Early Uses of Indian Tobacco in California
California Natural History Guides: 10
EARLY USES OF CALIFORNIA PLANTS
EDWARD K. BALLS
UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS
Copyright 1962 by the Regents of the University of California
Indian Tobacco is found growing in the washes, on dryish plains and mesas, and in open valleys through out a large part of California, below 8000 feet. There are at least three kinds which were used as smoking tobacco by the Indians: N. Bigelovii, N. attenuata, and N. glauca. It would appear that the practice of smoking was more general in northern than in southern and eastern California. Smoking was really more a "cult," particularly among the tribes of the lower Klamath area. In the Karok economy, smoking was not practiced for pleasure but always for some definite end: as a part of the day's routine, or as a rite prescribed by the tribal customs.
The Karok Indians planted tobacco seeds, N. Bigelovii , in selected spots. The ground w as not cultivated, but before planting, logs and brush were burned on the "garden." The seed was then scattered over the cleared area and brush was dragged over the ground to "sweep" it in. No irrigation was done but the plots were carefully weeded. As the plants matured, the leaves were gathered at intervals, packed with care, and wrapped in bracken fronds and twigs of Douglas Fir so that they would not dry out while being carried down to the village to be dried. Different tribes handled the drying in various ways. Often the leaves were dried in the "sweathouses." One record shows that the tobacco was dried by placing it in the dew in the morning and then taking the leaves in and drying them, repeating this over several weeks. Stems and leaves were harvested separately, and the different parts of the plant made separate qualities of tobacco, each named and kept apart. The stems made an inferior tobacco which was used for such purposes as gifts to the "Spirits" and in charms and incantations. It was also given to guests of inferior ( poor ) standing, not as a sign of disrespect, but because it was the custom.
Each year some seeds were gathered from the garden plants, though never from the wild plants which grew about the villages or along the streams. These seeds were cut from the tops of the stems while still green, tied in small bunches, and hung in the house all winter, blackened with the smoke from the fires, and taken down only when the planting time came. Then the capsules were crushed and the seeds scattered directly onto the ground prepared for them.
When the harvested leaves were dry, they were rubbed between the palms of the hands and broken into a not-too-fine powder which was stored in especially woven little baskets which hung in the living house. The supply for current use was carried in the same buckskin bag which held the pipe.
Pipes were made of wood or soapstone, or sometimes of wood with a soapstone bowl. The Karok Indians of the Klamath River used largely Arrowwood, Philadelphus Lewisii var. Gordonianus , because of the soft pith running through the stem. Usually the pith was bored or punched out with a horn or bone tool, but a curious method was sometimes used. The lengths of wood cut for pipe making were stood on end in oil from the dried salmon until the oil had soaked through the pith from both ends. The bowl was then hollowed out and a little of the pith in the pipe stem and the grub of a little beetle which lives in the dried salmon was placed in the cavity and sealed in with pitch. The wood was then hung up in the living place and left for the grub to eat its way through the pith of the pipe stem. This trick was not always successful; sometimes the grub died without completing the job. Pipes so bored seem to have been particularly valued property.
In general, tobacco leaf was used without anything added, but there are records of mixing it with the dried leaves of Bearberry, Arctostaphylos uva-ursi , and of a Manzanita, probably Arctostaphylos patula . This was said to be for smoking or as snuff, though the latter practice does not seem to have been general with the Indians and probably only came in after longer contact with the whites. It seems possible that the use of other leaves with smoking tobacco also came from the white settlers.
The stem tobacco was cut into small pieces and ground to a powder in a small stone mortar kept especially for that purpose, and neither pestle nor mortar was ever given any other use.
Tobacco was smoked only by the men, or the women "doctors" who, doing the work of men, must do as the men did. It was rarely chewed, though later reports mention this use of it, as with the taking of snuff, only after longer contact with the whites. Smoking was chiefly done after the evening meal, in the sweathouse, before going to sleep. It was a social ritual, and the pipes were passed around the group. A man never let his pipe out of his sight. Occasionally he would stop for a smoke when on a journey or when meeting someone on the trail.
Apart from smoking, tobacco had a number of uses as medicine. As a pain killer it was used for earache and toothache and occasionally as a poultice. It was considered a poison and had considerable use in the practices of "medicine" by the shamans.
The Indian Tobacco, N. attenuata , on the deserts and in the south had something of the same record, though there is nowhere any mention of its having been semi-cultivated by any of the southern tribes. The Coahuila Indians of the San Jacinto region are said to have powdered it up in special small mortars, mixed it with water, and chewed it.
Medicinally, N. attenuata had many uses among the desert tribes. The crushed leaves were made into poultices to soothe rheumatic and other swellings and to place on eczema and similar skin infections. The same material was placed along the gums as a cure for toothache. The chewed leaves could be applied to cuts or bound on rattlesnake bites after the poison had been sucked out.
Smoking was said by the desert Indians to be a cure for colds, especially if the tobacco was mixed with the leaves of the small Desert Sage, Salvia Dorrii , or the root of Indian Balsam or Cough Root, Leptotaenia multifida , the addition of which was thought to be particularly good for asthma and tuberculosis. The introduced Tree Tobacco, Nicotiana glauca , which is common in waste places below 3000 ft., is also said to have been used for smoking by both the Indians and whites. Medicinally the leaves were supposed to be good steamed and used as a poultice to relieve a swollen throat, and steamed into the body for those suffering from rheumatism.
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