Asemaa Nitam (Sacred Tobacco First)

Offering Asemaa (Sacred Tobacco) Tie to Giishkaandag (Cedar Tree)

Nanaboozhoo (Greetings in the name of Ojibwe First Teacher)!

From the remembrances of Dr. Gokoomis (Grandmother) Jacque’s family teachings, “The first Ojibwe Anishinaabe Protocol is Asemaa Nitam (Sacred Tobacco First). Asemaa is our most important of the Four Sacred Medicines. It occupies fully the Eastern Direction. Asemaa was the first Sacred Medicine to be touched by Anishinaabe. If Asemaa (Sacred Tobacco) is not honoured in this manner then there is no need to talk about anything” (Lavallée, 2022, p. 4). She often shares a story about Nanaboozhoo (Ojibwe First Teacher) first coming from Sky World and being so taken with the beauty of Doodoom Aki (Mother Earth) that he pointed his toes so that he wouldn’t hurt her. The first thing that his toes touched was Asemaa (Sacred Tobacco) and the first teaching that he received was to give Asemaa (Sacred Tobacco) as reciprocity before taking anything from Mother Earth (Martin citing Lavallée, 2021). This first act of giving relates to the “Second Protocol: Be Kind”:

“Be Kind to every living thing on this planet. Offer Asemaa Nitam (Sacred Tobacco First). This is Kindness in its fullest. This includes offerings to bugs, snakes, fish, all the plant life, the Four-Leggeds the deer, bison, moose and caribou and animal life, all the fliers, the Eagles, the Condors, the Butterflies, and the Bees. Be Kind to all human beings starting with your own family” (Lavallée, 2022, p. 5)

From Ojibwe Anishinaabe perspectives, the Creation is Gizhem Manidoo (Great Kind Mystery). Everything that promotes life is an expression of that ‘Kind Mystery’. When we as Human Beings choose to give Asemaa (Sacred Tobacco) as an act of Kindness and reciprocity before taking/asking for anything we come into harmony with this natural pattern of life and that original teaching. If we consider that colonization essentially means ‘taking’ lands and peoples and turning them into ‘resources’, the simple act of Asemaa Nitam (Sacred Tobacco First) can be an essential first step towards ‘decolonizing’ our relationships with Anishinaabeg (Good Beings) and Doodoom Aki (Mother Earth).

In its purest form, this offering of Asemaa Nitam (Sacred Tobacco First) can be done with just the loose Sacred Medicine. However, Dr. Gokoomis (Grandmother) Jacque also shares a story about her Anishinaabe ancestors trading their hides with those first French colonists in exchange for 100% cotton fabric. In that story, that first Anishinaabe Inini (Good Being Man) to offer that trade did so out of Kindness because he did not want his new wife to suffer as much as she did when tanning hides (Martin citing Lavallée, 2021). Even though that trade for cotton cloth was a loss of culture, it was done with such Kindness and that natural material could make beautiful clothes (like ribbon skirts), it is now upheld as Sacred.

When we wrap loose Asemaa (Sacred Tobacco) in 100% cotton cloth and offer it to a Traditional Knowledge Holder as reciprocity, it gives them the option of how they will use that Sacred Medicine. For example, the cotton can be offered to the Sacred Fire along with the Asemaa (Sacred Tobacco) offering because unlike polyester it burns clean and releases that offering back to the Sky. Likewise, if that person decides to offer that Asemaa (Sacred Tobacco) to the Water, 100% cotton cloth will not pollute the water like polyester will. The wrapped Asemaa (Sacred Tobacco) also allows for a person to refuse the gift if they feel like they cannot reciprocate what is being asked.

The size of the ‘ask’ is related to the ‘amount’ of Asemaa (Sacred Tobacco). For example, asking a Pipe Carrier or other Traditional Knowledge Holder a question requires enough Asemaa (Sacred Tobacco) to fill that Sacred Pipe. According to Dr. Gokoomis (Grandmother) Jacque, this is the origin of the ‘Tobacco Tie’.

A Pipe’s worth of Asemaa (Sacred Tobacco) in a square of 100% cotton

Before Asemaa (Sacred Tobacco) was stolen from the Indigenous Peoples of Mishikenh Minising (Turtle Island/North America) and brought back to Europe to be turned into cigarettes, there would only be one Pipe Carrier in a village who would sacrifice their physical bodies by bringing that Sacred Smoke to their mouths. In other words, unless you are a Pipe Carrier, Asemaa (Sacred Tobacco) is not for smoking. Likewise, it is not a good idea to offer Asemaa (Tobacco) to young children until they are old enough to tell the difference between its use as ‘Medicine’ and its abuse as cigarettes, vape, chewing tobacco etc.

Dr. Gokoomis (Grandmother) Jacque was taught by her family to bundle that Asemaa (Sacred Tobacco) and tie it with a pretty ribbon like a beautiful present for the whole Creation. The old way to give Asemaa (Sacred Tobacco) to a person to ask them for something is from your left hand, closest to your heart, as that act of Kindness. Before a Traditional Person will accept that Asemaa (Sacred Tobacco), they will usually ask you to speak about yourself, your intentions, and your request. This gives them the freedom to refuse your offering if they cannot help you. This connects that medicine with your words/intentions, and also allows the recipient, the ‘right of refusal’ if they cannot answer your request. While a single ‘Tobacco Tie’ is usually sufficient for asking a question, a larger ‘ask’ such as engaging a Tradtional Knowledge Holder for an Opening/Closing Ceremony, or asking them to be your Traditional Teacher or Advisor on a larger project requires a full package of Asemaa (Sacred Tobacco) wrapped in a full metre of 100% cotton cloth.

While Dr. Gokoomis (Grandmother) Jacque was taught by her family that any offering of Asemaa (Sacred Tobacco) counts, even a cigarette, the closer you can get to pure, unadulterated loose leaf tobacco, the better.

Some people have great success growing Hopi Tobacco (Nicotania Rustica). While others find it easier to purchase Ceremonial Tobacco from a reputable Indigenous source like Turtle Lodge Trading Post.

It is also really important to remember that not everyone follows Asemaa Nitam (Sacred Tobacco First). There are many different teachings and they are all correct. These particular teachings come from Dr. Gokoomis (Grandmother) Jacque and her family from the Bush outside Shawanaga First Nation. However, it is likely that every Indigenous Nation/People on Earth practice some form of offering gifts as reciprocity as it is so intimately connected with Natural Law. Creation gives life with no expectation of reciprocity, the least we can do is offer our supreme gratitude and thanksgiving for all the gifts we are given as Human Beings.

Gichi Miigwech (A Great Big Thank You)!