Authors: Deborah Ellis
Tobacco is a native crop, first used by Indigenous people for ceremonial purposes. After the arrival of the Europeans, it was grown as a cash crop. The money the settlers got for their crop helped fund the American Revolution. Even George Washington grew tobacco. It grew more popular, and the invention of the cigarette-making machine meant that hundreds of thousands
of cigarettes could be produced every day, even after everyone realized how bad smoking was for people's health. A new product needed a new market.
In Canada, under Section 87 of the Indian Act, Aboriginal people do not have to pay tax on personal property. Canadian cigarettes for non-Aboriginals are heavily taxed
called a “sin tax” to discourage smoking and to help cover the extra health-care costs incurred by smokers (health care being paid for by the government in Canada). The government decides how many tax-free cigarettes each reserve will use and ships them to on-reserve dealers. Although the cheap cigarettes are supposed to be sold only to reserve residents, some see it as a way to make money by selling to anyone. Tax-free smoke shops have become a regular feature on many reserves.
Many Indigenous communities in Canada and the United States are working to encourage the traditional use of tobacco, producing products that are all-natural and chemical free for use in religious ceremonies.
Mari comes from Minneapolis, Minnesota. One-third of Minnesota's Native Americans live in the Twin Cities of St. Paul/Minneapolis, and 15 percent more live in the suburbs of those cities.
I was born in Minneapolis, and I'm part of the Leach Lake Ojibwe. I go to a classical private school. We study humane letters, logic, Latin, writing, algebra, the Bible, theology, the classics like
The Confessions of St. Augustine
. I like humane letters the best.
I feel more Ojibwe than American because I do all the traditions and follow the culture. I do the Full Moon ceremony to celebrate a woman's moon time and I do the Dark Moon ceremony, which is like a sweat but in a dark room.
It makes me feel happy to do these things. Whether it's me doing it today or another Ojibwe woman doing it five hundred years ago, it ties me in with her and with all the other Ojibwe. It makes me feel hopeful, like the traditions will continue.
My mother works with the Division of Indian Work. It's a non-profit organization that works with American Indians in Minneapolis around health and social problems. She does things like teen pregnancy prevention, helping women give birth in the traditional way, youth leadership, housing, all kinds of things.
I've been working on this anti-smoking project with some other Native kids. The program is called Mashkiki Ogichidaag, which means Medicine Warriors.
Tobacco is part of our culture. We use it for spiritual things, like when we burn it with prayers, our prayers are carried upwards to the Creator. It wasn't something to use all day, every day. When we're out on the land, we leave tobacco behind as a thank-you to the earth. It's a special thing to give tobacco as a gift. It's a sign of respect. Traditional Native tobacco is all natural. The stuff in cigarettes is all poison and chemicals.
My people use tobacco now in ways that are not traditional and are not good for us. It causes cancer and breathing problems like emphysema. It also makes a mess.
A lot of smokers are not very careful about what they do with their cigarette butts. They just throw them anywhere. I don't know if they don't think the butts are garbage, or if they also throw garbage everywhere, but I've noticed a lot of smokers are just messy about this.
I got tired of seeing cigarette butts tossed around. They look ugly and they're not natural and so all they do is hurt the environment. They're poison! Dogs could eat them, birds could get bits of that poison tobacco when they're hunting around for insects or worms. Little kids too little to know any better could be crawling around the park, pick up a cigarette butt and put it in their mouths, because little kids put everything into their mouths! It could make them very sick, with upset stomachs or seizures or even worse. You'd think smokers would think about stuff like that before they toss their butt away on the ground. How much energy would it take for them to just throw their cigarette butt into a garbage can? Some adults are lazy.
My mother believes we are responsible for the earth and for each other, and that when there's a problem, we all need to pitch in to fix it.
A few of us kids got together and made a plan. We started out by making a presentation to Mom's colleagues about people not smoking on the grounds of their office, so that it's a clean, healthy place for people to come to.
Then we went into a public park to pick up cigarette butts. We took empty tin cans with us, and spent a very sunny afternoon going around the park and collecting up all the butts smokers had just tossed into the grass. We took all the cigarette butts to a meeting of the parks board and showed them how many there were, and we explained what the dangers are.
I think they were surprised. I think they already knew about the dangers of cigarettes â at least, I hope so! â but I think they were surprised that we felt so strongly about it.
The parks board meetings are shown on local cable TV, so I knew a lot of people would be watching when I and another kid from the group stepped up to the podium. As the project leader, I did the speaking, and I showed all the butts we had picked up. There were other groups there too that night, all asking for the same thing.
And we won! The new policy is that no one can smoke now in public parks in Minneapolis!
I've done other presentations too â to schools, to youth groups, to the All Nations Indian Church. I went to a media training day to learn how to create public service announcements. I keep learning new things so that I can keep doing new things. Other kids come and go from the group â their lives get busy with other things â but there are always new ways to recruit new kids to keep the project going.
This is an easy thing for kids everywhere to do. If adults are smoking in a park or outside a hospital or a church or whatever, you can go and pick up the butts and get the newspaper to come and take pictures, and maybe the adults will be so ashamed they'll throw their cigarette butts in the garbage where they belong.
I guess I have a different kind of idea of what's fun. Picking up other people's garbage is not fun, but making things better is.
When I'm not doing this kind of work and I'm not in school, I play soccer. I have asthma, but I don't care about that. I just play.
