In most schools, campaigns to keep students from smoking use simple slogans like “Be Smart, Don’t Start,” but those targeting Native American kids are a bit different. On Wyoming’s Wind River Indian Reservation, you’re likely to hear more nuanced catchphrases like “Keep It Sacred,” and “Traditional Use, Not Commercial Abuse.”
That’s because tobacco is an indispensable part of many Native American traditions. But with sky-high smoking rates on reservations, Wyoming Public Radio’s Aaron Schrank reports that the need to limit nontraditional tobacco use is greater than ever.
Growing up on the Wind River Indian Reservation, Reinette Tendore started smoking cigarettes when she was 13.
“It was because I was surrounded by it,” says Tendore. “My family smoked, and all of my peers did.”
Native Americans smoke at higher rates than any racial or ethnic group in the country. Forty-five percent of Native American Wyomingites use tobacco, according to the Wyoming Department of Health. That’s compared to 18 percent of all Americans.
Tendore quit for good after 10 years and when she had a son, she made sure he knew about the dangers of smoking.
“My mom said it was bad, so I listened, and never did it,” says Hudda Herrera, Tendore’s 14-year-old son.
He’s faced the same peer pressure his mom did—but has stayed smoke-free with her help. So, a few years ago, when Tendore lit up in front of Hudda and his cousins as part of a traditional ceremony, Tendore says the kids were a little confused.
“They looked at me like, ‘Auntie, why are you doing that?,’ says Tendore. “And my son even said, ‘Mom, can you do that?’ So I used that as a teaching moment. Like, this is where we’re going to learn.”
What Tendore then taught them is that there’s an important difference between puffing on Marlboros for pleasure, which is harmful and addictive—and using the tobacco plant in ceremony to offer up prayers to the Creator.
Hudda says he now understands tobacco use is complicated.
“I see it at ceremonies and everything—like tribal ceremonies that I go to,” he says. “Yeah, I think it’s a—if it’s used the right way—it’s a good thing to use.”
The right to use tobacco has been passed down here through the generations. Stanford Devinney teaches the Shoshone language to students at Wyoming Indian Elementary School and Wyoming Indian High School. The 55-year-old is also an Eastern Shoshone sun dance leader and an authority on traditional tobacco use.
“When they’re saying their prayers, the smoke of the tobacco is lifted to the heavens and the prayer is with that smoke,” says Devinney. “So we don’t actually inhale the smoke. We send it up to the heavens—to Tam Apo—so that he can hear the prayers of the smoke.”
Tobacco is a sacred gift given to Native Americans by the Creator long ago, Devinney says. Along with herbs like sage and sweet grass, it’s used in a variety of ceremonies and prayer rituals. But Devinney says, over the years, commercial tobacco has snuck into ceremonies.
“In the beginning, the tobacco was grown and gathered by different tribes,” says Devinney. “They grew it just like they grow corn. Nowadays, tobacco can be purchased anywhere.”
Devinney remembers that the tobacco of choice used to be Bull Durham. These days, it’s often American Spirit cigarettes. He says no matter what’s used, ceremonial smoking should be occasional, not habitual—as health risks are serious.
“There’s the good side of that tobacco and the bad side of the tobacco,” says Devinney. “Just like water—it’s a life giver and it’s life taker.”
With store-bought cigarettes now the source of smoke at most ceremonies, the line between traditional use and commercial abuse is blurrier than ever. But it’s a line that needs to be clearly drawn, says Brian Enos a tobacco prevention specialist working on the reservation.
“A lot of the Native Americans here—they like to say, ‘well, it is my tradition or it is my heritage to use tobacco,’” Enos says. “I’m having to find that real fine line between between ‘are they really using it traditionally?’ or ‘are they addicted?’ You know there’s a lot of denial in addiction, and we’re no different."
Enos regularly visits schools to teach kids about the difference between traditional and commercial tobacco use.
“We say, ‘you know you guys come from a very honorable people,’” says Enos. “’We’re unique in our beliefs and the way that we live.’ It kind of builds a little bit of pride in them. So, when you get them when they’re young, they’re like, ‘I’m never going to smoke,’ but unfortunately, peer pressure changes them when they’re adolescents.”
Not all of them. Hudda Herrera has pledged to be drug, alcohol and tobacco-free. His mom, Reinette Tendore says when she was a smoker, she often mistook her addiction for tradition.
When I had a stressful day or something was really going on in our family, I’d be like, ‘Let me go outside and have a cigarette and pray,’” Tendore says. “I know I did that a lot.”
But Hudda knows better—and wants the same for his peers.
“I would want them to stay traditional with the tobacco and keep it that way,” he says.
And with youth smoking rates here far above state and national averages, the need to keep tobacco traditional is great.
These reports are part of ‘The American Graduate: Let’s Make It Happen’—a public media initiative to address the dropout crisis. Supported by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.