Keeping Tobacco Sacred

Tobacco, before it became the most enslaved and abused plant in the world, was a sacred gift, a medicine, a prayer of the American Indian people.

Today, many tribal religious and spiritual/cultural leaders and teachers continue to honor the sacred traditions and values of tobacco. Though as a young man I had studied the stories and been to many ceremonies of the Sacred Pipe and Tobacco, it was first from an Elder of Taos Pueblo that I felt emotionally and spiritually the real power of tobacco. I first met him when I was just starting out traveling with the Sacred Pipe. This was around 1976 or so.

Strawberry Jim and the Sacred Tobacco
He was very welcoming of the sacred pipe into his home. On my very first visit to his house I stayed for nearly a month. It was right in the middle of winter and soon after I arrived there was a gigantic snow fall, several feet. This stranded me in the house. After a few days I started digging through the supplies in my old Chevy. I came up with a jar of homemade strawberry preserves. At the time I just called him “Grandfather” and it was an interesting surprise to see how much he relished these strawberry preserves. I think that jar of strawberries made me a lifelong friend on the spot. In the days that followed we had a warm and lasting friendship. Every day we had together a small and private ceremony with the sacred pipe. He really relished the meditation, as did I. We would sit in his small but outstanding kitchen, in his old, old adobe home and smoke together. It was only later that I learned everyone locally called him Strawberry Jim. He used to grow really good strawberries and bring them into town on his horse-drawn cart back many years ago.

He loved to share the smoke of the Sacred Pipe and his reverence and sweetness taught me the full emotional and spiritual meaning of sacred smoking. Even after all these years and so many ceremonies, Strawberry Jim smoked with great power, dignity and beauty.

When he smoked, the smoke itself would travel from his lips in a tiny, tight column, thin as a pencil and straight. It would come out of his mouth and climb straight up into the room like a snake, like a column of pure white light. It was very beautiful and something I only saw when Strawberry Jim smoked and prayed with the sacred pipe.

Jim spoke almost no english. He did speak Spanish very well, as well as his own Tewa language. I never found this to be a problem. Though I do not speak Spanish or his language we always managed to understand each other perfectly well. For many years, until his death, I came to visit him every year. This became a very important and much anticipated journey for me. When he was very ill and shortly before he died I gathered in his small bedroom with all the members of his family. There in the dark room, lighted by the old pueblo fireplace, I made his farewell song and pressed for the last time the long stem of the sacred pipe to his ancient lips.

Strwaberry Jim was gracious. he was beautiful, calm and very well spoken. He was held in high esteem by every person who ever came in contact with him. Having his friendship was one of the great honors of my life. His gentleness and smiling face remains an endless teaching for me about what a real indian immersed in his sacred path really is all about.

It was interesting to have this experience there at Taos Pueblo. Traditionally it a handful of tribes in the north that follow the Sacred Pipe. The Sioux tribes, the Ahnishinabe, Cree and Algonquian and so forth. So much has been lost. Many tribes in the southeast had complex sacred smoking ceremonies that have all now been lost.

Tobacco as we know it today was the religious property of the Creek Indians, at the southern end of the Mississippi River. My people are at the north mouth of the same river. In a short version of the coming of sacred tobacco: a couple had gone into the forest to make love. They had a great time in a big meadow filled with a deep leafy plant they had never seen before. When they returned to the village after their day of making love, it turns out they had been gone many years and everyone thought they had died and disappeared into the deep old forest. They lead the elders to the meadow and this plant began its long ceremonial and sacred use among these fantastic old Creek Indian people. That tobacco plant is now called “Virginia Gold Leaf” and it is the finest tobacco in the world, in the history of the world. It was stolen from these tribal elders. They never gave their permission for its commercial enslavement and remains their legal property to this day. They have never been paid.

Smokin all alone the strange assortment of additives and the genetically altered tobacco of the modern tobacco industry is certainly dangerous and well should it be. Tobacco is one of the most powerful plants in the history of the world.

The old indians understood that the secret to its power was in smoking together. Smoking the sacred pipe it becomes a symbol and a ceremony for passing life through the body and the soul at the same time. We like to say, “in a visible manner” as we believe the smoke has a special power to be seen and understood by God, by the Mystery Life, by the Spirits of the Mother Earth.

Smoking together is everything. People do this with a marijuana joint. Getting stoned together with a joint is much more closely connected to the old sacred ceremonies than sucking on a Marlboro in a bar in the middle of the night.

Indian teachers know that there is a mysterious power that happens when a group of people with open hearts and well informed spirits gather together and make a ceremony of sharing the smoke. It is a power that works to bring something magical and sacred from the people when they do this together. This sacred experience of tobacco does not work when you smoke alone.

Try smoking your cigarette with your friends, pass it around. You will see the energy of what you are doing will change instantly. Where you were before isolated inside a compulsive habit, now something else entirely is happening. Try it.

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