Tribal Cannabis: The Story Behind Native American Smoking Ritual

In the Western world, there has long existed a fascination towards the Native American culture, especially in the last several decades, when the European and Northern American collective consciousness started paying far more attention to the connection between nature and ourselves.

As you are probably already aware of, the majority of Native American tribal cultures have cultivated a truly deep and spiritual connection with nature, something that the modern man finds almost utterly missing from his life.

Ever since the industrial revolution, man is becoming more and more in touch with his technological advancements, and less with his inner peace and relationship with the living world around him.

Just like the eastern practices of yoga and meditation, the native spirituality and shamanic practices have become a subject of inspiration for many, in the recent years.

Perhaps the tragic and overtly dramatic past of these cultures has us feeling guilty for what has happened, especially when we stop and perceive what became of our own culture.

Self-adoration, the constant pursuit of higher status and a blatant disregard for dealing with troubles of the psyche have left many of us looking for alternative ways to overcome the everyday modern ails like anxiety, depression and other subtle but at the same time very serious issues of the mind.

It’s not difficult to imagine the serenity and calmness that these ancient cultures had, and it’s pretty obvious how we could all benefit from acknowledging and actively participating in the renewal of our connectedness with the ethereal spirits of nature.

There are numerous misconceptions and myths about the customs and practices that old Native Americans had in regards to spirituality, so we’re going to spend some time getting acquainted with the basics of their belief systems, before moving on to the core of this piece, which is the habitual ritualistic pipe-smoking of the indigenous Americans.

Mythology and Religion

Passed down orally from generation to generation, the majority of Native American narratives include stories inseparably intertwined with the environment, and are filled with motifs of animals, plants, seasons, weather, water, skies and fire.

Also the belief in the omnipresent Great Spirit (an anthropomorphic God who encompasses everything) was very frequent — a deity that often meddles in the business of humans. It’s also very interesting that they didn’t perceive the Great Spirit as a menacing entity, but just as the creator of everything there is.

The overall central theme of these religions and tales was that everything is universally one, and that all of us (humans, animals, plants, and even non-living parts of nature like mountains and rivers), are a part of the exact same thing.

Practices and Worship Rituals

Many of the tribes had similar routines and procedures, and they included the use of sacred herbs such as tobacco (Nicotiana Rustica), sage, sweetgrass and the mixture called kinnikinnick, which greatly varied from tribe to tribe and was mostly incorporated in the spiritual and medicinal practices of the tribes located on the western coast of the United States.

Other procedures were comprised of group dancing (Sun Dance, Ghost Dance), fasting, prayers and drumming. Some tribes also performed sacred peyote rituals, which is a hallucinogenic cactus that causes trance-like mind altering states.

As we previously specified, these practices and rituals were highly individualized, and the early European trailblazers recorded that even the smallest groups had their own unique system of customs and religious ceremonies.

I wanted to go slightly off-topic and expand on the Ghost and Sun dances in greater detail, because of the captivating meaning behind them.

The Ghost Dance

The Ghost Dance was a religious movement that started at the end of the 19th century, and rapidly spread throughout numerous Native American tribes.

They believed that the correct execution of the dance had the power to re-connect the deceased spirits with the living, aid them to fight off the colonists, bringing a new prosperous age of unity and peace.

The foundation of the Ghost Dance was the classical circle dance practiced by numerous Indigenous Americans since ancient times, and each tribe customized it to fit their own unique beliefs.

The Sun Dance

The Sun Dance is a ritual ceremony mostly practised by the Plain cultures in the United States and Canada, and the purpose of this dance was a prayer for healing, where few select powerful individuals were chosen to make personal sacrifices that will benefit the entire community.

The Sun Dance involves healthy young males going through severe physical and mental ordeals that usually last for several days, accompanied with fasting from food and water.

Other features of the dance include music from drums, a holy fire, the sacred pipe prayers, and also frequently the ritualistic piercing of the young males chests, which are then tied to the central pole by leathers, around which the entire dance revolves. Also, unique plant mixtures are prepared just for this ceremony.

The usual practice includes families of the participants staying close around the dance, providing support and praying for their success. Many precise details remain unknown to this day, because all tribes are universally reluctant to share information about it, preventing outsiders from learning its secrets.

As previously mentioned, most of the sacred affairs conducted by the tribes had the element of ritualistic pipe smoking, so we should definitely elaborate on this subject, because it holds such a significant place in their culture and habitual ceremonies.

The Native American Smoke Ritual

Even though it’s definitely one of the most recognizable traits of the Native American tribes, the pipe ceremony is still undoubtedly shrouded in mystery (to a certain extent), so we’re going to extensively elaborate on this matter, in order to clarify and identify any misconstructions.

