The Sacred Origin of Tobacco

Schoolcraft on the Sacred Origin of Tobacco (1851-57)

Of the sacred origin of tobacco the Indian has no doubt, although scarcely two tribes exactly agree in the details of the way in which the invaluable boon was conferred on man. In substance, however, the legend is the same with all. Ages ago, at the time when spirits considered the world yet good enough for their occasional residence, a very great and powerful spirit lay down by the side of his fire to sleep in the forest. While so lying, his arch-enemy came that way, and thought it would be a good chance for mischief; so, gently approaching the sleeper, he rolled him over toward the fire, till his head rested among the glowing embers, and his hair was set ablaze. The roaring of the fire in his ears roused the good spirit, and, leaping to his feet, he rushed in a fright through the forest, and as he did so the wind caught his singed hair as it flew off, and, carrying it away, sowed it broadcast over the earth, into which it sank and took root, and grew up tobacco.

If anything exceeds the savage's belief in tobacco, it is that which attaches to his pipe. In life it is his dearest companion, and in death is inseparable; for whatever else may be forgotten at his funeral obsequies, his pipe is laid in the grave with him to solace him on his journey to the happy hunting-ground. The first pipe is among the most sacred of their traditions; as well it may be, when it is sincerely believed that no other than the Great Spirit himself was the original smoker.

Many years ago the Great Spirit called all his people together, and, standing on the precipice of the Red Pipe-stone Rock, he broke a piece from the wall, and, kneading it in his hands, made a huge pipe, which he smoked over them, and to the north, south, east, and west. He told them that this stone was red, that it was their flesh, that of it they might make their pipes of peace; but it belonged equally to all; and the warclub and the scalping-knife must not be raised on this ground. And he smoked his pipe and talked to them till the last whiff, and then his head disappeared in a cloud; and immediately the whole surface of the rock for several miles was melted and glazed. Two great ovens were opened beneath, and two women (guardian spirits of the place) entered them in a blaze of fire; and they are heard there yet, and answer to the invocation of the priests, or medicine-men, who consult them on their visits to this sacred place.

Thesacred place here mentioned is the site of the world-renowned Pipe-stone Quarry. From this place has the North American Indian ever obtained material for his pipe, and from no other spot. Catlin asserts that in every tribe he has visited (numbering about forty, and extending over thousands of miles of country) the pipes have all been made of this red pipe-stone. Clarke, the great American traveller, relates that in his intercourse with many tribes who as yet had had but little intercourse with the whites he learned that almost every adult had made the pilgrimage to the sacred rock and drawn from thence his pipe-stone. So peculiar is this quarry that Catlin has been at the pains to describe it very fully and graphically, and from his account the following is taken:

Our approach to it was from the east, and the ascent, for the distance of fifty miles, over a continued succession of slopes and terraces, almost imperceptibly rising one above another, that seemed to lift us to a great height. There is not a tree or bush to be seen from the highest summit of the ridge, though the eye may range east and west, almost to a boundless extent, over a surface covered with a short grass, that is green at one's feet, and about him, but changing to blue in distance, like nothing but the blue and vastness of the ocean.

On the very top of this mound or ridge we found the far-famed quarry or fountain of the Red Pipe, which is truly an anomaly in nature. The principal and most striking feature of this place is a perpendicular wall of close-grained, compact quartz, of twenty-five and thirty feet in elevation, running nearly north and south, with its face to the west, exhibiting a front of nearly two miles in length, when it disappears at both ends, by running under the prairie, which becomes there a little more elevated, and probably covers it for many miles, both to the north and south. The depression of the brow of the ridge at this place has been caused by the wash of a little stream, produced by several springs at the top, a little back from the wall, which has gradually carried away the superincumbent earth, and having bared the wall for the distance of two miles, is now left to glide for some distance over a perfectly level surface of quartz rock; and then to leap from the top of the wall into a deep basin below, and thence seek its course to the Missouri, forming the extreme source of a noted and powerful tributary, called the Big Sioux.

At the base of this wall there is a level prairie, of half a mile in width, running parallel to it, in any, and in all parts of which, the Indians procure the red stone for their pipes, by digging through the soil and several slaty layers of the red stone to the depth of four or five feet. From the very numerous marks of ancient and modern diggings or excavations, it would appear that this place has been for many centuries resorted to for the red stone; and from the great number of graves and remains of ancient fortifications in the vicinity, it would seem, as well as from their actual traditions, that the Indian tribes have long held this place in high superstitious estimation; and also that it has been the resort of different tribes, who have made their regular pilgrimages here to renew their pipes.

As far as may be gathered from the various and slightly conflicting accounts of Indian smoking observances, it would seem that to every tribe, or, if it be an extensive one, to every detachment of a tribe, belongs a potent instrument known as medicine pipe-stem. It is nothing more than a tobacco pipe, splendidly adorned with savage trappings, yet it is regarded as a sacred thing to be used only on the most solemn occasions, or in the transaction of such important business as among us could only be concluded by the sanction of a Cabinet Council, and affixing the royal signature.

--Schoolcraft, Henry R. Historical and Statistical Information respecting the Indian Tribes of the United States (Philadelphia, 1851-57)



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  • 1996 Gene Borio, Tobacco BBS (212-982-4645). WebPage: http://www.tobacco.org).Original Tobacco BBS material may be reprinted in any non-commercial venue if accompanied by this credit

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