by Richard L. Dieterle

Since Man was Earthmaker's weakest creation, he was given a certain plant whose aromatic smoke was so desired by all the spirits that its gift would compel the spirits to give something valuable in return. This plant was a mere weed, tobacco.1 Tobacco was to be used as a sacrament, an offering to the spirits to petition them for their special powers. When tobacco is offered to the spirits, the aroma travels to a tobacco gathering place (tanį-ostąhira). Each tribe of spirits has its own tobacco gathering place, and usually more than one. The Nightspirits, for instance, have one on earth as well as above, and when a man wins their favor with an offering at their tobacco gathering place, the Nightspirits will bless him.2 The Yellow Snake-Chief used to gather tobacco for all the spirits at the place where he lived near Red Banks.3

The Medicine Rite says that tobacco first appeared when the plant grew out of Grandmother Earth's left breast at the same time that maize grew out of her right breast.4 According to the Thunderbird Clan, Earthmaker originally gave this plant to those Thunders who came to earth to establish the Thunderbird Clan.5 On the other hand, in more than one waiką, the Thunderbirds are barbarously ignorant of tobacco and proper pipes, and must be enlightened by a human friend on their use.6 Consequently, it would seem that opinions differ among the clans as to who first established the plant on earth.

Gilmore gives an account of how tobacco was prepared.

A Winnebago informant told me that his people prepared the tobacco by picking off the leaves and laying them out to dry. Next day the partially dry leaves, limp and somewhat viscid, were rolled like tea leaves and again laid to dry. When fully dry the leaves were rubbed fine and stored away. In this finished state the tobacco looks somewhat like gunpowder tea. The Indians said it was of very pleasant odor for smoking. The species of tobacco which was cultivated by the Winnebago, as well as the other tribes of the eastern woodland region, was Nicotiana rustica L. It appears that this species was cultivated by all the tribes from the Mississippi River eastward to the Atlantic Ocean. It is said that the woodland tribes eagerly accepted presents of prepared tobacco of the species Nicotiana quadrivalvis from the tribes of the plains region and sought to obtain seed of the same, but the plains tribes jealously guarded against allowing the seed to be exported to their woodland neighbors.7

The importance of tobacco in enlisting the support of the spirits is seen here in its treatment as guarded national possession much as silk was to the Chinese.

Links: Fire, Thunderbirds, Earthmaker, Grasshoppers, Nightspirits, Earth.

Stories:mentioning tobacco: Tobacco Origin Myth, Hare and the Grasshoppers, Hocąk Clans Origin Myth (v 2), How the Thunders Met the Nights, Thunderbird Clan Origin Myth, Grandmother's Gifts, The Thunderbird, First Contact, Peace of Mind Regained, The Four Slumbers Origin Myth, The Dipper, The Masaxe War, A Waterspirit Blesses Mąnį́xete’ų́ga, Pete Dupeé and the Ghosts, Mijistéga’s Powwow Magic and How He Won the Trader's Store, The Stench-Earth Medicine Origin Myth; mentioning kinnikinnick: The Lost Blanket, The Old and the Giants, Woruxega, Peace of Mind Regained, Redhorn's Father, Grandmother's Gifts.

Themes: Earthmaker gives humanity control over tobacco (to compensate for its powerlessness): Tobacco Origin Myth, Hocąk Clans Origin Myth (v. 2), Thunderbird Clan Origin Myth (vv. 1, 3).


1 Paul Radin, The Winnebago Tribe (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1990 [1923]) 18, cf. p. 389.

2 Radin, The Winnebago Tribe, 405.

3 Radin, The Winnebago Tribe, 279.

4 Radin, The Winnebago Tribe, 302-311.

5 Radin, The Winnebago Tribe, 164.

6 Paul Radin, "Mazeniabera," Winnebago Notebooks (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society) #21: 1-134. Paul Radin, "The Thunderbird," Winnebago Notebooks (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society) #16.

7 Melvin Randolph Gilmore, Uses of Plants by the Indians of the Missouri River Region, Thirty-Third Annual Report of the Bureau of American Ethnology, 1911-12 (Washington, D. C.: Government Printing Office, 1919) 86.