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The fight to keep tobacco sacred



Tobacco has become a much maligned plant in modern society. Cigarettes, which typically contain dried leaves of a large hybrid species called Nicotiana tabacum are blamed for more than 480,000 deaths each year in the US. And numerous scientific evidence suggests that cigarette smoking – the inhalation of a poisonous brew that can contain at least 70 carcinogenic chemicals – damages almost every organ in the body.

But tobacco itself is not the problem, according to Gina Boudreau. In fact, she considers it sacred. And she is not alone. Many Indian communities, including theirs, use the substance in traditional rituals and tell stories about how and why the Creator gave them. However, the practices associated with tobacco growing and tobacco care have eroded over time, exposing communities to commercial versions of the plant and encouraging smoking addiction.

Boudreau hopes to change that. She is helping to lead a movement in her tribe, the Minnesota-based White Earth Nation, to boost traditional tobacco use. This shift is not just about rebuilding a vanishing tradition. It is part of a surprising strategy to reduce the high smoke rate of the strain. In essence, tobacco should be combated with tobacco.

Although smoking and lung cancer rates have fallen in most parts of the United States, current intervention strategies in tribal communities have not proven effective; They still have some of the highest smoking rates in the country. In Boudreau, Minnesota, only about 1

5 percent of the entire adult population smoke – but the rate among tribesmen is rising to almost 60 percent. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say that 32 percent of adult Americans are smokers nationwide. In comparison, smokers account for only about 16 percent of the total adult US population.

The situation is so alarming that two years ago, the National Congress of Indians – the oldest and largest organization of tribal governments in the country – has passed a resolution designed to reduce smoking numbers and save lives. Among other things, he called on all tribes to create and enforce policies for tobacco-free air in indoor workplaces and public spaces (including tribal casinos) and to provide access to quality tobacco cessation services.

Boudreau's White Earth Nation has taken some of these measures, including prohibiting smoking in various government buildings. These restrictions force smokers to leave public areas – even during the harsh winters in Minnesota. But in addition, Boudreau and other tribal members say that tackling the problem should go beyond rolling out generic advertising, how bad tobacco is, or pushing "no to tobacco" messages. Instead, they believe that promoting tobacco use in a more traditional way and rebuilding respect for the plant as a sacred element of indigenous culture would have a better chance of making a real difference. "We are trying to change the community norms," ​​says Boudreau. The White-Earth Plan is supported by the Minnesota Department of Health, which helps pay for anti-smoking work, including Boudreau's content as a tobacco prevention coordinator. The state now spends $ 1 million a year working with its tribes to try to lower smoking quotas over tribal communities.

The first step in this shift, according to Boudreau, is growing an indigenous variety of tobacco on the reserve. About eight years ago, she planted seeds of Nicotiana rustica a short and spindly tobacco plant with a long history of growing throughout America – and ritual use by Native American tribes. It typically contains more nicotine than its richly leafy commercial cousin N. tabacum, a property that makes it harder to inhale the smoke of the native plant. N. tabacum is more attractive to commercial interests because it produces more tobacco per plant and its smoke is less irritating, making it a good choice for mass production. N. Tabacum and N. rustica are probably both from South America about 200,000 years ago, and the latter is still growing there and still wild in Central America. But tobacco companies have changed N. tabacum to improve certain characteristics for taste or growth. For example, today's version is similar to other ancestral crops, unlike its ancestors, says Ramsey Lewis, a professor of crop science, who focuses on Nicotiana genetics at North Carolina State University. Now, he says, N. Tabacum is rarely found in nature.

There are other important differences between industrialized tobacco and the substances used for ritual purposes. The term "traditional tobacco" may refer to other native plants which may not contain nicotine, including the dried leaves of bearberry and the bark of red and dotted willows. American tribes also use traditional tobacco in a variety of ways. Often it is not smoked, and when it is, it is not normally inhaled into the lungs. Some trunks lay it on the ground or burn it in shell or shell; The smoke should carry prayers to the Creator. Dried tobacco can be sprinkled on or near a car to ensure a safe journey. A gift of tobacco, if a business or a contract is falsified, can make the agreement more binding. Tobacco is also used medicinally: it is injected on the bed of a sick family member to protect the patient and serve as a healing agent, such as Minnesota-based Chippewa tribesmen in American Journal of Preventive Medicine . Practices vary from tribe to tribe, and citizens of the White Earth Nation and the Ho Chunk tribe in Wisconsin refused to reveal details of their religious rites to a foreign journalist. But David Greendeer, a former Ho Chunk legislator, told me that the complex process of growing the actual tobacco itself – talking to the plant and filling it with the thoughts and energy of the breeder – is a key element of the sacred tradition can. The work can be tricky and yields a relatively low yield: once the leaves of Greendier's own property with 150 plants have been harvested and dried in Wisconsin, there are only four medium sized coffee cans with traditional tobacco that will sustain him and his family the year. So if tobacco is traditionally grown and used, it would be a challenge to quench an addiction, says Greedeer. "We can only grow so much," he says. "It's a lot of work to do that."

