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Intoxicated in the Spirit of Tobacco

In a common tobacco ritual, celebrants take only four puffs from a ceremonial pipe, one for each of the four directions.

Thinkstock: mariaflaya

The First Americans understood the joys and addiction of tobacco. (And the nicotine patch/pouch is thousands of years old.)

This article appeared in the Spring/Summer 1999 issue of Spirituality & Health. When Joseph Winter, Ph.D., an anthropologist at the University of Arizona (and a passionate anti-smoker), began finding ancient tobacco seeds at Indian archeological sites, he had no idea that he would end up wearing a leather tobacco pouch slung against his chest or that he would feel antsy leaving his tobacco-filled greenhouse for more than a few days. But sure enough he does. And his story sheds a fresh and healthy light into the complex relationship between intoxicants like nicotine or alcohol and the gloriously human desire to soar spiritually. What happened is this: Joe Winter, who has Narragansett and Wampanoag blood, knew that tobacco smoke carried prayers to the Creator, which put tobacco at the very core of his ancestors’ religion and culture. He also knew that the traditional “sacred” tobacco was somehow different from the modern commercial or recreational stuff. So he visited local Navajo, Pueblo, and other people hoping to collect live sacred tobacco seeds in order to learn more about how the first Americ …

Stephen Kiesling is a former Olympic rower, cocreator of the Nike Cross Training System, and editor at large of Spirituality & Health. A 35th anniversary edition of The Shell Game: Reflections on Rowing and the Pursuit of Excellence has just been published.

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