Tobacco as medicine



When I opened the envelope I found another envelope tucked inside, filled with tiny specks like dark grains of sand.

They were carefully bundled in cellophane because one gust would cast them to the wind.

I opened the packet and gently placed the seeds on top of the soil, then covered the seeds with a little more dirt and placed the small pots on the window sill.

And waited.

The package contained Nicotania sylvestris pips that would yield tobacco.

In Spring, honey and I planted tomatoes and aubergine, spinach and cauliflower, cucumbers and broccoli, lettuce and peppers, kale and arugula, and skeins of mint, verbena, chives, oregano, thyme, sage and tarragon in the herb bed.

For months we munched on greens while creating marinades and sauces. We garnished plates with violets and nasturtium, and threw snails onto the street, hoping a car would crush them.

The tobacco sent up thin, delicate shoots, and I transplanted the shallow root-balls into larger pots, moving them outside once summer arrived.

Over the next few weeks the tobacco sprouted hefty lime-green leaves and grew wide and tall. I transplanted them again, keeping aside a few potted plants.

When we travelled to South Dakota for Sundance, I carried a shopping bag with a tobacco plant for John, my intatsay.

I hoped the plant would prove a good omen, as tobacco is important medicine—mahka. Nicotania sylvestris has a sweet, green smell and will produce fragrant white flowers.

During Sundance, my relatives passed a pipe for John and I was happy to be part of a moment when our thoughts focused on him.

John’s son gave me sage garlands to carry home, so our shopping bag was full of green on our journey to the Black Hills and on our way home to the Cascades.

And the tobacco plants outside have grown lush and handsome.


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.
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3 Responses to Tobacco as medicine

  1. May they continue to grow strong and joyous. May your harvest fill your home and those of others with good medicine.


  2. Shakespeare never explicitly mentioned pipes, smoking, or tobacco in any of his plays or poems. There’s no proof that he smoked weed, “noted” or otherwise. But forensic science has shown that Shakespeare’s neighbors—and perhaps the Bard himself—were inhaling some odd herbal mixtures that included hemp. And they may not have known exactly what was in those mixtures.


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