Tobacco has had a place in Ozark and Appalachian folk healing for centuries. Most often it’s used in its “chaw” or snuff form or as loose pipe tobacco since cigarettes were most always too expensive for hillfolk to keep around. Tobacco was almost always grown locally to cut down on costs. My great-grandpa always had a huge patch of it on his farm that he would cure to make his own “chaw” and rolling tobacco. Many home remedies include tobacco, most often for skin complaints and bug bites where the soft, wet plug of chaw could be taken out of the cheek of the nearest dipper and pressed to the irritated spot for relief. Many an Ozark rural child has been subjected to such remedies in the summertime.
A remedy for chest congestion or a wet cough includes smoking tobacco mixed with what’s called “rabbit tobacco” or “sweet everlasting” (Pseudognaphalium obtusifolium, pictured below). It’s a plant that grows everywhere in the Ozarks and gets it’s name from the fact that the leaves and flower heads stay on the dead plant through the winter. That’s the best time to harvest the fuzzy, sweet smelling leaves, when the plant has died and the active chemical compounds in the leaves and flower heads are said to have “caramelized.” I’m not so sure that’s true, but I do know the fresh leaves have a very different taste than the dead ones, and although I’ve never mixed mine with tobacco I can personally attest to the effectiveness of smoking some to help clear the chest.
It’s highly likely that people would have been using tobacco even before they came into the Ozarks, and certainly before they came to America, but many of the settlers to the area, and certainly to the Appalachian Mountains would have been exposed to a different tobacco culture coming in from the indigenous peoples of the area. Native Americans have been using tobacco for medicinal and religious purposes for far longer than Europeans. Originally the tobacco of the Americas would have mostly been Nicotiana rustica, a “wild” variety of the plant, although certain Native American groups had been cultivating the plants for centuries. It’s often referred to as “sacred tobacco” because of it’s use in certain ceremonies and healing practices. Nicotiana tobaccum, or what we know of as “tobacco” today would have been cultivated much later in history, predominately for sale to Europeans who didn’t have a taste for the much stronger Nicotiana rustica. There are many accounts of French explorers in Arkansas encountering tobacco through the “calumet” ceremonies of the nations along the Mississippi Rivers. Eventually the French would provide such a demand for the leaf that the Natchez nation would become the largest supplier of Nicotiana tobaccum in the French South around the mid 18th century. The Quapaw “Robe of Splendor” (pictured below) even documents this tobacco use among the French in a small panel showing two Frenchmen smoking European-style pipes between two cabins. I think it should be noted that none of the indigenous peoples depicted are shown smoking tobacco in this way, and this panel is distinguished from one of the large central pieces which shows two “calumets” which would have not only served as the ceremonial tobacco pipes of the nation but also as a powerful symbol of their connection to the plant versus that of the Europeans.
I’ve mentioned these two tobacco stories from the Cherokee before, but I think it would be appropriate to include them here. These stories are two Cherokee folk tales told by the storyteller and healer A’yûñ’ini (Swimmer) and collected by James Mooney for his “Myths of the Cherokee”.
“How They Brought the Tobacco Back”
‘In the beginning of the world, when people and animals were all the same, there was only one tobacco plant, to which they all came for their tobacco until the Dagûlʻkû geese stole it and carried it far away to the south. The people were suffering without it, and there was one old woman who grew so thin and weak that everybody said she would soon die unless she could get tobacco to keep her alive.
“Different animals offered to go for it, one after another, the larger ones first and then the smaller ones, but the Dagûlʻkû saw and killed every one before he could get to the plant. After the others the little Mole tried to reach it by going under the ground, but the Dagûlʻkû saw his track and killed him as he came out.
“At last the Hummingbird offered, but the others said he was entirely too small and might as well stay at home. He begged them to let him try, so they showed him a plant in a field and told him to let them see how he would go about it. The next moment he was gone and they saw him sitting on the plant, and then in a moment he was back again, but no one had seen him going or coming, because he was so swift. ‘This is the way I’ll do,’ said the Hummingbird, so they let him try.
“He flew off to the east, and when he came in sight of the tobacco the Dagûlʻkûwere watching all about it, but they could not see him because he was so small and flew so swiftly. He darted down on the plant—tsa!—and snatched off the top with the leaves and seeds, and was off again before the Dagûlʻkû knew what had happened. Before he got home with the tobacco the old woman had fainted and they thought she was dead, but he blew the smoke into her nostrils, and with a cry of “Tsâlû! [Tobacco!]” she opened her eyes and was alive again.”
“The people had tobacco in the beginning, but they had used it all, and there was great suffering for want of it. There was one old man so old that he had to be kept alive by smoking, and as his son did not want to see him die he decided to go himself to try and get some more. The tobacco country was far in the south, with high mountains all around it, and the passes were guarded, so that it was very hard to get into it, but the young man was a conjurer and was not afraid.
