Using Culture as Prevention

After the snow of winter and before the thunder of spring, Mat Pendleton goes to harvest the sacred tobacco.

He goes down by the river and cuts off a branch of the red osier dogwood, or red willow, to be shaved into sacred tobacco.

This is similar to the time when Pendleton was a boy, when his father and brother taught him about sacred tobacco.

Kara Siegfried (right), certified health specialist and member of the Lower Sioux, discusses the medicinal properties of sacred tobacco at a Lower Sioux Indian Community event.
Kara Siegfried (right), certified health specialist and member of the Lower Sioux, discusses the medicinal properties of sacred tobacco at a Lower Sioux Indian Community event.

Pendleton, the recreation director at the Lower Sioux Indian Community, teaches youth about this significant cultural tradition, which has survived generations despite being made illegal.

He said he feels it’s his duty to carry on the tradition of the Dakota people, especially because those traditions can heal past wounds and prevent future ones.

“That is who we are. That is our connection to God, the creator,” Pendleton said.

Sacred tobacco had been made illegal, along with other Native American religious artifacts, until 1978. That opened the door for commercial tobacco, including cigarettes, to become incredibly common in that time and many Native Americans became addicted.

Now that sacred tobacco is legal again, the Lower Sioux are reclaiming and introducing it back into their lives.

In Dakota tradition, nothing is taken without giving something back. Sacred tobacco is used as an offering, as an act of remembrance, to honor or to heal.

“Say we’re out harvesting berries. We give that tobacco as an offering to that berry bush that’s providing us food for our bodies. We’re giving thanks for that,” Pendleton said.

Even during the harvesting of the sacred tobacco, an offering from a previous harvest is put down by the red willow before a single branch is removed. It is also offered when visiting significant sites. When Pendleton was accompanying a group of young people on a tour, they gave tobacco to Red Rock in Newport, Minnesota, an important spiritual site.

Sacred tobacco is not just used on special occasions, but in everyday life.

Through different workshops and activities, Pendleton gives young people the tools to build an understanding of the benefits of sacred tobacco. The activities are hands-on and engaging for the youth. Before community basketball games, for example, tobacco is offered before the teams take the floor.

Seeing kids, such as his son, teaching other kids about harvesting and the use of this tobacco, is an example of the impact Pendleton’s teachings are making in the community. This is personally rewarding to him because he knows a big part of the culture is coming into their lives.

“That’s what I continue to work for is to give the kids tools to do all the good things that they’re put here to do — to be a good Dakota, a good relative, that’s with all of our teachings,” Pendleton said. “And it gives me pride to see all our young people growing and living like our ancestors lived with the tradition and knowing our medicines and knowing what it is to be Dakota.”

At pow wows, sacred tobacco is used instead of commercial tobacco to thank the drums and the entities. Many spiritual buildings are also instituting no-smoking areas to help eliminate commercial tobacco.

Informing the community about the benefits of sacred tobacco draws them back to this important part of their culture and results in a decrease in commercial tobacco use for current and future generations, Pendleton said.

Pendleton was invited to Grand Portage to show a documentary called “Reclaiming Sacred Tobacco” that he was in and talk about what he does.

Although sacred tobacco is a big focus in the workshops, reconnecting the Dakota people to the water is also a big part of making a healthier community, Pendleton said. For example, community groups go up to Leech Lake and learn how to harvest wild rice.

“So that sacred tobacco is that vessel, I said, so to make us healthy, to help us fight addiction, depression, anxiety, diabetes is to get more active, eat healthier and to respect that tobacco,” Pendleton said.