Organic Smoke

Friday, June 23, 2006

The Ceremony of Tobacco

By Albert ‘Sun’ Butler.
Artwork© by Karen Lynch Harley. All rights reserved.

Disclaimer: No part of this article is intended to represent that smoking organic or ceremonial tobacco is any less dangerous to your health than conventional tobacco

There is in the country an herb which they call tabaco, which is a kind of plant, the stalk of which is as tall as the chest of a man....and they sow this herb and they keep the seed which it produces to sow the next year and they cure it carefully for the purpose of securing predictions.” From The first to mention ‘tobaco’: Oviedo y Valdés on Venezuela

In July the hummingbirds return to our farm in southern Virginia. They come to feast on the nectar of acres of pink and purple trumpet shaped tobacco flowers. Buzzing our heads as we top the tobacco plants, they remind us that according to our Cherokee legends Hummingbird slipped past the greedy Dagul-ku and stole a fertilized bloom of the first tobacco plant to bring back to the People[1].

The history of tobacco or “Uppa-woc”, Native America’s most sacred plant begins with its cultivation along with squash and beans around 5000 BC. By 200 BC the Hopewell Mound culture demonstrated a sophisticated ceremonial culture based on the discovery of more than two hundred stone effigy tobacco pipes at the Ohio mound site. Native only to the Americas, tobacco was introduced to European explorers and settlers by the American Indian tribesman who greeted them. Their first gifts to Columbus and later to the settlers at Jamestown included tobacco. Native Americans taught European settlers to cultivate a treasure trove of domesticated crops native only to the New World. Exported to Europe, corn, potatoes and sweet potatoes fueled the population explosion and large scale agriculture that made the Industrial Revolution possible. Yet it was a world-wide market for tobacco that drove the developing economic engines of Colonial America.

Many pre-Columbian tribes-people were adept agriculturalists. They grew food crops to supplant their diet of wild plants and game and to sustain their People during lean times. Without draft animals or iron plows, Native American farming was very labor intensive. The devotion of limited human resources to growing a crop such as tobacco that has no food or fiber value indicates that it was very precious. Among the Yanomamo of Brazil the word for ‘being poor’, hori, means literally “without tobacco”.

In the current mass-produced on-demand culture of instant gratification it is difficult to imagine the value of something based upon the hours of labor required of us to produce it. The spiritual observance of “offering up” that which is precious to us has been relegated to the cultural dust-bin of ‘myth and superstition’. So what is it about the tobacco plant that gives it such spiritual significance among Native American peoples? What’s more, are there lessons here for today’s society, addicted not only to nicotine and other drugs, but to excess in every form?

"To the red man," said Assiniboin chief Dan Kennedy in 1939, "the Pipe of Chiefs symbolizes what the Magna Carta and the Ark of the Covenant stand for with other races."

Tobacco is central to Native American prayer ceremony. It is offered and smoked as a means of communicating with Spirit. Alfred Savinelli’s 1993 treatise ‘Plants of Power’[2] relates, “it is said, that the ancestors remember the pleasure of smoking the leaves and dried blossoms. So they return to partake in the essence of tobacco”. When prayers were made to the Great Spirit, pre-Columbian Indians made offerings with tobacco, the most valuable substance they possessed. The Cherokee consider these offerings to be contracts with the helper spirits that carry our prayers to Creator. Gifting tobacco is a way of showing respect and giving thanks. Above all, tobacco is medicine. It is used in healing ceremonies, teas, poultices, and to pray for good health.

Although a few South American and Caribbean tribes chewed tobacco and used snuff habitually, there is little evidence that pre-Columbian Native Americans suffered from addiction to smoking the herb. Only the medicine-men were daily users of tobacco for healing rituals and for communicating with Spirit. Pipe-keepers were required to be of the highest character and moral standards. Tobacco was smoked during official functions such as tribal councils, and when guests visited the lodge. When hunting parties from neighboring tribes met each other in the field, the pipe was smoked among them to demonstrate peaceful intentions. A warrior seeking vision would pack his bowl with a special smoking mixture supplied by the medicine elder and then carry his pipe into the wilderness to pray for up to four days. During this time he would not drink or eat or smoke but concentrate his full attention on ‘crying-for-a-vision’. Only upon returning to the sweat lodge and relating his experiences to the medicine elder was the pipe smoked in contemplation.

