Tobacco Cure

Indians use tobacco for ceremonial purposes while traders said it cured migraines and colds.

Indians use tobacco for ceremonial purposes while traders said it cured migraines and colds.

The question was innocent enough.

My beloved asked me where the expression, “Blowing smoke up your arse” comes from.

Thanks to the internet the answer came swiftly.

The story begins in Indian Country (as all stories do during Native American Heritage Month).

Tobacco, which is indigenous to the Americas, was used for ceremonial, social and spiritual purposes by Native peoples.

More than 60 varieties exist, ranging from burly-leaved tobacco selected for cigars to flowery tobacco grown for its jasmine-like scent.

When settlers arrived they were introduced to the Indian custom of smoking tobacco in pipes.

In his book, The Oregon Trail, Francis Parkman wrote about the social qualities of passing around a pipe in the evening, practiced by settlers and Indians alike.

Parkman wrote in 1849 that, “The custom of smoking with friends is seldom omitted, whether among Indians or whites. The pipe, therefore, was taken from the wall, and its great red bowl crammed with the tobacco and shongsasha, mixed in suitable proportions. Then it passed round the circle, each man inhaling a few whiffs and handing it to his neighbor.”

I asked my Indat-seh (uncle) about shongsasha. My uncle John grew up on Sioux lands near Pine Ridge more than 80 years ago, on a parcel of property that was doled out to Native people as part of federal efforts to disperse Indian land.

John’s mother was raised on the allotted land, and, at the turn of the century, Sioux elder Bad Wound asked the family to care for his wife, Rosie Red Top. Bad Wound felt he was near death, and asked the Lesserts to look after Rosie.

Rosie Red Top—whom everyone called Unci (Auntie)–lived with John’s family for more than 30 years. As a small child, John remembers Unci: she refused to sit on a chair and preferred to take her blanket outside where she slept. On cool nights Unci wrapped her blanket around her and slept on the floor.

John says Unci would pound tobacco with shongsasha—red willow bark—and stuff the mixture into her pipe.

Tobacco was also used as medicine by American Indians, and when visitors returned to France, England, Portugal and Spain with dried tobacco leaves, they claimed the plant could cure a range of ills.

Jean Nicot brought tobacco to Catherine de’ Medici (whose husband Henry II ruled France in the 17th Century) and she found that pounded tobacco when snorted cured her migraines.

Nicotine was named for the Frenchman Nicot—not for the Indians who actually discovered its powers.

Others touted tobacco’s healing properties, most famously Spanish doctor Nicolas Monardes, who published a book on tobacco in 1571 with a long list of cures.

Two English doctors were convinced tobacco could revive drowned swimmers. They developed a technique that required tobacco smoke be infused into the victim with tubes and bellows, and by 1780 some 300 resuscitation kits were deployed along the River Thames.

Although the doctors were successful in alerting folks of tobacco’s promise of revival, no victims were actually saved by the tobacco technique.

Rescuers would heat the tobacco and attach one end of a tube into the bellows that would pump air, and the smoke would be carried through the tube into the victim’s derriere.

The solution was called a tobacco enema.

The technique eventually lost out to better techniques to revive drowning victims.

That’s probably why the expression “blowing smoke” means delivering an insincere compliment, and that “blowing smoke up your arse” refers to an ineffective solution.

Blog #2 for Native American Heritage Month

An irreverent look at the tobacco enema can be found on British TV at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6uEJbwGYaDs

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About Cynthia Coleman Emery

Professor and researcher at Portland State University who studies science communication, particularly issues that impact American Indians. She is enrolled with the Osage tribe.
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