Native American Smoking Herbs
Answered by: Conrad Richter
Question from: [No Name Given]
Posted on: July 27, 1998

I’m very interested in what herbs the Native Americans smoked. I was told it was Bearberry, Lobelia and Mugwort. Can you help me ?

Bearberry, also know as Uva Ursi or by its scientific name, Arctostaphylos uva-ursi, was used in smoking mixtures. The leaves would be dried and smoked like tobacco by itself or mixed with true tobacco (Nicotiana tabacum) or other herbs. According to Daniel Moerman’s "Medicinal Plants of Native America", the following native Indian groups smoked bearberry leaves: the Blackfoot, Cheyenne, Chippewa, Keresan, Kwakiuti, Montana, Navaho, Ojibwa, Pawnee and Thompson Indians. Some smoked the leaves for ceremonial purposes, while others smoked them to relieve headache (Chippewa) and others for the leaves’ intoxicating or narcotic effects (Ojibwa, Kwakiutl). In some cases the leaves were dried and powdered and in others they were dried and toasted on a fire before use. According to Joseph Meyer in his book, "The Herbalist", the Potawotomi mixed bearberry leaves with their tobacco to give a milder smoke.

Lobelia (Lobelia inflata) is also known as "Indian tobacco" because it was smoked like tobacco. The Cherokee used it, interestingly, to break the tobacco habit. It was also used in religious ceremonies by the Crow.

By "mugwort" you are probably referring to the many Artemisias that have been used by native Indians. Which species were used for smoking and smudging herb in ceremonies is not clear but several have been suggested, including the Silver King wormwood (Artemisia ludoviciana) which we carry. This plant is often called "prairie sage" or "western mugwort". There is no question that this plant was important to native Indians because there are dozens of references to traditional uses, everything from skin and stomach ailments to bad dreams, distemper, the flu.

Other smoking herbs used by native Indians are corn silk (used as a filler with other smoking botanicals), sumac leaves (picked in the fall when they turn red), and yerba santa.

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