“According to our way of looking, the world is animate. This is reflected in our language, in which most nouns are animate...Natural things are alive, they have a spirit. Therefore, when we harvest wild rice on our reservation we always offer tobacco to the earth because, when you take something, you must always give thanks to its spirit for giving itself to you.” Winona LaDuke. Resurgence, Sept/Oct, Issue 178, p.8.

Western Science sees plants as biological factories producing novel metabolites and natural compounds that may be useful to us in our quest for a more secure and convenient future. Janiger, M.D., and Marlene Dobkin De Rios, M.D. reported that “Nicotine may affect the concentration of biogenic amines, particularly serotonin, in the brain, which may predispose to changes in consciousness”. Native Americans believe that plants and all living beings are our allies and helpers if we learn to listen to their medicine. Our cosmology personifies the qualities that we observe in plants and animals as spirit helpers. Thus the wily and adaptable coyote is known as the ‘Trickster’, a powerful teacher. Observing that corn beans and squash grow well together by fertilizing and protecting each other, these diet staples became the ‘Three Sisters’[3], our Sustainers(pictured right). Buffalo Calf Woman changed herself from a buffalo into a woman and brought the Sacred Pipe Ceremony[4] to the Lakota People. This First Pipe is still kept and revered by the People on Pine Ridge Reservation SD. Through these stories Native Americans developed a personal relationship with the natural world and better understood its benefits and dangers.

In the Christian faith, wine is so sacred that it is used to represent the blood of Jesus. Tobacco, our most sacred plant is believed to carry the prayers of the People. These ceremonies bring comfort and a sense of one-ness with their Creator to millions of people. Yet, together tobacco and alcohol abuse have killed more Christians and Native Americans alike than all of the Anglo/Indian wars. You may say what you will about the theory of Intelligent Design; I think God is trying to tell us something. Taking that which is Sacred, to use profanely may be hazardous to our health.

The problem with mass-consumerism is that it takes whatever has the highest value and produces huge quantities until it has little value at all. The 2005 documentary ‘Bright Leaf’[5] chronicles producer’s Ross McElwee’s family history as descendants of the man who developed Bull Durham, the first successfully mass marketed tobacco in the 1800s. John Harvey McElwee stunned his genteel neighbors in Statesville NC when he unveiled his plan to begin mass producing cigarettes. James Duke, the founder of American Tobacco Company had the same idea and obtained the secret blend for Bull Durham through some 19th century corporate espionage. The ensuing tobacco war left the McElwees’ warehouses and business burned and their financial empire ruined. The Duke family went on to make a great deal of money from Bull Durham and other tobacco products. This is the history of the first mass-produced cigarette.

Native Americans traditions teach that everything that is alive has a spirit and each living beings qualities are determined by that spirit. We also maintain that when you put ill spirit or bad intentions into something, that negativity can be passed on and cause great harm. That is why we put such emphasis on “doing things in the right way”. The ‘right way’ lies first and foremost in honoring the Sacred. Indigenous peoples make very little distinction between the mundane and the sacred. All tasks and activities that contribute to the survival of the People are sacred no matter how trivial or onerous. Thus good intentions and spirit go into the production of food, material and handiwork on which the tribe depends. This good spirit is passed on from the maker to the end-user when the product is used or consumed resulting in good health and a good hunt, or harvest. What kind of intentions and spirit went into the manufacture of your current brand of tobacco?

“Before enlightenment, chop wood and carry water
After enlightenment, chop wood and carry water”
– Wu Li, Chinese Zen Master

Author Rick Fields in his seminal book ‘Chop Wood, Carry Water’[6] tried to introduce Western readers to the ancient Chinese Zen (and Native American) idea that the performance of simple daily tasks can be a form of relaxing meditation. While we enjoy the benefits of technology, our increasing alienation from the natural world has made it more difficult to maintain a spiritual outlook in our day-to-day. One solution is to go about the simplest and most mundane tasks, especially obtaining and cooking food, using water and fire and maintaining our shelter with prayerful intention. By finding joy and thankful meditation in simple pleasures and even difficult tasks, we open the door on a world of perception where our half-filled glasses may be over-flowed with satisfaction and understanding!

