The Genus Nicotiana


I was heartened by the full page public service announcement (PSA) in the December issue of the HowNikan concerning smoking tobacco.  The PSA reads, “Tobacco is an ancient tradition in our culture. It’s a sacred ritual passed down from our ancestors. But when commercial tobacco took over, everything changed. It is time to honor what is sacred and quit commercial tobacco.”

This subject is personal. My parents smoked cigarettes for most of their adult lives. They contracted lung cancer, suffered and died from a terrible addiction. Insurance companies have determined that the average smoker forfeits eight or more years of their lives. Had my parents not been addicted to tobacco, those additional, precious eight years would have afforded my family the opportunity of another generation of Wesselhöft’s getting to know and love one another.

Native Americans continue to smoke or chew tobacco at a higher rate than other groups. In 2009, approximately 25 percent of Native Americans smoked cigarettes. Nearly eighteen percent of Indians lose their lives to cancer from smoking.

If the statistical research is correct, this means that manufactured commercial tobacco is killing eighteen percent of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation!   Let me repeat that: 18% of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation is being killed by tobacco! This is tragic! This is unacceptable, absolutely unacceptable! Out tribe must experience a paradigm shift in our view of tobacco.

In less than a century after Europeans co-existed on this continent with Indians, the smoking of tobacco became popular throughout the world. In those centuries, no doubt millions suffered and died from lung and mouth cancer from tobacco addiction and the early medical profession did not realize those lives were shorten  by such an addictive plant.

I appreciate that tobacco has a sacred cultural place in Potawatomi ritual. Many of us use tobacco for spiritual and ceremonial purposes. The Sacred Pipe has a special significance for our tribe. I used tobacco ritualistically when I gave some to Linda Capps asking her to consider bestowing me with an Indian name (Naganit). We burned it ceremonially as incense at the naming. It is important that we distinguish traditional and spiritual use of tobacco from its manufactured commercial use.

If you are struggling with the addiction of tobacco, there are community resources. One of which is the Oklahoma Tobacco Helpline: 1-800-QUIT NOW.

Let’s experience a paradigm shift in how we view tobacco. It’s deadly! Let’s grow our nation by 18 %, not kill them with disease.


Paul Wesselhöft/Naganit



About Wesselhoft, Paul

Retired U.S. Army (Airborne Ranger) Chaplain; State Representative, Oklahoma House of Representatives; Representative, Citizen Potawatomi Nation.
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