“He traveled southward until he came to the mountains on the border of the tobacco country. Then he opened his medicine bag and took out a hummingbird skin and put it over himself like a dress. Now he was a hummingbird and flew over the mountains to the tobacco field and pulled some of the leaves and seed and put them into his medicine bag. He was so small and swift that the guards, whoever they were, did not see him, and when he had taken as much as he could carry he flew back over the mountains in the same way. Then he took off the hummingbird skin and put it into his medicine bag, and was a man again.
“He started home, and on his way came to a tree that had a hole in the trunk, like a door, near the first branches, and a very pretty woman was looking out from it. He stopped and tried to climb the tree, but although he was a good climber he found that he always slipped back. He put on a pair of medicine moccasins from his pouch, and then he could climb the tree, but when he reached the first branches he looked up and the hole was still as far away as before. He climbed higher and higher, but every time he looked up the hole seemed to be farther than before, until at last he was tired and came down again.
“When he reached home he found his father very weak, but still alive, and one draw at the pipe made him strong again. The people planted the seed and have had tobacco ever since.”
Mooney also talks a little about the significance of tobacco in his section on plant lore:
“Tobacco was used as a sacred incense or as the guarantee of a solemn oath in nearly every important function—in binding the warrior to take up the hatchet against the enemy, in ratifying the treaty of peace, in confirming sales or other engagements, in seeking omens for the hunter, in driving away witches or evil spirits, and in regular medical practice. It was either smoked in the pipe or sprinkled upon the fire, never rolled into cigarettes, as among the tribes of the Southwest, neither was it ever smoked for the mere pleasure of the sensation. Of late years white neighbors have taught the Indians to chew it, but the habit is not aboriginal. It is called tsâlû, a name which has lost its meaning in the Cherokee language, but is explained from the cognate Tuscarora, in whichcharhû’, ‘tobacco,’ can still be analyzed as ‘fire to hold in the mouth,’ showing that the use is as old as the knowledge of the plant. The tobacco originally in use among the Cherokee, Iroquois, and other eastern tribes was not the common tobacco of commerce (Nicotiana tabacum), which has been introduced from the West Indies, but the Nicotiana rustica, or wild tobacco, now distinguished by the Cherokee as tsâl-agăyûñ’li, ‘old tobacco,’ and by the Iroquois as ‘real tobacco.’ Its various uses in ritual and medicine are better described under other headings…The cardinal flower (Lobelia), mullein (Verbascum), and one or two related species are called tsâliyu’stĭ, ‘like tobacco,’ on account of their general resemblance to it in appearance, but they were never used in the same way.”
The sacred uses of tobacco definitely reached the Ozarks, mostly through people of Native American descent. These traditions can be seen in many farming beliefs. I’ve known several old farmers who would lay some tobacco in with their planted seeds as a blessing to help them grow better. It’s also not as common, but still prevalent, to see old folks who keep their tobacco in certain buckskin pouches and treat it with great respect. I had the great fortune to inherit my great-grandma’s beaded tobacco pouch that she wore (pictured below).
Of course today it’s hard to find many of these tobacco beliefs and practices still alive and kicking. It’s become the recreation of most hillfolk, and there’s little sacredness surrounding their actions anymore. Personally I use Nicotiana rustica in much of my healing work. Years ago I was introduced to sacred usespiciete, derived from the Nahuatl word, picietl, Nicotiana rustica. I was taught to use the plant by my teacher Don Jorge who was a Mazatec from Oaxaca. The Mazatec use of piciete is interesting among other Central and South American indigenous peoples. Mapacho (pictured below) is another form of Nicotiana rustica that is most often smoked in cigars or snorted through the nose. The Mazatec rarely smoke their tobacco, but instead either roll a quid out of the fresh green leaves that is then placed between the cheek and teeth and allowed to sit (the saliva that is produced is never swallowed) or they will crush the green leaves into a paste called San Pedro (not to be confused with the cactus) that is mixed with lime then applied topically or snorted through the nose. San Pedro is most often used in conjunction with Xka Pastora, which is a subject for another time.
It’s sad to see the direction this plant has gone in, all because of this addiction to poisons that colonizers have had for centuries (a good series to watch that is related to that idea is “Addicted to Pleasure” from the BBC). But there is hope, at least among certain Native American groups, where there are national organizations with an active effort to reaffirm traditional views on tobacco amongst their peoples. The tobacco industry in America has, since it’s inception, targeted indigenous populations (much like the alcohol industry) in many of its advertising and active campaigns. This targeting, along with poor availability of affordable healthcare on reservations has created a major problem, to say the least. It’s an issue that needs to be addressed and fought on every level, starting with our own personal consumption of this healing plant. It’s not about being mindful of where the tobacco comes from when you’re puffing on a cigarette, but it’s about choosing whether or not to support an industry that has actively caused the destruction of indigenous cultures note only here in America but around the world. It may seem like a small issue, and here I’ll cite the craze for “additive-free tobaccos” like those provided by American Spirits, but any recreational tobacco use, whether “additive-free” or not, is still contributing to a culture of addiction and destruction.
I’ll conclude with the image “Raleigh’s First Pipe in England” showing a reclined Sir Walter Raleigh smoking what I can only assume is a stolen indigenous tobacco pipe while his servant looks on in horror.