Wrongfully dubbed “peace pipes” by the first settlers, they have, and are still used to this day for peace treaty agreements, but that is only one of the numerous ceremonies where the pipe has found its use in these archaic cultures.

Each of the tribes used different materials to create these sacred objects, and the exact mixture of ingredients also varies greatly from culture to culture.

Indian ritual

The trailblazers also discovered that the pipe was given universal respect among all of the tribes they came upon, and that it was even used to halt ongoing battles between warring tribes.

Some of the first settlers were given pipes by the tribes to offer them the rite of safe passage through the lands, ensuring that no one will engage them in combat when they have this precious artefact in their holding.

The pipe itself represents a connection between the physical and spiritual plane, a sort of a bond that attaches the skies and the Earth.

The smoke from the herbs reaches everything, and ultimately becomes a part of all there is.

The flame symbolizes the fires of the sun, which is solely responsible for sustaining all life.

Tobacco and other plants represent a profound connection to the Earth, because their roots are seated deep within it.

All these rituals are intricately designed to elevate the human’s perception of the inter-connectedness of all things, which can be a very rewarding spiritual understanding, especially when we consider that these practices were performed from a very young age.

Most of these rituals had the same objective:

To acknowledge, and at the same time give respect to the primal six energies most Native Americans believed in.

Four of these energies are represented by the four cardinal directions, and each of them symbolizes certain aspects of nature and positive human characteristics.

West epitomizes the ever-needed rains, and the spirit world.

North represents human’s divine power and strength, the potential for divine truthfulness and honesty.

East is a symbol of the sun’s power, which brings us wisdom and is the basis of all spirituality.

South serves as a motif of medicine and general human’s ability for self-improvement.

Dreamcatcher

The last two energies (and also the most important in the sacred pipe ritual) represent Mother Earth, and the Great Spirit, their only deity, the universal source of all life.

Also the pipes themselves often had different magical symbols engraved on them, to intensify the overall effect and the attraction of desired energies.

The actual smoking ceremony consists of loading of the pipe, which is done in four steps, symbolizing the acknowledgment and respect of the four cardinal directions. While honouring each direction, a pinch of mixture (or just tobacco), is offered to that side of the world, letting the spirits know that you are addressing them. This process is repeated for every direction.

If it’s a group ceremony, the pipe will be passed around and the ritual will conducted by the so called “Pipe Carrier”. The acceptance of the pipe is performed with the right hand, and the bowl is held with the left. The smoke is released along with a silent (or verbal prayer) reaches the heights where the Great Spirit dwells.

The sacred pipe is always handled with the utmost respect, and is only used for these spiritual rituals, which can be performed by an individual, or as a group. Almost all of the remaining tribes continue this holy tradition to this day.

The plants used in the mixture included tobacco, bearberry, lovage, red willow, white willow, mugwort, birch bark, wild cherry bark and other sweet smelling herbs, depending on where the tribe was located and which plants were currently in the season.

Because the mixture is usually very strong, the smoke is puffed rather than inhaled.

The planting, harvesting and general cultivation of these herbs was a responsibility of “Tobacco Society”, and it was a very respected position in these cultures.

Even though the indigenous Americans weren’t smoking cannabis in their pipe rituals, you can easily draw a parallel between them and modern day marijuana-enthusiasts.

Cannabis, besides its scientifically proven medicinal attributes, causes the individual to spend more time thinking about the important primal aspects of existence, and that ultimately leads to a less aggressive, more stable and ultimately a more highly developed mind. No pun intended.

I’m aware that it may seem far fetched at first, but when you stop to think about it: all those hours contemplating about the universe and religion and other deep aspects of life while pleasantly intoxicated by cannabis, it would be somewhat ludicrous to expect that nothing good ever came out of it.

In my own humble experience, I perceived that my pothead friends are generally more in touch with everything around them, having a lesser degree of prejudice (toward minorities, sexual preferences and pretty much every other kind of discrimination), then the people I know that never indulged in marijuana.

This concept could be called the philosophical aspect of pot, and once I finished the research needed to put together this article, I realised that the core principles between the old-time Indians and the modern day “new-renaissance” stoners are amazingly alike, following the same guidelines of ethics, morale and humanism.

Of course it can be said that it was much easier for them to follow this path of righteousness, because the world was a much simpler place then, but it’s also quite imperative to re-ascertain the knowledge and wisdom that these ancient cultures had, in order to steer humanity from this clearly ominous path we’ve set ourselves upon.


Fanatic weed lover ever since late teens. Writing about 420 culture and weed basics. Can be found discussing various conspiracy theories with his friends.

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