New research out of WSU shows that the Nez Perce people in the Northwest smoked indigenous tobacco 1,200 years ago. However, it was much less potent than what traders would bring in the 1790s, and was used mostly ceremonially. Leaders hope to use the information to combat high smoking rates among tribal members.

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Here is another common historical narrative that’s been upended by sophisticated lab tests.

In this case, the narrative is that Northwest Native Americans began using tobacco in the 1790s, with the arrival of white fur traders.

Not quite.

Using state-of-the-art chemical analysis, researchers at Washington State University tested ancient Nez Perce pipes from five sites in the Columbia River Basin in Eastern Washington.

One pipe that tested positive for nicotine residue went back 1,200 years, says Shannon Tushingham, an assistant professor of anthropology at WSU, and one of the authors of a just-released paper.

That means the Nez Perce, whose territory included parts of Idaho, Oregon and Washington, were smoking tobacco more than 1,000 years before the traders even came around.

Pipes and pipe fragments from the Columbia River Basin were tested by Washington State University researchers.  (Robert Hubner / WSU Photo Services)
Pipes and pipe fragments from the Columbia River Basin were tested by Washington State University researchers. (Robert Hubner / WSU Photo Services)

Tushingham, as well as Josiah Black Eagle Pinkham, a Nez Perce cultural specialist who consulted on the work, hope this long history helps in modern-day smoking-cessation efforts for tribes.

Some 30 to 40 percent of Native Americans smoke, in contrast with 24 percent for the general American population, says the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Smoking is one reasons Native Americans have a 40 percent higher rate of death than whites, according to a study published in the American Journal of Public Health.

But smoking in those ancient times wasn’t about lighting up a cigarette in the course of everyday life, as it is now.

There is a movement now in tribal communities led by a group going by “Keep It Sacred,” that says those sacred traditions included, “honor and welcome guests; bless the food crops; communicate with the Creator; bless the hunt; bind agreements between tribes.”

The group states on its website, “Some Native teens rebel by using tobacco habitually rather than reserving it for ceremonial use only.”

Chief Kalkalshuatash, of the Nez Perce, circa 1868, with ceremonial pipe and fan.  (National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution)
Chief Kalkalshuatash, of the Nez Perce, circa 1868, with ceremonial pipe and fan. (National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution)

Says Pinkham, “It had spiritual and even medicinal uses. It’s a pretty phenomenal thing that we had this relationship with tobacco for that long.”

That traditional relationship altered dramatically when the white traders came around, Tushingham says.

Before contact with whites, the tribes were smoking mild indigenous tobacco plants in pipes usually carved from soapstone.

Then the fur traders arrived with two domesticated varieties (Nicotiana tabacum and rustica) that had considerably more kick. Considerably.

Those varieties had a nicotine content of up to 8.3 percent; the indigenous tobacco plant (Nicotiana quadrivalvis) had a measly 0.16 percent nicotine content, according to research by the late Joseph C. Winter, an archaeology professor at the University of New Mexico.

The indigenous tobacco looks less potent than the domesticated ones, skinny and with fewer leaves.

It’s hard to resist a more powerful drug.

“The ‘trade tobacco’ was so much more potent that the native people abandoned their own personal plots of indigenous tobacco,” Tushingham says, and the history of the mild indigenous tobacco plants just went away.

This change, she says, happened dramatically and within a few years.

Whites would bring their tobacco tightly bundled up in “twists” for maximum portability. The twists looked remarkably similar to what you see after a Doberman defecates.

Lewis and Clark knew the importance of the domesticated tobacco, which in the 16th century had become the rage in Europe after being brought back from the Caribbean and Central and South America.

The two explorers cut off their men’s supply entirely, as tobacco was deemed “extremely valuable for trade and diplomatic negotiations with the Indians.” The men were so addicted to the herb that, says the expedition diary, they “suffer much for the want of it.”

The idea for the study, Tushingham says, began when she looked at ancient soapstone pipes and wondered just what was being smoked hundreds of years ago.

A tubular pipe from a Columbia River Basin site  tested positive for nicotine. (Washington State University)
A tubular pipe from a Columbia River Basin site tested positive for nicotine. (Washington State University)

Tribal history shows everything from tree bark to bearberry leaves were used.

The sophisticated tests now available include gas chromatography mass spectrometry, which can detect minuscule amounts of substance, and was used in missions to Mars.

And what the tests showed was tobacco.

“This is the longest continuous biomolecular record of ancient tobacco smoking from a single region anywhere in the world,” Tushingham says. The study was just published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

It would have been that mild 0.16 percent nicotine content that the Nez Perce were smoking 1,200 years ago, Tushingham says.

In his expedition notes, which included phonetic spelling for a couple of words, Meriwether Lewis found the tribal tobacco “very plesent,” but added, “it does not affect the nerves in the same manner that the tobacco cultivated in the U.S. dose.”

Soon, Tushingham says, the domesticated tobacco was being used in ceremonies, and by 1900, Native American imagery was widely used in tobacco ads. A 1900 cigar box features Nez Perce Chief Joseph in full regalia.

These days, American Spirit, which markets itself as “100% Additive-Free Tobacco,” features an eagle logo at the top of the package, with a Native American man wearing a headdress as the main logo.

The relationship to Native Americans is tenuous, at best. American Spirit is owned by Reynolds American, which in turn is a subsidiary of British American Tobacco, which operates in 180 countries.

Nicotiana quadrivalvis was smoked by Native Americans and abandoned after whites introduced domesticated tobacco with higher nicotine content. (Emily Hull)
Nicotiana quadrivalvis was smoked by Native Americans and abandoned after whites introduced domesticated tobacco with higher nicotine content. (Emily Hull)

Pinkham says that although indigenous tobacco plants can be found, and there is a program to replant them, use of them is in the “smaller pockets of individuals.”

Although he isn’t a regular smoker of tobacco, Pinkham says, he does smoke ceremonially, the tobacco sometimes mixed with other traditional plants.

Pinkham says he uses the traditional smoking “when I’m congested and I have a really bad cold. It works better than commercial medicine.”

The research paper concludes with the hope that, “This information can be helpful to Tribal efforts towards educating youth about the dangers of commercial tobacco and the sacredness of indigenous tobaccos.”

That’s a tough task.

“I was addicted to tobacco myself,” says Tushingham, who is 49 and gave up smoking at age 32 when she was pregnant. “I know how hard it is. I really enjoyed smoking.”