Nicotine and Tobacco, U.S. National Library of Medicine, 1 Feb. 2022,

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