Fighting Tobacco Use in Indian Country

Bring on the Campaign

For many Indian tribes tobacco is sacred, so when anti-smoking campaigns hit Indian Country, strategists wisely invoked Native value systems to appeal to smoking cessation. Campaign strategists figured out many years ago that appealing to audiences with scientific evidence and cold facts did little to change behavior, even though smoking—which is preventable—is the leading cause of death once you account for other diseases and accidents.

In Indian Country, Tobacco is framed as sacred, with recreational use disparaged as non-traditional, commercial and addictive. Campaigns appeal to Indian values: tradition, family and community. While smoking advocates have long appealed to the notion of individual freedoms in their “right” to smoke, the pitch is less salient in Indian communities.

For example, a poster by National Council for Smoke-free families shows a pregnant woman and her partner, and (perhaps) her mother, smiling under a heading: Pregnant and smoking? It’s okay to ask for help. The poster is infused with Indian values: “Keep your baby healthy by not smoking. Use ceremonial tobacco in a safe way. If you do smoke, ask your doctor for help with quitting. Be good to yourself and your family.”

One Indian community uses the slogan, “Today is a good day to quit,” channeling the quote attributed to Crazy Horse, “Today is a good day to die,” and captured forever in the film Little Big Man, when the elder, Old Lodge Skins (Chief Dan George), notes on the battlefield, “Today is a good day to die.”

Data on smoking allege that smoking rates on reservations are higher than in other communities. An interesting parallel is that smoking in Portland, where I live, is among the highest in the United States, ranking 11th in the nation, according to a 2009 report.

Booting smokers from state and city buildings has had the unintended consequences of sending smokers outdoors, and since I’m an avid walker and hiker, I find it difficult to steer clear of smokers where I live and work. During the lunch hour, smokers gather outside in the university quad and I am forced to leave campus to find an outdoor oasis to avoid second-hand smoke. But even in the restricted areas on campus (non-smoking placards are mounted on benches) folks puff on cigarettes, ignoring the signs.

Last evening I attended a lecture and, although I often drive at night because the busses run less frequently, instead I took public transit, figuring the vestiges of summer still make for mild weather. While I was waiting in the bus shelter a young lad took a seat beside me, puffing on a cigarette. I walked outside the structure only to be joined by a woman smoking, and quickly found myself surrounded by smoke.

I’m pretty sure the appeal to traditional values won’t work among the non-Indian smokers of Portland. Portlanders pride themselves in individual freedoms, tolerance and progressive politics and in “keeping Portland weird.” In this case, a smoker’s freedom trumps community health.


About Cynthia Coleman Emery

Professor and researcher at Portland State University who studies science communication, particularly issues that impact American Indians. Dr. Coleman is an enrolled citizen of the Osage Nation.
This entry was posted in cinema, film, framing, Indian, Native Science, science. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s