Tobacco powerful symbol of time, commitment, sacrifice

Indigenous women Elders The Eagle Feathers and Smudge along with tobacco at City Hall - Image taken with permission
The Eagle Feathers and Smudge along with tobacco at Thunder Bay City Hall - Image taken with permission

WINNIPEG – In 1817, Lord Selkirk negotiated a treaty with five chiefs, led by Chief Peguis, allowing Europeans to settle on territory along the Red River.

According to the wording, Lord Selkirk and his “heirs and successors” agreed to “annually pay to the chiefs and warriors and successors… one hundred pounds weight of good and merchantable tobacco, to be delivered on or before the tenth day of October at the forks.”

This was not the first time gifts had been offered between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples in this place, but may have been the most important.

The 1817 Peguis-Selkirk treaty set the groundwork for relationships and, frankly, is the reason Manitoba looks like it does today. Simply put, everything in Manitoba stems from this first offering of tobacco.

Why tobacco?

It wasn’t that Peguis and his allies wanted to smoke a lot; they were setting the stage for healthy and positive relationships in this place.

Tobacco, what Anishinaabe call asemaa, gets a lot of bad press. It’s classified by governments as a drug, controlled with laws and taxed, and labelled as a major cause of cancer.

Tobacco is not something easily attained; it’s something you earn.

“The tobacco plant, Nicotiana, has probably been responsible for more deaths than any other herb,” says a study in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine. “At present, tobacco smoking is causing over three-million deaths a year worldwide, and if current smoking trends continue, the annual mortality will exceed 10 million by around 2030.”

I agree, smoking cigarettes, chewing tobacco or even smoking it in a pipe multiple times every day will potentially kill you.

When Indigenous peoples speak about tobacco though, they are not talking about this. The cause of most tobacco-related cancers is due to overuse, addiction, and the accompanying pesticides, fertilizers, tar and filters companies add to the plant.

Tobacco (and its potent component nicotine) is a medicine Indigenous peoples have used for thousands of years as a toothpaste, to cure headaches, soothe colds, relieve pain and heal wounds and burns.

It was to be used occasionally but performed incredible tasks. (According to the Royal Society study, for example, researcher Anne Charlton remarks Indigenous peoples used tobacco topically to cure “diseases of the glands in the neck.”)

In our creation story, asemaa is one of the gifts Anishinaabe were offered by the Creator to help us live a sustainable and meaningful life. Alongside sage, cedar and sweetgrass, asemaa is one of our four sacred medicines and is arguably one of the most important parts of Indigenous life. It is used in ceremonies, as gifts, and is the theme of songs, stories, and teachings. (Some Indigenous nations, however, don’t use tobacco.)

You have probably witnessed asemaa as a gift offered to an elder or knowledge keeper to share their thoughts, words, or ideas. If you have, you should know what is happening.

There are hundreds of teachings of tobacco. Many are spiritual and speak of the way it burns and how it carries words and thoughts throughout Creation.

Growing tobacco takes typically six to eight weeks — in a friendly, warm climate. In Manitoba, therefore, you need around three months.

Tobacco is not something easily attained; it’s something you earn.

Growing tobacco takes typically six to eight weeks — in a friendly, warm climate. In Manitoba, therefore, you need around three months.

Tobacco seeds are demanding, requiring just the right amount of water and warmth to germinate. The best results in Manitoba involve indoor heat lamps, fertilizer, and greenhouse-like conditions. After a few weeks, you transport the plants outside. This is when the real work starts, as you must ensure tobacco receives adequate sunlight and protect the plant from insects.

Tobacco is a commitment. To succeed, it has to become a part of your daily routine, as important as sleeping or eating.

This is what elders mean when they tell you to put yourself into your tobacco, your thoughts, your actions. You should put your words, songs, and stories, too (plants love that).

After around 100 hours of blood, sweat, and tears, your tobacco plants are now ready to be dried (taking more time). Then, you crinkle the leaves and get a tiny amount in your hand.

In that tiny pinch is everything you have committed to on your journey. Does it feel heavy? It is all of you.

Now, you must give it away.

Tobacco is a commitment. To succeed, it has to become a part of your daily routine, as important as sleeping or eating.

This is hard, as often we’ve grown connected to our tobacco. It is, after all, a part of us.

This is why tobacco is powerful. It represents time, commitment, and sacrifice.

This is why gifting someone tobacco is like a contract. It’s like saying: “I am giving you me.”

If someone accepts it — and people always have the option to say no — a person is then expected to offer you a piece of themselves in return. This could be an idea, a teaching, or a relationship.

What’s hoped is the person receiving the tobacco understands what they are being asked to do. This way they understand what they must spend 100 hours doing.

This is also why the proper receipt for tobacco is miigwech, a word that comes from miigwe, which means “to give.” Saying miigwech is like a confirmation a gift offered will be returned in its entirety.

This is why offering tobacco is a big deal. It’s not something to do lightly.

Can you imagine how powerful our world would be if everyone put 100 hours of commitment into every person they met?

This is what Chief Peguis was trying to teach Lord Selkirk in 1817, a teaching that continues to be the foundation of all relationships in Manitoba.

A lesson still happening today.

Niigaan SinclairNiigaan Sinclair

Originally appeared in the Winnipeg Free Press on June 15, 2019. Republished with the permission of the author