Boudreau and her allies are now working to grow the plant, teach community members traditional use and urge them to stop smoking or never start. So far, interest has been slow – but Boudreau says the ideas are starting to take root. If children develop relationships with traditional tobacco at a young age, such as growing them in schools, harvesting them and engaging in traditional gatherings and ceremonies, they are likely to smoke less often than adults. "It's about keeping the tobacco holy," says Dana Goodwin, 53, a White Earth Nation language and culture teacher at the Circle of Life Academy – a Bureau of Indian Education Grant School on the White Earth Nation Reservation, which has one K-12 Education Offers Cultural Traditions

Members of the White Earth Nation say that their smoking problems are metastasized against a complicated historical background. Until the Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1978 was passed, the law banned many Native American cultural practices, including various traditional tobacco uses. And in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, churches or the US government routinely took Native American children out of their homes and sent them to distant boarding schools where tribal culture and language practices were banned. This also contributed to the collapse in teaching traditional practices, says Goodwin

But some tribes have been able to preserve their historical practices in a hidden or secretive way, such as the replacement of tobacco with traditional cigarettes. For example, funerals under the Ojibwe (a larger tribal distinction that includes the White Earth Nation) would place ritual-mounted tobacco on the ground to bring prayers for the deceased to the spirit world. To continue this tradition, when traditional tobacco use was banned, the tribe instead began to smoke a birch bark basket of cigarettes among those present as a group, thus surviving the prayer transmission. Since tribesmen could no longer keep traditional tobacco, they began to wear tobacco for daily use and ceremonies.

Traditional tobacco growing in a garden on the White Earth reserve. Credit : Jean Dakota

It is possible that tobacco companies have contributed to the high smoke rates among the Indians. In the past, these companies sold tribal communities by addressing their cultural links with tobacco – becoming one of the few external groups that strongly supported tribal sovereignty and economic development (internal, now publicly available documents from tobacco companies suggest that they too wanted more access) tribal casinos and shops as places to sell their products). This legacy of obvious support for tribal interests has left some mixed-race Indian communities with these companies and may have hampered efforts to quit smoking.

The reasons why tribal members start smoking remain complex. As in any other community, a person may light up in response to social pressure to relieve stress, or because of many other factors. Cigarettes remain omnipresent in some traditional Native American ceremonies. People with a lower socioeconomic status generally have the highest prevalence rates for smokers in the United States, and most tribal communities remain disproportionately poor. Around 30 percent of American Indians live in poverty, compared to 15 percent of the total population, says Brian King, senior scientist and epidemiologist at the CDC, who is deputy director of research translations at the agency's Office of Smoking and Health. There are also educational disparities: about 23 percent of Native Americans do not have a high school diploma or equivalent, compared with 14 percent of Americans nationally, King says, citing census data.

It remains unclear whether the battlegroup Tobacco Tobacco Battle of the White Earth Nation will work. The exit rate among the small number of people visiting the local smoking cessation clinic reached almost 14 percent in the 2017 financial year, which is about twice that of the 2016 fiscal year, according to internal preliminary figures. The strain's own data also indicates that there has been a modest improvement – from a smoking quota of 44 percent in 2014 to 38 percent in 2017. And smokers do not seem to switch to e-cigarettes, devices that are common in the community remained unpopular.

However, a recent visit to the tribal reserve did not seem to secure the immediate prospects for smoking prevention and cessation. Traditional tobacco plants grow on small plots of land throughout the community, but there are also constant reminders of commercial tobacco use that could undermine cultural change. When I visited the Circle of Life Academy, a small amount of tobacco had been grown on campus. But children dipped their hands in a store-bought bag of loose-leaf "Smokin Joe's Pipe Tobacco" to pack the substance into traditional cloth bags that were to be used in a school ceremony. The plastic bag, which still had its price, showed a picture of a Native American figure wearing a headdress – over the required general warning from the surgeon. I also talked to a small group of nine- and ten-year-old girls, and when I asked them about their thoughts on smoking, everyone agreed that it was bad for their health. But when I asked if they plan to smoke cigarettes when they grow up, one girl quickly said "yes" and another said "maybe". The latter leaned forward and confessed: "My cousin smokes, he is 10 years old."