The making of Tobacco is a most sacred aspect of tobacco ceremony. Tobacco leaves are selected, ordered with moisture and cut and blended with herbs to make fragrant smoking mixtures. Each pipe carrier’s mixture is uniquely based on their family’s traditions. For the tobacco aficionado, the experience of enjoying your own blended rag or flake cut from the natural tobacco leaf cannot be equaled with a pack of manufactured cigarettes or pipe tobacco. The tobacco companies have kept the details of tobacco blending secret for over two hundred years refusing to list even the ingredients in their additives. What’s in your tobacco[7]?

My family created Sotoya Ceremonial Tobacco in 2003 to provide certified organically grown tobacco to our friends at Pow-wows that use tobacco in a ceremonial way. Sotoya is a Lakota word for ‘Sacred Smoke’ and we honor that tradition by growing tobacco with prayer and respect and according to ceremonial procedures. In 2005 we added the Grandad’s Tobacco website to introduce our customers to the concept of cutting and blending your own tobacco at home. Grandad’s direct markets certified organic tobacco from other small family growers like ourselves. We believe that introducing our customers to organic traditional whole-leaf tobaccos grown in a good-way will be the first step in re-introducing the present day People of Turtle Island[8] to the respectful use of tobacco in prayer and moderation.

Most Indian peoples felt that smoking together helped to create a spirit of congeniality and cooperation. "See our smoke has now filled the room," said a Delaware Indian from Oklahoma named Jesse Moses to the anthropologist Frank Speck. "First it was in streaks and your smoke and my smoke moved about that way, but now it is all mixed up into one. That is like our minds and spirit too, when we must talk. We are now ready, for we will understand one another better."[9]

For more information on Tobacco Ceremony please visit our website at
Re-prints of this article may be obtained by e-mailing us at
For complete instructions on How To Make-Your-Own Tobacco visit

’The Ride Home From Picking Tobacco’(right) and the other paintings which accompany this article are the work of Karen Lynch Harley, Haliwa Saponi artist and owner of Red Earth Gallery. Prints may be ordered at

[1] Hummingbird Brings Back Tobacco; Cherokee origin legend
[2] Plants of Power: Native American Ceremony and the Use of Sacred Plants; By Alfred Savinelli ISBN: 1570671303
[3] The Three Sisters; Iroqouis origin story,
[4] White Buffalo Calf Woman Brings The First Pipe; John Fire Lame Deer 1967
The Sacred Pipe ISBN 1567310885 Black Elk Speaks;
[6] Chop Wood, Carry Water – A Guide to Finding Spiritual Fulfillment in Everyday Life ISBN 0874772095
[7] What’s In Your Tobacco?
[8] Turtle Island; Native American name for the North, Central and South Americas
[9] Encyclopedia of North American Indians;

Thursday, June 22, 2006

What's In Your Tobacco

By Albert Sun Butler, 06/22/06

Health concerns about smoking raise questions of exactly what goes into cigarettes. Cancer rates began to rise precipitously after WWII as a whole new generation of potent pesticides and herbicides were marketed to farmers by chemical companies and county extension agents. At the same time, tobacco companies began to experiment with synthetic flavoring and processing agents so they could utilize low quality cheaply produced tobacco. This treatise is a short primer for the concerned smoker and non-smoker alike. Chemicals in our environment, applied to our farmland and in the food supply are everybody’s business.

Conventional tobacco growers are forced to rely heavily on chemicals to produce cheap tobacco. Many tobacco growers apply Aldicarb to their land to control tobacco nematodes (soil organism). Aldicarb is a serious contaminant of drinking water and can cause permanent neurological effects. Farmers often suffer nerve damage from applying this chemical. Young tobacco plants are dipped in Imidicloprid, a systemic insecticide before transplant. 14 weeks later, when aphids (a tobacco pest) feed on that tobacco they ingest the poison from inside the plant and die. Both Aldicarb and Imidicloprid are regularly detected in conventional tobacco samples.

