SIKSIKA NATION, Alta.
The sun shone brightly and an eagle flew high overhead on June 15 (2005) when the Kainai Nation in southern Alberta formally transferred tobacco plants to the Siksika Nation in an effort to bring back the tobacco planting ceremony, last conducted by the Kainai in 1861.
The ceremony was continued in Siksika until 1951. "We called the sacred planting the tobacco dance," said Tom Cranebear, a Siksika Nation Elder.
Bruce Wolfchild, the Kainai Elder who performed the transfer ceremony said "Siksika were the last to do the ceremony and so it is right that they are the ones to bring it back."
Kainai Elder Roland Cotton remembers how the ceremony was stopped in the communities. "The government took it away from us. It was forbidden. Those that were growing it in the old days went to jail for it, because the government wanted it for revenue, so that they can make money."
Amos Leather was the sole custodian of many songs, rituals, and dances of the Blackfoot Confederacy of Alberta and Montana. He was the last holder of all the 230 songs of the Siksika tobacco planting ceremony. Amos treasured the songs and traded 200 bushels of wheat for one and 75 horses for another.
He didn't transfer the songs and took them with him to his grave. The Glenbow Museum in Calgary has many of the sacred items from the ceremony, including a 1936 film that shows parts of the planting ceremony.
Some of the young children appearing in that film are now the Elders involved in the renewal. "The Elders could have buried the artifacts if they had wanted the tobacco ceremony to die out," said Wolfchild. "Instead they hung them in the museum and allowed the ceremony to be recorded so they could be picked up again. From this video, and the Elders that witnessed it, we will move forward to re-create the ceremony for future years.
Many songs and parts of the ceremony are intact and the knowledge is still in place." Mel Ironshirt of the Kainai Nation, who brought the seedlings from Kainai to Siksika, calls the renewal a crusade.
"The Blackfoot people can trace tobacco use back to 1200 A.D. and it was always used as an offering to our Creator. One Elder mentioned that if you light up a cigarette bought in a store the smoke doesn't go up straight. It tends to linger down where our children are playing. When you light our tobacco for sacred or ceremonial use, the smoke takes our message and our prayers to the heavens where we can be heard.
Today at Siksika we are trying to carry on a ceremony that will be good for the people. The tobacco here is going to go a long way to help our people live longer lives and really be a spiritual awakening."
Kainai Elders Cotton and John J. Healey agree that only those that had the rights, such as certain bundle holders, could use tobacco. At that time tobacco wasn't inhaled. It was used more like sweetgrass is today.
"If you are a trapper, you want to look for something that's going to attract the one you want to trap, a beaver or a muskrat," said Cotton. "This is the thing we want to achieve with the Creator. Each of our fragrances is uniquely blended with the purest of essentials to give the heavenly fragrance, as mentioned by my grandparents.
“True people of the land wanted to capture the purest they could to achieve a communion with the heavenly Father and to receive healing. People of yesterday were really strong in faith; they were able to achieve miracles. We want to achieve healing back on our reserves. We want to come back to be the people that we once were. Dig back in your minds to the teachings. It's time that we carry this tobacco the way God gave it to us.
“If we properly use it, you can achieve healing. You can achieve that quality of life that we are looking and striving for. I'm encouraging you; let's go back to the use of our traditional tobacco, to what it's really worth. It will bring peace and harmony within one's life and the family."
Tobacco use makes up part of rituals and ceremonies across Turtle Island. It is hoped that other people and other nations will come forward with their ancient traditions so that all can join in this renewal. "The Creator brought us together so that we can carry it back to our homes and begin to meditate and to begin to pray and to call on him so that we can bring back the true meaning of the sacred use of tobacco," said Cotton.