For some adults, the workplace can also be a danger when it comes to accepting the habit or exposure to secondhand smoke. The owner-operated and operating Shooting Star Casino, the community's largest employer, says 50 to 70 percent of its 1,000 employees are White Earth Nation members. Here, as in many regular casinos across the country, it can be difficult to stay away from cigarettes; Many people like to smoke while they play, which leads managers to ban smoking. Cigarettes are also not taxed in tribal businesses, making the product more affordable than elsewhere.

When it comes to approving or implementing anti-smoking policies in tribal communities, "it's like gun control in the United States – it's a tricky topic issue," says Clinton Isham, a member of the Lac du Flambeau tribe Wisconsin, working to lower tribal smoker quotas in his state on behalf of the Great Lakes Inter-Tribal Council. Every morning, he says, he uses traditional tobacco grown in his mother's garden – either as a sacred offering or as a whistle. But in his professional smoke prevention work, he has found that even when tribal elders consume and promote traditional tobacco themselves, and worry about high smoker numbers in their communities, it's difficult to gain much in smoke-free casino politics. The main problem, he says, is that the tribes are worried that the shift could hurt one of their main sources of income. Restricting smoking in other public spaces is also difficult, as such measures could frustrate smokers and feel unnecessarily stressful.

After weeks of reporting on traditional tobacco for this report, I wanted to see something up close and talk to someone who grows it at home. At that time, I called David Greendeer and asked him to meet for lunch. The 38-year-old said he would like to take his time. But first he had a tricky question: would I be menstruating? If so, he said, tradition dictated that he could not bring or show me anything about the tobacco. Fortunately, I was not, so we agreed to meet at a sports bar in Wisconsin Dells, about an hour outside of Madison. At lunch (herbal tea and soup for him, a chicken sandwich and coke for me) he explained that menstruation is not considered impure. But tradition says that breeders' thoughts and intentions are incorporated into tobacco, and that a woman in her period is spiritually "very strong" – potentially making her absorb these unknown thoughts and intentions, both her and her problems

About an hour after a sweeping conversation that flew from Greedeer's current role in growing the Ho Chunk Nation's business to the story of his tribe's creation of humans, he produced a deer skin bag of his own making tobacco he asked me not to touch. It looked like oregano or some other dried herb and did not have the strong smell of shop-bought tobacco. Like Boudreau, Greendeer emphasized that there must be a cultural change in tobacco control that emphasizes "keeping the tobacco sacred" – and communicating that to the children, he said. So far, there have not been enough efforts to promote such practices in his community.

But other Ho Chunk community members told me that there are first signs that something could change, at least on a small scale. In recent years, Jon Greedeer, the former president of the tribe and a relative of David, has made efforts to bring more traditional tobacco to community events and get others to do the same – raising awareness of traditional tobacco and its relationship with it be. Well, Jon Greener has told me that he brings freshly grown and dried tobacco to community events; before he would buy four packs of cigarettes to contribute. And while data on smoking cessation efforts within the tribe are still scarce, health studies conducted by Ho-Chunk officials among a significant subset of the community – its diabetic population – have suggested that their smoking quotas are dropping significantly. Anecdotal evidence from Ho Chunk members I interviewed also suggests that fewer people have smoked in recent years.

Ho-Chunk health and wellness coordinator Sara Peterson says several factors may explain declining numbers. New policies (eg smoking ban in public places) were introduced; more smoking cessation education is available; the cigarette price has continued to rise; and more community leaders have begun to speak publicly about cessation, along with other healthy lifestyle choices. Amy DeLong, a doctor who sees many of the tribe members, says she now talks to each of her patients – regardless of the reason for her visits – to quit smoking or make sure they never start. Perhaps the combination of all these actions can help explain the decline, Peterson speculates. In addition, one of the tribe's largest casinos became smoke-free in August 2015, making it the only such casino in the state. The casino is actively promoting its smoke-free status and has lost no revenue. Several community members I interviewed speculated that the public discourse surrounding this decision could have influenced people's thinking.

Despite these potential improvements, members of both Ho Chunk and White Earth Nation tribes warned that progress could be made slowly, and many expect a tough fight in the years to come. Smoking is no different than other problems that disproportionately affect Native American health, Isham reminded me in Wisconsin. He noted the high rates of diabetes and said, "In many of our traditional events, traditional cultural food has become a taco meat loaf and we jokingly call it an 'Indian taco'." Members of the tribe know that it contributes to high obesity and diabetes rates, but the tacos are also an example of how the community adapted and remained resilient despite colonization. "When reservations were made in [tribes]we got some foods that we were unfamiliar with," says Isham. "We've created new food out of them to survive – like that sandwich – so Indian tacos are adding to our problems, but they're also a sign of our perseverance – really, it's the same with commercial cigarettes."


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