Morton, Minn. – Mat Pendleton pulled his kids away from the basketball and video games on a recent Saturday to teach them a bit about a long-lost tradition.
Not far from the banks of the Minnesota River, they joined other youngsters trudging through snow in thick brush to harvest traditional tobacco — a cultural practice that’s making a comeback on the Lower Sioux Indian Reservation, two hours southwest of the Twin Cities.
“This is the red osier dogwood,” said Pendleton, the band’s recreation director, pointing to thin trees also known as red willow. “When we harvest it, we take what we’re going to use.”
Pendleton’s work on this day is part of a growing effort by Lower Sioux community leaders and American Indians across the state to re-establish the use of sacred tobacco, which is intended to be set out in prayer — or smoked but not inhaled — for spiritual and ceremonial purposes. In so doing, they also hope to decrease consumption of commercial tobacco, which is used in cigarettes, cigars and pipes.
While smoking rates among the general population have decreased, smoking rates among American Indians remain the highest of any racial group in the United States. In Minnesota, 59 percent of American Indians report smoking, while about 14 percent of the entire adult population smokes. In fact, American Indians across the Northern Plains have the highest smoking rates of American Indians in the country.
“When we get below 50 percent, then I think we’ll have reached a turning point,” said Sharon Day, executive director of the Indigenous Peoples Task Force in Minneapolis. “Quickly, we are making those changes, mostly through our own efforts.”
Minnesota’s nearly 60,000 American Indians have the highest cancer and cancer mortality rates in the state, according to health data. As a result, the 11 sovereign tribes are implementing more rules about commercial tobacco and encouraging the use of traditional tobacco.
On the Fond du Lac Reservation in northeastern Minnesota, six of seven pow wows use traditional tobacco and all government buildings have smoke-free rules. The first floor of the band’s downtown Duluth casino also went smoke-free in 2015 — the first casino in the state to do so.
In east central Minnesota, the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe has imposed commercial “tobacco free” rules for tribal buildings and all ceremonial dances have gone smoke-free. This year, the band started growing tobacco plants in a tribal greenhouse for use in prayers, and is partnering with schools to boost education for kids to prevent them from using commercial tobacco.
In Welch, the Prairie Island Indian Community established a policy this year that promotes sacred tobacco and prohibits commercial tobacco in tribal buildings and recreational areas. It also has added tailored and culturally relevant tobacco cessation services at a clinic.
And in southwestern Minnesota, Lower Sioux community buildings and one pow wow are free of commercial tobacco. The tribe also started monthly workshops three years ago to teach residents how to harvest traditional tobacco.
“We’re at this unique time in history where native people are reclaiming that traditional use,” said Kris Rhodes, CEO of the American Indian Cancer Foundation in Minneapolis. “Minnesota is leading the way.”
The state is “at the front end of the movement,” said Jaime Martinez, director of community development for ClearWay Minnesota, an anti-smoking nonprofit that has funded tribal efforts and launched a “Keep Tobacco Sacred” campaign.
But, he added, “we still have a ways to go.”
Finding cultural identity
For American Indians, tobacco — called cansasa in Dakota and asemaa in Ojibwe — was never meant to be inhaled, but rather, to be used in ceremonies to honor the Creator and to offer in prayer.
But with the introduction of commercial tobacco by white settlers, and later, a federal law forbidding American Indians to practice traditional ceremonies, tribes relied more heavily on commercial tobacco.
“Cigarette smoking became ingrained in our religious ceremonies,” Day said.
That began to change after 1978, when Congress passed the American Indian Religious Freedom Act, designed to protect and preserve the traditional religious rights and cultural practices of American Indians, Eskimos, Aleuts and Native Hawaiians.
Today, the effort to revive the use of sacred tobacco comes as tribes across Minnesota work to re-establish other traditions, too — from promoting native languages through new Dakota classes to playing old-style lacrosse games known as the “Creator’s game” to planting wild rice. The state health department also gives $1 million a year to 10 tribes for tobacco measures.
Some tribes make traditional tobacco from the red osier dogwood tree, which has no nicotine. Others use a tobacco plant — replanted throughout Minnesota since 2000 — that has nicotine, but not the cancer-causing agents in cigarettes. Some use combinations of both.
This month, Pendleton and Elliot Christenson, the Lower Sioux’s tobacco prevention coordinator, held the season’s first monthly workshop, funded by the tribe, the state and Center for Prevention at Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota. In front of about a dozen children, the men spoke of harvesting tobacco, a tradition they missed out on when they were growing up.
“I was lost,” Pendleton said of the difficulties of being an American Indian in a world that discouraged native traditions. “I didn’t know who I was as a Dakota. It’s tough living in two worlds — being an American and Dakota.”
Kara Siegfried, coordinator of the Communities Eliminating Tobacco Inequities program from the Center for Prevention at Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota, said reviving traditions can have a positive impact on children.
“Kids nowadays are much more proud of who they are,” she said.
‘Prevention through culture’
On a cloudy December Saturday, Pendleton led a group of kids through the tangled woods behind Jackpot Junction Casino to show them how to cut bark from the red osier dogwood.
The branches grow back after being cut, but the tribe also replants some in the spring. At the Lower Sioux, it is only harvested from the first snowfall in winter until the first thunder in spring.
Pendleton showed the kids how to cut the tree near the ground after dropping a handful of dry tobacco next to it in a prayer.
“Thank you for this day,” he said, “for this tree, for giving us what we need to pray.”
Inside the recreation center, after everyone took turns smudging themselves with burning sage, Pendleton showed the kids how to scrape off the soft red bark, which can be used for tea. They then shaved off big flakes of green wood — the cansasa — down to the hard core, which can be repurposed for drumsticks or prayer sticks or burned in a sweat-lodge fire.
While a group of women made tobacco bags out of deer hide, the kids sat at a table, unbothered by phones or electronics and concentrating on carving the tree branches with spoons while following the sacred tradition for the very first time.
“Prevention through culture,” Pendleton said. “It ... benefits youth to learn what it’s meant to keep it sacred. That’s my passion — my kids [and] bringing our way of life back.”