Smoking is usually rendered as a bad habit. Smoking is linked to addiction and unhealthy routine. Governments of different nations try to warn and educate the citizens about the possible effects that smoking can cause to the user or the smoker and to his or her family. Yet billions of people still smoke. Some find smoking as relaxing while others smoke to energize and stay awake. Historically, smoking is dominant as a form of ritual. As can be interpreted from Native American Mythology, smoking is seen as a tradition to induce peace of mind and as a form of medication.
Commercial cigarettes are made from tobacco leaves, dried, crushed and rolled inside a thin paper. Nonetheless, the Native American way of smoking differ significantly according to Daniel Moerman, in his book, Native American Ethnobotany (1998), smoking as a form of ritual of Native Americans includes ‘dried leaves rolled and mixed with other herbs are put together in religious bundles’. Richard Erdoes and Alfonso Ortiz (1984), more specifically highlighted the use of ‘animal skins’ as bundles where the dried leaves of the smoke plant and its seeds are kept.
Erdoes and Ortiz (1984) presented a mythology, which elaborates the nature and religious underpinnings of smoking. In their book ‘Native American Myths and Legends’, they included a story entitled ‘The Sacred Weed’. The title alone denotes mysticism that surrounds a certain weed (tobacco). The story, being in the form or considered as a myth, tries to unfold the origin of Native American smoking rituals. It enlightens the original purpose of smoking apart from modern and established beliefs and perspectives.
The myth unfolds the Native’s beliefs. Although as a myth, it might sound unscientific to some people. It actually enumerates some of the basic experiences and uses of smoking. Particularly ‘burning the weeds produces a very pleasing aroma, the smoke is inhaled and exhaled and it (according to the myth) clarifies the smoker’s mind. ’ In addition, the myth mentioned that the first smokers are ‘spiritual powerful men’ (Erdoes and Ortiz, 1984). The smokers ought to sing, pray and conduct rituals while smoking.
The myth further elaborated that the sacred weed, called as nawak’osis, ought to provide peace and order to the people since it encourage the clarity of the mind, worship and unity (Erdoes and Ortiz, 1984). Thus, the myth unfolds the societal importance of smoking to the Native Americans. Since only the spiritual and powerful men can smoke the weeds, it portrays the social distinctions that accompany the smoking ritual. It can be interpreted from the myth that only men with prestige are able to smoke when it is first practiced or discovered.
The myth also stressed that the first to smoke are the ‘four brothers’. This might somehow reflect a patriarchal society or at least represent male dominance. The myth also described how other people learned about the ‘sacred weed’ since it was previously kept in secrecy by the four brothers for their own benefits. The myth described ‘beaver-people’ or ‘water-people’ as the ones who shared the prayers, dances, songs and rituals that come along with smoking the ‘sacred weed’. It was even described as a ‘water medicine’ (Erdoes and Ortiz, 1984).
This information indicates that according to the myth, smoking has medical benefits. According to the myth, the sacred weed must be shared with others; it must be treated as something sacred and must be used and planted with rituals. The myth described the preparations of bundles that come from animal skins (except beavers), the soil that must be used along with the amount of water and shade that the ‘sacred weed’ needs (Erdoes and Ortiz, 1984). Thus, the myth described the overall planning, using and rituals that accompany smoking the so-called ‘sacred weed’.
Moerman (1998) explained the systematic ceremonial tradition that goes along with most Native American smoking ritual. It includes a hollow bone or a pipe-like bone, stone or wood where the leaves are meticulously placed. An orderly man will begin the ritual through passing the unlit ‘pipe’ to the participants of the ceremony. The ‘pipe’ will be pass around in a clockwise manner before it will be lit by the orderly. It will then be passed around continuously until the end of the ceremony. The manner of holding he pipe also differs depending to the bundle owners.
The ceremony includes singing and dancing and sometimes prayers (Moerman, 1998). Women and Children, as stated by Moerman (1998), are usually not included in the smoking ritual. Moerman (1998), also mentioned that there are also cases wherein smoking is used as medicine, more particularly as a purgative. However, the dominant use of smoking tobacco remains spiritual such as to drive away evil spirits, to celebrate something and to honour god/s and/or spirits. Most of the time, as Moerman (1998) discussed, smoking is an act of social bonding or social activity mainly to pay respect and display prestige.
Copeland and colleagues (2007) further explained the spirituality that accompanies smoking ceremonies through looking into a particular ritual done by Hopi men to ask for ‘fertility, rain and good health’. The Hopi men believe that smoking is an offering to communicate with God/s and spirits and it will be answered through rain (Copeland and colleagues, 2007). Smoke is something that represents clouds, which in turn undermine rain. Therefore, through the smoking ceremony a person could contribute to the production of smoke.
Since the smoke is exhaled, Copeland and colleagues (2007) reiterated, that it goes out as a ‘breath’. This ‘breath’ is considered as something spiritual since it symbolizes life. Thus, ‘the actual breathing out of smoke serves as a personal contribution to the spirituality of the ceremony’ (Copeland and colleagues, 2007). The importance of tobacco to Native American culture as a ritual also depicts other social significance. Frederick Hoxie (1996), in his book entitled ‘ Encyclopedia of North American Inidans’, describe smoking to be a ritual associated with ‘friendships and trade’.
More elaborately, Hoxie (1996) expound that ‘Native Indians felt that smoking together help to create a spirit of congeniality and cooperation. ’ There is a persistent belief that breathing out smoke includes the person’s spirit. Thus, before starting a meeting or a trade, the Native Americans would smoke together until the smoke is ‘all mixed up’ because they associate the smoke to the mind and spirit of the person smoking (Hoxie,1996). They believed that people would understand each other better if their mind and spirits would first mix in the form of a smoke.
Hoxie (1996) also mentioned that it is a typical story among different Native American societies that tobacco was given by animals. Hoxie (1996) explained that animals are believed to possess the power of foresight, which humans lacked. To compensate this inability, the animals gave man the ‘sacred weed’ –tobacco as a gift. Its aroma and its smoke were supposed please the deities, which in turn would favour their request. Smoking pipes usually has animal carvings and other spiritual figures (Copeland and colleagues, 2007 and Hoxie, 1996).
The manner of holding the pipe also imitates the method of an animal, like that of a bear for instance (Moerman, 2998 ). Although the smoking ritual can be discussed in the form of a book or an article (as that of Copeland and colleagues, 2007; Moerman, 1998 and Hoxie, 1996), it is somehow more enjoyable and understandable when it is presented as a ‘myth’. In the myth, there are actual characters, which depict action. The lack of formality gives way to the inclusion of emotions and to a more personal approach. Since myths are usually spiritual, it does not ask or require observable facts and/or historical data.
In modern societies, smoking remains to be a part of the social context. Nonetheless, its relevance to personal and societal life is not as spiritual as Native Americans believe. Nowadays, smoking is seen and portrayed as major causes of several illnesses. Thus, instead of symbolizing fertility and good health, it is normally depicted as a cause of death. The smoke it produced is not seen as anything spiritual but as a contributor to global warming. Smoking can be considered as a ritual in modern society but it does not posses the same amount of societal and spiritual importance that Native Americans give.
Native American smoking rituals includes the preparation for smoking, like using a pipe, drying bundles made of animal skins, drying of the plant or plant-parts and the actual smoking ceremony itself, which is usually done among members of the society. Dances, songs and prayers are also important in the ritual –from planting the seeds to exhaling the smoke. Unlike smoking in modern societies, Native American smoking rituals displays spirituality which contributes to peace of mind and unity of a society. Myth remains as an essential source of information which reflects explanation to the customary beliefs and traditions.