The 2003 GAO report “Pesticides in Tobacco”[1] identifies among others ethylene di-bromide and the herbicide 2,4-D as extremely toxic residues found in cured tobacco. In 2005 the USDA Domestic Tobacco Pesticide Testing was discontinued with the end of the government regulated Tobacco Quota Program. Such testing is now left to the tobacco companies which are under “voluntary compliance” with maximum permissible residues for EDB 2,4-D and other pesticide residue levels. These permitted residue levels in tobacco are considered “safe” by the EPA.

20,000 patients are treated in US hospitals every year for pesticide poisoning, mostly farmers and farm workers. If you have any doubts about the dangers of pesticides in our food or tobacco read the document “How Toxic are Pesticides” at the website footnoted below[2]

Processed tobacco for RYO and cigarettes can have over to 496 different additives and flavorings applied to the tobacco after it leaves the field. Fumigants such as Phosphine gas[3]may be used during storage. Ethylene glycol prevents mold. Many synthetic additives have never been approved by the FDA. Other additives such as ammonia actually increase nicotine absorption into your bloodstream. This allows tobacco companies to sell “Low Nic” cigarettes that have the same kick as higher nicotine tobacco.

Reconstituted tobacco[4] is made from tobacco waste that is processed with ammonia and DAP (a fire retardant) and pressed into a paper-like sheet. “Recon” as it is referred to in the industry is sprayed with a soup of chemical additives to make it taste like tobacco again. When cut and mixed with natural leaf, reconstituted tobacco increases the “filling capacity”(less tobacco in your cigarette) of tobacco. All commercial brands of cigarettes and RYO tobacco are made with “reconstituted” tobacco unless their advertising states “100% Natural tobacco”.

According to the University of Georgia’s Cooperative Extension service, raw tobacco may contain “materials such as stalks, suckers, grass, excessive amounts of dirt, rubber gloves, foil wrappers, string, paper, etc. Barn insulating foam and rubber gloves present a special problem because their color and weight is similar to cured tobacco and may not be detected before processing”[5]. All of these contribute to off-flavors and potentially unhealthy by-products in the smoke. Tobacco growers and manufacturers go to great lengths to keep tobacco clean and to remove foreign materials. Yet industrial tobacco processors that stem and pack thousands of tons of tobacco at time can never remove 100% of the foreign material in tobacco. Some of the materials listed above inevitably wind up in your cigarette.

It is a well kept secret in the industry that a visual inspection of the final product stream from any commercial tobacco stemmery will yield some foreign materials. Only a return to traditional methods of hand inspecting every leaf could guarantee no foreign material in tobacco. This would increase the cost of tobacco stemming and manufacturing.

A small group of tobacco growers have had their farms certified organic and produced organic tobacco without pesticides for the last ten years. These growers are paid double the market price for their organically grown tobacco. Yet organic cigarettes are sold for virtually the same price as conventional premium brands. What does this tell you?

US tobacco companies could eliminate pesticide use on every tobacco farm in the country by the next growing season and still make a profit. They could pay the grower a fair price to produce organic tobacco and even a little extra to hand inspect the tobacco for foreign material. But the US consumer’s love affair with cheap discount tobacco products makes this un-likely. For a the same price of most premium conventional brands you could be smoking clean certified organic tobacco grown on family farms where growers still take pride in their tobacco. Instead, you are smoking cheap mass produced pesticide-laden tobacco that in the near future will be produced entirely in third world countries where there is little or no government regulation of pesticides. You make the choice. Write to your favorite tobacco brand and demand that they begin producing an organic alternative. When organic tobacco and other farm products become available in your area, patronize them. Don’t shortchange your health and the health of our US farming population and crop-land, for the price of a cheap smoke.
[3] Residue Formations of Phosphorus Hydride Polymers and Phosphorus Oxyacids during Phosphine Gas Fumigations of Stored Products; J. Agric. Food Chem., 54 (1),
[4] Marlboro Blend, Data and Interpretation; Casey and Perfetti, 1980

