What Is Tobacco and Where Does It Come From?
Tobacco is the name given to the herbaceous plant and cured leaves of Nicotiana used in various ways – for smoking, chewing and snuffing. Various Nicotiana species, commonly referred to as tobacco plants, are cultivated as ornamental garden plants. Nicotiana tabacum is grown worldwide for production of tobacco leaf for cigarettes and other tobacco products.
Tobacco was first discovered by the native people of Mesoamerica and South America and later introduced to Europe and the rest of the world. Accounts of Christopher Columbus’s first voyage in 1492 speak of the natives of Cuba using ‘smoking reeds’ – a kind of primitive pipe.
The Indians smoked both for pleasure and for ceremonial purposes, a good example of the latter being the Red Indian pipe of peace. Once introduced into Europe, the habit of smoking spread rapidly to the far corners of the world.
Tobacco had already long been used in the Americas by the time European settlers arrived and took the practice to Europe, where it became popular. Eastern North American tribes have historically carried tobacco in pouches as a readily accepted trade item, as well as smoking it in pipe ceremonies, whether for sacred ceremonies or those to seal a treaty or agreement. Tobacco is considered a gift from the Creator, and tobacco smoke is seen as carrying one’s thoughts and prayers to the spirits.
In addition to its use in spiritual ceremonies, tobacco is also used in ethnobotany for medical treatment of physical conditions. As a pain killer it has been used for earache and toothache and occasionally as a poultice.
Some indigenous peoples in California have used tobacco as one ingredient in smoking mixtures for treating colds; usually it is mixed with the leaves of the small desert sage, Salvia dorrii, or the root of Indian balsam or cough root, Leptotaenia multifida (the addition of which was thought to be particularly good for asthma and tuberculosis).
In addition to its traditional medicinal uses, tobacco was also used as a form of currency between Native Americans and Colonists from the 1620s on.
Religious use of tobacco is still common among many indigenous peoples, particularly in the Americas. Among the Cree and Ojibwe of Canada and the north-central United States, it is offered to the Creator, with prayers, and is used in sweat lodges, pipe ceremonies, and is presented as a gift. A gift of tobacco is traditional when asking an Ojibwe elder a question of a spiritual nature.