I like to sing too. We had an American Idol-type competition, called Franklin Avenue Idol, and I entered. I sang an Etta James song and people really liked it. I also performed at the Native American Arts Festival. Plus I love to design clothes. So I do lots of things.
The more I do, the more I want to do.
A lot of Native Americans are stressed out. Not a lot have steady jobs. The economy is bad for many people, and it's really bad for Native Americans. I want people to be kind to each other and treat each other well. That would make it easier for everyone.
Mashkiki Ogichidaag youth have produced four anti-smoking videos: “Secondhand Smoke at Work,” “Cigarette Butts Clean Up,” “What Would You Rather Be Doing?” and “What Our Community Has to Say.” They can be seen on YouTube.
Nipissing First Nation Reserve is on the north shore of Lake Nipissing in Ontario. Roughly 2,500 people are registered as belonging to the community, and 900 of them live on the reserve in several small villages. They are of the Anishinabek Nation, descendants of the ancient Nipissing, Ojibwe and Algonquin peoples. In 1615 they were “discovered” by Samuel de Champlain, although archeologists have evidence they were in the area for at least 9,400 years before the Europeans arrived. They ate pickerel and whitefish from the lake and hunted in the forest.
Nbisiing Secondary School is teaching the new generation of Anishinabek leaders. Academic studies are combined with traditional teachings and ceremonies.
Jason is a student at this school.
I was born in Toronto. My father is from Nipissing First Nation near North Bay, Ontario. I don't know where my mother is from.
I lived with my mom until I was two. Then I moved to the reserve and lived with my grandmother. Then my grandmother died and I went to live with an aunt.
My mom took off. I don't know where she is and I don't want to know.
I'm good at science but not at math. I hold a lot of scientific theories in my head. I can see them there clearly, like drawings. Science is beautiful. All science â space science, biology, chemistry. All of it.
I used to go to a Catholic school in town that was mixed Native and white kids. I was in a mainstream class until grade four. Then they put me in special ed. I understand the concepts behind the work, but I have trouble letting people know I understand. They need proof. They can't just take my word for it. I've been back and forth to Sick Kids hospital in Toronto for testing. They're looking into learning disabilities. So far they've come up with a label of autism PDD [Pervasive Development Disorder].
I didn't care about going to special ed. I mean, I didn't feel bad about it. It was more comfortable than being around kids who thought they were perfect.
And sometimes I'd hear teachers say things like Stupid Indian kids, or Those Indian kids give us so many problems. Not all the teachers. But it just takes one to give you a really bad day.
Now I'm in the high school on Nipissing Reserve. It's a mainstream high school, not special ed, but the teachers take the time to help us learn. They work with us to find out how we learn best. It's a small school too. No one gets lost in the crowd. We call our teachers by their first names. We can eat in class if we get hungry. We can feel that the teachers respect us and really want us to do well, so it's easy to have a positive attitude. There's a sign on the door of the teachers' room that says: They may not remember everything that we teach them, but they will always remember how we treat them.
And that's true. We all have stories from being in mixed schools. White teachers calling us Wagon Burners or doing some stupid fake-Indian craft like making war bonnets. Hearing kids say racist things to us and not doing anything to stop it, like it's no big deal. Or teachers that expect us to be stupid because we're Native, so if we're struggling with math or something they don't make a lot of effort to show us we can do it.
I wasn't around my father or mother much when I was growing up, but I know the bad choices they made. It feels like I'm on the outside of their lives looking in, and I can see how the mistakes they made have affected their lives and their family's lives. I look at them for who they are and what they've done and I don't like it.
Mom's gone, somewhere. Dad's gone too. I know where he is but I don't have much to do with him. It would have been nice to have had them both around looking after me and watching me grow up, but what's the point of wishing that?
I'm doing okay. I live in a more isolated part of the reserve, only three houses. Me and my aunt are in one, my uncle is in another. He has his own wood mill set up there. The area is called Mosquito Creek.
It's great. I can ride my ATV and not bother anybody. I have a pet husky named Copper. He was a golden color when I first got him. Now he's gray. He stays outside. He's used to rough living.
Since my dad's mother and my mom's mother both died, I have no grandmother in my life. That leaves a real empty place, to be without a grandmother. But a few of the grandmothers of the Ojibwe tradition have adopted me as their grandson. Every kid needs grandparents, either blood ones or adopted ones.
People contribute themselves to me, so I try to pass that along and contribute to others. In North Bay I'm involved with Special Olympics, helping out with lots of activities. When I volunteer, people treat me with respect. In Sturgeon Falls, when I was younger, I experienced a lot of racism. Adults, mostly, giving me racism on the street or when I went into a store. Grown people who are really ignorant, more ignorant than kids but they get to vote and run the country. Go figure. People gave me their bad attitudes. I tried to tune it out and pretend it wasn't there. I know I should always stand up and say something, but racists won't see it that way and they're likely to come after me. And a lot of the people who believe the stereotypes about Aboriginal people don't think they're being racist, and they get really mad if you point their ignorance out to them.
But I hate it when I'm walking down the sidewalk, minding my own business, and some white adult calls me filthy racist names. It interrupts my day. It happened more when I was smaller. Now that I'm bigger, the white cowards don't risk it.
I used to have anger problems when I was younger, probably because I was having trouble learning. I'm lucky to not be on any meds. I know lots of kids who are on meds to control their behavior. I'm learning how to manage my own temper and I have the self-discipline to get me where I want to be.