Friday, June 16, 2006

The End of Tobacco Road

This is the first of a two part series of articles titled ‘RESPECT FOR TOBACCO – A DIFFERENT PERSPECTIVE ON THE GOLDEN LEAF’. The first article explores changes in the tobacco market that are affecting the quality of the tobacco you smoke. The next article titled ’ THE CEREMONY OF TOBACCO’ honors the Native American origins of tobacco and proposes a new and deeper understanding of this powerful medicinal plant. Color Re-prints $8.00 or free by email to Includes the artwork of Haliwa Saponi Artist Karen Lynch Harley, and “Last Generation” documentary photographer Cathyrn Jirlds

The author (Tobaccoman), Sun Butler is an eighth generation tobacco farmer and organic agriculture consultant. Mr. Butler helped design the American Spirit Certified Organic Tobacco program, the first of its kind, and advises organic tobacco farmers and others on certification issues. Recently the Butler family has begun direct marketing their organic whole leaf at Pow-wows and on the Web through Sotoya Ceremonial and Grandad’s Tobacco Company and

By Albert ‘Sun’ Butler, President Sotoya Ceremonial/Grandad’s Tobacco Company
Photographs© by Cathyrn Jirlds

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are not intended to represent that smoking organic tobacco is any less dangerous to your health than smoking conventionally grown tobacco

No part of this article may be reproduced without the authors permission.

My grandfather grew the best tomatoes and watermelons in Mecklenberg County Virginia. Each year he selected the melon patch, bought tomato transplants from the same grower, and tended the vines as if they were producing the finest vintage grapes. His “special recipe” fertilizer grew lush vines which he suckered and pruned to produce huge fruit. When picking time came Grandad could judge a melon’s ripeness by the way it rang when he thumped it. We couldn’t pick a tomato until it parted from its stem with the gentlest touch. Folks said Grandad had his vegetable garden down to a science but his melons and slicing tomatoes were works of art. Grandad felt the same way about his tobacco.

You cannot buy tomatoes in a grocery store today like the ones we enjoyed during our summers on Grandad’s farm. Soon you may not be able to buy the kind of tobacco that my grandfather and his neighbors grew as well. Flue-cured tobacco produced in the “Old Belt” region of the Virginia and North Carolina Piedmont has always been known as the “best tobacco in the world”. Produced almost entirely on small family farms tended by tobacco farmers like my grandfather who had eight straight generations of tobacco culture and knowledge stored in his head, these men and women embody the maxim “ Pride in Bright Leaf Tobacco”.

“In 1954 there were over 500,000 farms in the US growing tobacco…. today there are less than 57,000”

It was not unusual for us to sit down to dinner at my grandmother’s table that was grown entirely on our farm and the surrounding farms of our neighbors. We traded vegetables for farm fresh eggs and wonderful Virginia cured hams. When my uncle slaughtered a cow we ate delicious grass-raised beef. Yet it was tobacco that paid the bills and took up the slack when other less profitable crops failed. In 1954 there were over 500,000 farms in the U.S.[1] growing tobacco and other crops from Florida to Wisconsin and from Virginia to Texas. Today there are less than 57,000 tobacco farms while the average crop size per farm has increased from 5 acres to over 100 acres. Market forces and the high costs of fuel, labor and automation are partly responsible. Yet as long as the government regulated Tobacco Quota Program was in effect, tobacco farming remained mostly on the same farms and by the same families who have been growing it here since the 1600s.

Last year’s vote in Congress to end the Tobacco Quota Program[2] will most likely snuff out of what remains of the Southside Virginia tobacco culture I was privileged to experience in my youth. Long days pulling ripe tobacco in the field were followed by late nights listening to the men tell stories as we watched and checked curing barns. When all of the ripe tobacco on our farm had been harvested we moved on to the next neighbor’s farm to help get their crop in the barn. Finally on “market day” we carried the tobacco to auction. Nothing quite matches the angst and anticipation of several hundred tobacco farmers waiting for the auctioneer to come work his magic and find out what price their year’s hard labor will bring. This year the tobacco auctioneer’s voice was silent and many traditional tobacco farming families will not be growing next season.

