Feb. 22, 2021

How to understand Blackfoot perspectives on gifting tobacco

Teachings from UCalgary Elder in Residence Reg Crowshoe on ceremonial tobacco
Reg presenting to the United Way on traditional roles
Reg Crowshoe gives a presentation to the United Way on traditional Indigenous roles. United Way Calgary and Area photo

For Indigenous nations across North America, tobacco has deep-seated sacred and ritual roots. Although protocols and medicines may differ from region to region, the majority of nations uphold the significance of tobacco as a sacred plant used as an offering for knowledge and as a relational act of reciprocity, something that continues to be practised to this day.  

Since ii’ taa’poh’to’p, UCalgary’s Indigenous Strategy, launched in 2017, its aim has been to Indigenize ways of knowing, doing, connecting and being on our campus. One of the many ways we can achieve this collective goal is by understanding and embedding ceremonial activities and Indigenous protocol, like offering tobacco, into our operations here at the University of Calgary.

Sharing knowledge

To understand the significance of tobacco from a traditional Indigenous perspective, it is important to understand the meaning of ceremony. According to UCalgary Elder in Residence Reg Crowshoe, a Traditional Knowledge Keeper and ceremonial leader, “Ceremonies are legal proceedings based on respect and truth that validate and protect oral traditions.”

A request for wisdom and a transfer of knowledge from an Elder/Traditional Knowledge Keeper often includes and begins with the offering of tobacco, he says. Although the offering of tobacco is embedded in an oral system, it is the action of donating tobacco that validates the application for information. 

When an individual wants to share what they have learned from a Knowledge Keeper, Crowshoe says, “Traditionally, you respond by stating that you gave tobacco to an Elder, and they gave you this story — in our way, traditionally, they would respond that yes, you heard a true story.” In a parallel context, the offering of tobacco certifies an oral contract. 

Traditional ceremonial protocol for tobacco 

There are different types of tobacco, says Crowshoe: “There is recreational tobacco, and then there is the tobacco that is planted and harvested for ceremonial purposes.”

From a Piikani perspective, Crowshoe illustrates for us a traditional practice that makes ceremonial tobacco sacred to Blackfoot Peoples. “Through a process of ceremony, tobacco planters plant special tobacco seeds in a secret location,” he says. “In the fall, tobacco is harvested and then brought back to the community in a ‘beaver bundle’ and shared among the leaders.” This series of events is an example of how tobacco gets used in the Piikani/Blackfoot ways of knowing, doing, being and connecting. 

Crowshoe provides an example. “Let us say I wanted to make a deal with you for your property, and I would take tobacco from the beaver bundle, mix a little with regular tobacco, fill that pipe and give you that pipe and then make my request. If you choose to smoke the pipe, we have now entered a legal, contractual agreement under the legislation of the beaver bundle.” 

According to Crowshoe, the story of the beaver bundle originates from Blackfoot Country “east of the Rocky Mountains towards the Saskatchewan River, down to Yellowstone.” Among other cultural uses, beaver bundles legitimize oral legal practices, transactions and responsibilities.   

An Elder’s knowledge is grounded in the authority and respect of their acquired life wisdom. 

FAQ for UCalgary faculty and staff

Q: Who are Elders/Traditional Knowledge Keepers? 

A: Traditional Elders (also called Traditional Knowledge Keepers) hold positions of respect in their communities, as they are often appointed with the roles of teachers, role models and mentors.   

Q: Where should staff go to get tobacco?

A: “Some people get their tobacco from the Indigenous stores that sell it,” says Crowshoe. “I have been offered many types of tobacco — a package, a cigarette, a leaf of tobacco. I have been given a pouch, which is tobacco placed inside a small sheet of cloth. I’ve received tobacco in many ways, but I have always related them to the concept of an application. Get tobacco wherever you can find it.” 

Q: Do all Indigenous nations use tobacco the same way?

A: “It is essential to recognize that there are many nations,” says Elissa Twoyoungmen, BA’15, UCalgary’s Indigenous cultural engagement and protocol specialist. “Some nations from different regions may speak the same language or are related somehow, but may still have their distinct practices based on connections to a specific landscape. So there may be differences regarding how they approach ceremony.” 

For more information about Indigenous cultural education or protocol at UCalgary, including advice about purchasing and using tobacco for ceremonial purposes, staff and faculty are encouraged to contact Twoyoungmen, a key member of the UCalgary’s Indigenous Strategy team, at etwoyoun@ucalgary.ca, or the staff at Writing Symbols Lodge.

ii’ taa’poh’to’p, the University of Calgary’s Indigenous Strategy, is a commitment to deep evolutionary transformation by reimagining ways of knowing, doing, connecting and being. Walking parallel paths together, “in a good way,” UCalgary is moving toward genuine reconciliation and Indigenization.

Tobacco in Blackfoot  

  1. pi’ksiistsimaanni: tobacco mixture  
  1. pisstááhkaanistsi: tobacco, cigarettes plural   
  1. saipstaahkohkivai: give tobacco out (to the individuals present at the opening of a medicine pipe bundle)