Returning to one’s ancestral homeland offers time for reflection, but also reminds us that even these sacred places are often threatened. Read more →
“Čhaŋlí kiŋ ičháȟwaye” (I raise tobacco), I explained to the elder and fluent lakota language speaker, looking at the cloth-wrapped tobacco leaf that I had placed in her hand—my formal request for language mentorship. We had already been paired up by the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe’s language Department, but the way I was taught, it wouldn’t feel right to ask her help without offering tobacco. Even though I could have bought some Bugler pretty cheaply at the White Buffalo Grocery, it felt good to offer her something I had grown myself.
I grew up in an industrial tobacco farming town. My elementary school was right next to a tobacco field. I remember being out on the playground while they sprayed pesticide on the fields. I remember kids getting sick. Some developed lifelong chronic illnesses. I did not connect this cash crop with what we use in ceremony— but it is the same plant.
My tobacco-growing journey started in 2010, when a friend gifted me some delicate little seedpods. I was living in San Francisco at the time, but I planted them in a southern-exposure bedroom window. They grew into large, happy plants, despite having their roots constrained to gallon pots. I did not set out to launch a political campaign. I just wanted to grow the seeds I was given. But the more time I spent with my tobacco plants, the more I thought about my relationship—and all of our relationships—to commercial tobacco.
Across North America, every Indigenous person who has ever told me a tobacco origin story has said that tobacco came to the people as a gift. It is a gift that we are to use in ceremony and in a respectful way. Starting with the plantations at Jamestown, the settlers had a different relationship with tobacco. for them, it was always a cash crop; the goal was profit, and it did not matter who or what got hurt in the process. With modern industrial farming and toxic pesticides, conditions have gotten even worse (I, like many people, have lost relatives to diseases caused by cigarette addiction).
These days, not many Indigenous people grow their own tobacco. We usually buy what we need for ceremony. But when we buy commercial tobacco, we are giving our money to companies that took something that was once a sacred gift to us and use it for their own profit. This does not seem too different to me than when settlers steal water from Indigenous communities and sell it back to them in plastic bottles that take a ton of water to produce.
My goal was to encourage as many Indigenous people as possible to grow their own tobacco. On a cold, foggy day in February, I sprouted six varieties of tobacco seeds in a soil-ash mixture as my mentor had taught me, and mailed many more in tiny envelopes to friends across the country.
By April, my fire escape was bursting with baby tobacco plants, and dozens more competed for light on my bedroom windowsills. I started taking boxes of plants to different powwows where I danced every weekend. I gave them away to any Indigenous person who wanted to grow their own tobacco for ceremonial use. I probably grew and gave away a thousand little tobacco plants. I even brought two flats of plants with me when I drove halfway across the country to my language immersion program at Standing Rock in 2015, giving them away to friends in California, Idaho, and Montana along the way.
The reasons why people decided to grow my tobacco plants were as diverse as the people themselves. A cigarette smoker took one as part of his effort to change his relationship with the plant. A sundancer wanted to grow her own tobacco for ceremony. later in the powwow season, a father told me that learning to care for his tobacco plant had been a transformative experience for his traumatized foster son. In late September, a friend brought me a leaf as long as my arm; her tobacco plant, rooted in good soil in a sunny area, had stretched its leaves and grown as tall as she was.
It feels good to grow your own. It feels different to offer something that you have cared for, tended, and watched transform from a seed the size of a grain of sand to a plant as tall as you, instead of a commercial product you exchanged six bucks for at the store. A single tobacco plant will produce dozens of seedpods, each containing hundreds of seeds. Once you have established tobacco in your garden, you may never have to plant it again. In my garden, it pops up on its own every spring.
Gradually, I have come to understand the tobacco seedpods I was gifted in a much more metaphorical sense. We are all seedpods, in a way—not only of our own DNA, but also of the precious pieces of cultural knowledge that we carry and share. In addition to the tobacco seeds, I have been gifted other “seeds” of knowledge that I feel I have an obligation to cultivate, care for, and pass on, such as language knowledge.
I have always marveled at the miracle that is a seed: tiny, with the potential to become giant and create many copies of itself. I come from a farming family and a farming tribe. Traditional crop plants rely on humans entirely for their continued existence. Year after year, generation after generation, a human must remember to save the seeds and plant them again. At the same time, we rely on plants for our continued existence. These tobacco seeds, as small as grains of sand, were the product of millennia of humans and plants working together. Our ancestors were so smart and forward- thinking when they saved seeds to pass on to us countless generations ago. It is up to my generation to think just as far into the future, while also carefully saving our seeds each season.