The straggly plant is easy to dismiss. Narrow leaves and white, trumpet-like flowers, fade easily into Northwest fields and roadsides. But Nicotiana attenuata, commonly known as coyote tobacco, contains medicinal and ceremonial properties long revered by Native American cultures.
For thousands of years, coyote and other types of wild tobacco have provided what many consider a versatile healing remedy and meditative, spiritual channel to the Creator. Much of the botanical lore was muddled, however, with the arrival of Europeans and subsequent cultural upheaval.
At Washington State University, researchers Shannon Tushingham and David Gang ’99 PhD are using a combination of archeology and high-end molecular chemistry to help identify and restore wild tobacco and other indigenous smoke plants used by Northwest Native groups.
Their work also supports a nationwide effort to design culturally-sensitive smoking cessation programs that emphasize the differences between traditional and commercial tobacco use.
Tushingham, assistant professor of anthropology, says tobacco use originated in South America, but exactly when remains a mystery. “We know some tobacco species were domesticated and used by North American Indians in farming communities about 3,000–4,000 years ago,” she says.
It certainly caught the eye of Columbus when he arrived in Cuba and noticed native people smoking “firebrands made of dried plants that produced pungent trails of smoke.” He took some of their domestic stock back to Europe where it quickly became popular. Soon, Virginia colonists were growing tobacco on large plantations and eventually the dried leaves were carried into the Northwest for trade by Lewis and Clark.
Over time, commercial tobacco—with its higher nicotine content—was substituted for the wild type in some traditional Indian rituals. Natives were also introduced to casual smoking along with an increased risk for addiction and disease.
Tushingham says those types of social changes make it difficult to understand traditional tobacco use through archeological studies alone. To gain insight, she turned to the expertise of Gang, a professor in the Institute of Biological Chemistry.
Together, they used a unique research method to document the Northwest’s oldest evidence of tobacco smoking in pipes.
Though pipes as old as 4,000 years have been found in Washington, this is the first time tobacco was confirmed as the smoking material. The pipes were found at three sites on the Snake River and one site near Moses Lake, which was carbon dated to about 1,600 years old.
To identify which plants were smoked, Tushingham and Gang put the pipes through a nondestructive chemical extraction process. “With this technique, we no longer have to grind up the artifacts, just give them more of a good scrub with soap and water,” says Gang.
Once extracted, the solution goes through molecular analysis to reveal a laundry list of plant compounds with specific chemical signatures. The findings are then compared to a list of signatures for plants that were experimentally “smoked” in the lab.
So far, Tushingham and Gang have identified several Northwest smoke plants including tobacco, kinnikinnick, dogwood, mistletoe, yew needles, madrone, and salal. Many of the plants are being grown in a greenhouse to collect seed for the Nez Perce Tribe and other Native groups.
“A big part of all my work is collaboration with Native American communities,” says Tushingham. “Having our work be relevant to a modern community is really cool.”
“We’re also hoping we can debunk common urban myths about traditional smoking,” adds Gang. “No, marijuana wasn’t a traditional smoke plant; no, they didn’t smoke that kind of tobacco; and no, they didn’t smoke it 5 or 20 times a day. They only did it on special occasions and then, often just the medicine man or chief smoked.”
It could all lead to more effective smoking cessation programs that recognize the sacredness of this powerful plant, says Tushingham. “Most national campaigns treat tobacco in black and white terms—saying that all tobacco use is bad, for example. But, that’s not the reality for many Native communities.”