A’semaa Nitam (Tobacco First) Protocol

A’semaa (Tobacco) Tie

Nanaboozhoo (Greetings in the name of Ojibwe First Teacher)! Hopi miinawaa (again)! As Oshkaabewis (Ceremonial Helper and Messenger) I often get asked about our most Sacred Medicine, A’semaa (tobacco). In my experience A’semaa (tobacco) Teachings are given through the Oral Tradition and are not written down. Hearing the stories in person with an Elder or other gifted Storyteller around a Sacred Fire is a much more wholistic experience that makes connections not only to your Mind, but also your Body and Soul/Spirit. In fact, throughout all of the Teachings I have been given, I have never been able to write anything down! If you have ever met my Auntie, you will probably know that she is ‘a professor of the Oral Tradition’. Through her guidance I have learned that I can only remember (ie. carry with me) what I am meant to remember. So, after many years of hearing her A’semaa (Tobacco) Teachings, I am still learning the significance of walking that old-time way of A’semaa Nitam (Tobacco First).

My intent in this context however is to share my perspective on Traditional Tobacco Protocol. While I have heard some people take issue with the word ‘protocol’, when I look it up in the English dictionary it is described as “the system of rules and acceptable behaviour used at official ceremonies and occasions“. From my Ojibwe Teachings, Ceremony can only begin when A’semaa (Tobacco) is present and all of life is a Ceremony. Even on a most basic level, we can’t even breathe without Mother Earth and all her Plant Nations! For me, I understand this most Sacred Medicine to be a Medicine of Kindness because it connects me back to that Creation Story where Gizhe Manidoo (Great Kind Mystery) taught Anishinaabe to give Asemaa as reciprocation for the gifts of all those other-than-human nations that gave so that we can live a Good Life. So, the way I was taught was to first give A’semaa (tobacco) before asking for anything. In the photo above, I am offering my A’semaa (tobacco) to Giishkaandag (Cedar) before asking her for her medicine for my tea.

In my teachings, we wrap that most Sacred of medicines in the most beautiful 100% cotton cloth we have. There is big story about this first ‘loss of culture’ when that Anishinaabe man traded all his furs for that cloth, but for now it is best just to remember that it was done in such Kindness. On a more practical level, when we give that A’semaa wrapped in 100% cotton to the Sacred Fire in prayer, it burns cleanly whereas any mixture of polyester or other synthetics will melt and trap the medicine inside. I was also taught to choose pretty fabrics that catch my eye or connect with colours that mean something special to me. There is also a story/teaching about making a ‘Tobacco Tie,’ that is too big to share here, but I often get asked, ‘How much tobacco should I use?’. The answer I have heard is enough to fill a Sacred Pipe (below).

A Pipe’s worth of A’semaa

Before A’semaa (tobacco) was stolen from Indigenous peoples and brought back to Europe to be turned into cigarettes, there would only be one Pipe Carrier in a village who would sacrifice themselves by sending those prayers up in that way. Now with that amount of A’semaa (tobacco) tied beautifully in a ribbon, and held in your ‘giving hand’ closest to your Heart, it is my understanding that you can ask a Traditional person a question or for advice. From my understanding, it is important that you share your ‘ask’ with that A’semaa (tobacco) in your hand. This connects up that medicine with your words, and also allows the recipient, the ‘right of refusal’ if they cannot answer your question. While a single Tobacco Tie is sufficient for asking a question, a larger ‘ask’ such as engaging an Elder for an Opening/Closing Ceremony, or asking them to be your Traditional Teacher or Advisor on a larger project requires a full package of A’semaa (tobacco) wrapped in a 1M square of cloth.

The next question I often get asked is where to find A’semaa (Sacred Tobacco). Although different people have different teachings, I was taught that any loose Tobacco is okay which means that you can purchase it any store that sells cigarettes. While I am not a Pipe Carrier, I have been told by those that are that there is a preference for Drum Bright Blue:

I have also been taught to learn to grow my own. I have had the most success with Hopi Tobacco or Nicotania Rustica.

Turtle Lodge Trading Post has access to local, natural A’semaa (tobacco) for ‘Ceremonial purposes only’ that can be ordered by mail. I really like how they ask people to write a letter of intent explaining why they are purchasing this Sacred Medicine.

It is also really important to remember that not everyone follows A’semaa n’tam (Tobacoo First) like my Auntie and I. There are often different ways with different Elders/Teachers from different Nations. However, it is very common amongst many (if not all) Indigenous Nations around the world to have some form of protocol that begins a relationship with reciprocity and respect. The best way to begin is always to ask!

G’Chi Miigwech (Great Thanks)!