Tobacco Offering

The phrase “protocols with tobacco” refers only to the pre-contact meaning of the word tobacco, in spite of the fact that only post-contact manufactured tobacco is available to use. Waokiye (Lakota for Traditional Helper) Don Speidel was asked: What are the protocols that teachers should be aware of when offering tobacco to Elders and Knowledge Keepers? This is his reply.

Tobacco is both an understood and misunderstood part of our culture. It’s hard to standardize something like protocols with tobacco because protocols depend so much on an Elder’s or Knowledge Keeper’s specific teacher, their Nation identity, and their language cultural group. A protocol also depends on what a teacher is requesting. In Saskatoon we have a diversity of Elders, practitioners, and cultural groups, so there is not one protocol to follow.

But one general thing that non-Indigenous folks should know is that a tobacco offering is the ‘door-opener’ or the starting point to create a conversation or to request certain information. Tobacco is intended to unlock or to access knowledge or gain an awareness of certain topics.

There are different ways to offer tobacco: (a) either small or large amounts of tobacco bundled by hand in various sizes of broadcloth of a certain colour and tied with natural (non-synthetic) string, (b) a commercial pouch of tobacco, (c) a package of cigarettes, or (d) even one cigarette sometimes. Indigenous knowledge sharers will likely follow a particular protocol depending if the event is in the public domain (e.g., a classroom visit) or in the sacred domain (e.g., a Sweat Lodge Ceremony). The point is to honour the person being approached for knowledge or requested to speak to a class of students, and to honour the knowledge and wisdom to be shared, which the person has come to know from extensive experience, from a higher authority, or from their ancestors through their current teachers.

So getting to know that person is important. Spend time in conversation before the event occurs if you can, and certainly before offering tobacco. Let them know what you’d like to request. And then simply ask what his or her protocol would be to honour the present situation that connects the two of you into a relationship. Maybe a Knowledge Keeper does want a cloth bundle of tobacco or more, depending on the nature of the request and the Knowledge Keeper’s traditions. By asking ahead of time, you can be properly prepared to follow protocol when you meet to learn what you want to know or when they join your class.

We realize that some teachers may tie themselves in knots over not wanting to inadvertently offend an Indigenous person by making a slip-up. Relax! Otherwise you’ll miss out on the rewarding moment when the tobacco is accepted. An Elder or Knowledge Keeper will certainly recognize a teacher’s good intentions. Honest humility and respect will ensure a happy outcome in spite of any protocol slip-ups.

Tobacco is an offering that begins or sustains a relationship. The person who receives the tobacco has certain protocol obligations about what they should do with it. They may say a short prayer on behalf of the folks who offered the tobacco, especially if it was for an Elder’s participation in a spiritual-based event. It’s sort of like signing a contract. Once the person offering tobacco and the person receiving it agree what is being requested (e.g., attendance at a meeting or a visit to a classroom), the person receiving it will pray upon it for a successful meeting or visit. The person may pray that the information they share will not be misunderstood, will not be seen as disrespectful, and will be intended in a good way.

For Indigenous people, there is a natural law, a traditional law, a principle to follow that we are all trying to honour. There is a certain covenant that governs the use and sharing of Indigenous knowledge and wisdom. The Indigenous person sharing must realize they have a limited understanding and must respect the natural law of sharing knowledge and wisdom by being honest about their limitations when speaking to the person offering tobacco. Just because someone is an Indigenous citizen doesn’t mean they are an authoritative source. The humility of being aware and open about what you don’t know is a sign of respecting the principle or law of sharing Indigenous knowledge and wisdom. Elders and Knowledge Keepers have their fields of expertise and practice. We need to guard against the possible deterioration of our customs and principles. Offering and accepting tobacco is a way of acknowledging the ancestral laws of sharing knowledge and wisdom.

As a knowledge sharer, I have a responsibility to know what I know and to judge what knowledge should be shared on any one occasion. I don’t want to overwhelm people with too many details or ideas. By following our natural law or principle, we are protecting the people. It would be inappropriate for a human to speak on behalf of another human. However, it would be appropriate for a human to share knowledge honestly in keeping with the protocols that honour the natural law. That knowledge can’t be book knowledge. It could be knowledge acquired from sitting amongst Elders for years and years. It could be knowledge gained when a person went into the elements of nature and fasted for an amount of days and repeated this experience year after year. For example, perhaps you’ve come to know what ants are all about. You’ve seen them in their natural habit over time. So suddenly Creator revealed something to you that now you can speak about. This type of learning does not diminish the authentic and valid process of producing scientific knowledge. But in the Indigenous realm, the authenticating process is different.

We don’t want to make sharing our knowledge complicated. There is always a starting point, which should not be hard to initiate. A person needs to bring a sense of sincerity and a sense of excitement that comes from participating in something new or different for them. The old people always begin by sharing a sense of excitement with us. That is part of Spirit. You make people feel good about that excitement, whether they’re outside the culture or not. Spirit is present. You honour that somehow. Try not to distract people from that feeling of wanting to try something or experience something where Spirit is a motivating force. Inform them in a delicate fashion that says, “I’ll help you pursue this excitement.”

Non-Indigenous folk should know that the disruptions caused by colonization took Indigenous people away from land that was productive in supplying medicinal plants. We were put on reservations where traditional plants such as natural tobacco are not found and will not grow. If we had been allowed to continue on with our lives, today we would be using the traditional forms of tobacco rather than the manufactured forms that are so addictive and poisonous.

People are now becoming interested in agriculture in our reservations to revive important plants that have almost become extinct. But our present land is agriculturally poor. So we have no choice but to purchase the nicotine-laced manufactured tobacco; otherwise we couldn’t carry out our traditional values and ways.

Several conditions are important to us: Who grew the tobacco? How was it handled? and Were protocols followed to give thanks to Mother Earth and to help keep her in balance? In a commercial company’s way, their intention is to make a profit. In our way we use tobacco for all types of ceremonies, large and private. When we use the manufactured tobacco, as we must, we try to re-create the traditional intentions of natural tobacco.

If a pouch of tobacco were offered a few days prior to a classroom visit, the Indigenous resource person has the opportunity to offer prayers with the tobacco to accentuate its good use, asking that the classroom visit will go well.

Another way to ‘purify’ manufactured tobacco is to Smudge it before it is presented to someone. This puts the good quality back into it, so everyone knows the intentions of its use. Your personal energy goes into it when you prepare tobacco personally and for the one specific occasion of its use. The receiver connects with that energy and the intentions it conveys. In some elementary schools, a misunderstanding can arise when a teacher only thinks of tobacco in its modern addictive meaning, rather than recognizing there are two meanings for tobacco and thereby honouring the traditional Indigenous meaning. A teacher who misunderstands may hide the tobacco from children’s view by wrapping it in coloured tissue paper or cloth so students can’t see what is being offered to the Indigenous visitor. The teacher may be worried that addictive manufactured tobacco is being promoted, or a particular tobacco company is being supported, or children are being encouraged to smoke. Children can easily understand that only the Indigenous good intentions of tobacco are being honoured, and that the tobacco is being treated as if it were natural tobacco, not manufactured tobacco. This way there is no reason to hide tobacco from children when following Indigenous protocols with tobacco.

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