“…tobacco made it possible for small to medium sized integrated farms to produce many agricultural products for local consumption.”

Why should you care about changes in the tobacco market? As more tobacco acreage is concentrated on fewer farms the care and attention that each farmer puts into his crop is diminished. Critical factors such as time of harvest and the art of tobacco curing receive less attention as today’s bottom–line mentality produces tobacco quantity not quality. The kind of pride my grandfather took in producing good smoking tobacco has become a thing of the past. Tobacco companies rely on 496 different flavorings and additives [3] to make cheap foreign tobacco palatable. Some of these additives have been found to react chemically with nicotine to create a highly addictive form of free-base[4] nicotine.

To remain price competitive with foreign tobacco, U.S. growers must use pesticides and herbicides that leave residues[5] in the tobacco and on their land. Labor costs have forced most growers to abandon the hand harvest and grading that was the hallmark of American tobacco for centuries. Mechanized picking and artificial ripening agents have degraded the over-all quality of U.S. tobacco significantly in the last 20 years. There is great cause for concern about the quality of U.S. grown tobacco in the future.

Anti-Tobacco lobbyists like to predict that tobacco farming will soon become obsolete. That may be self fulfilling prophecy, but remember that tobacco has made it possible for many small to medium sized integrated farms to produce other agricultural products for the local market. Alternative crops like strawberries never produce the same returns as tobacco and our local farm products are soon under-cut by government water-project-subsidized mega-farms in California. Tobacco cultivation has kept small farming sustainable not just in the South, but as far north as Wisconsin and Canada, and west to Missouri and Indiana. Small farmers today find it more profitable to sell their land to grow houses than produce crops for local consumption. When 90% of our local family farmers have quit farming and spiraling transportation costs make it unprofitable to ship produce from California, Mexico and Chile, who will grow our food?

“Certified organic tobacco cannot be flavored with synthetic chemicals so we have to grow flavor in the field.

For the last ten years, a small group of tobacco growers in Virginia, North Carolina and Tennessee have had their farms certified organic and produced their tobacco without chemicals. The extra management required to hand-tend tobacco and other crops without pesticides has paid off with a premium price and allowed most of us to continue farming while our neighbors have sold out. Certified organic tobacco cannot be flavored with synthetic chemicals so we have to grow flavor in the field. My grandfather’s generation believed that tobacco flavor is grown in the field and made in the curing barn. We continue that tradition by hand picking only ripe tobacco and extending the yellowing time in the curing barn to ensure maximum development of flavor in our tobacco.

If you really enjoy natural tobacco flavor and care about tobacco quality there is a way you can support small farming and buy your leaf direct from the farm. Grandad’s Tobacco, a division of Sotoya Ceremonial Tobacco Company, was created for the purpose of marketing our organic leaf direct to the public. Federal tobacco regulations now allow us to sell un-processed whole leaf direct to our customers. Following our ‘Make-Your-Own Tobacco’ instructions on our website you can turn out high grade RYO/SYO and Pipe Flake tobacco. Best of all, it is legally federal excise tax free for you to make your own tobacco.

My family has grown tobacco and food crops in southern Virginia for 400 years. We and the other American small family farmers deeply appreciate your support. God bless you, and God bless the American farmer.

To find out more about Certified Organic Whole Leaf & Make-Your-Own Tobacco visit

Photographs© by Cathyrn Jirlds are now on permanent display at the Duke Homestead & Tobacco Museum in Durham NC. For more information visit For prints e-mail

[1] ‘Stuctural Changes in U.S. Tobacco Farms’; Will Snell, Dept. Agr. Econ. Univ. Kentucky'tobacco%20farm%20census%201975'
[2] ‘Tobacco Farmers Face Deadline; Ohio Democrat
[3] Additives Found in American Cigarettes; Indiana Prevention Resource Center
[4] The Science of Tobacco; Liberty Science Center
[5] Potent Pesticides Used on Tobacco; CBS News
Federal oversight on tobacco pesticides inadequate; AP