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Odd Wisconsin Archive

Up in Smoke

This week the Wisconsin Senate's committee on public health approved a statewide smoking ban. Tobacco has been consumed here for hundreds, if not thousands, of years, but in a radically different way than it is today.

The first French missionary to reach Wisconsin, Fr. Louis Menard, wrote home in 1661 asking for a supply of tobacco. It wasn't for himself, but rather for exchange with the Indians of northern Wisconsin: "everything can be done with that Money," he explained.

That's because smoking was a very special custom among native peoples, one that was central to their religious practice. The large ceremonial calumet, or "peace pipe," was cherished by tribes throughout the Great Lakes and Mississippi Valley. To many indigenous peoples, the calumet ceremony was the most sacred rite in their religious practice, equivalent to Catholics taking Holy Communion. The first sacred pipe was believed by some tribes to have been given to humans by the sun at the birth of their people. It was the instrument that connected humans to the divine. Words uttered during its use rose with its smoke to the creator in the heavens, and promises made during the calumet ceremony were the most sanctified of commitments.

"He who has violated the law of the calumet," wrote the French explorer and trader Nicolas Perrot in the late 1600s, "is regarded by them as disloyal and traitorous; they assert that he has committed a crime which cannot be pardoned." Father Jacques Marquette concluded that "Less honor is paid to the Crowns and scepters of Kings [in Europe] than the savages bestow upon this." Perrot's descriptions of the calumet can be found in Wisconsin Historical Collections vol. 16, pages 27 and 43. Marquette left a long description of the sacred pipe and the ceremony in which it was used in his 1673 diary.

Nearly two centuries later, this pipe was presented to Territorial Governor James Doty in 1844 by Ojibwe Chief Buffalo. It was not a sacred object but rather a diplomatic gift, a sign of respect sent from one head of state to another. Though not intended for a religious ceremony, the pipe symbolized the solemnity and dignity of the relations between the two leaders.

Culturally speaking, this kind of ceremonial tobacco use is as far as one can get from the butt-filled ashtrays of the neighborhood bar. That kind of smoking started with clay pipes like this one which were shared in inns and taverns by early Wisconsin lead miners and pioneer settlers. After cigars and cigarettes became successful commodities later in the 19th century, entrepreneurs were happy to sell as many as possible to a growing clientele who, for some strange reason, couldn't seem to put them down. Wisconsin farmers responded to the demand and the broad leaves of the tobacco plant became a common sight in Wisconsin fields. By 1922, more than 7,000 Wisconsin farmers were raising and marketing tobacco in a multi-million dollar industry.

:: Posted in Curiosities on January 6, 2008

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