Morice states that even the very act of smoking was unknown to them before that. Their stupefaction at beholding smoke issuing from men’s mouth – and their scorn for tobacco when they ascertained that it was not edible is described.
Mackenzie also notes that the Indians he encountered upstream from Fort Fork on the Peace River were complaining about the lack of tobacco and ammunition. They must have acquired it from the West Coast people.
The pipe seems not to have commanded such a religious observance among the Athapaskans. The alternative conclusion is that these Indians did not admit the white man to ceremonies in which the pipe was featured. It is unlikely that such ceremonies would altogether escape the white man’s notice.
Several plants are noted as “Indian tobacco”. The inner bark of willow in early spring was shredded into strips and dried. So was the bark of the northern dogwood. This plant is a distant relation of the dogwood of the Coast. The bark stays a beautiful red all winter, which causes many people to refer to it as “red willow”, another family of plants altogether, rather than by its proper name.
A low, ground-hugging evergreen vine with rather leathery leaves is the bearberry, commonly known all over British Columbia as “kinnikinick” or Indian tobacco. The leaves are dried and powdered.
All of the above – and there may be others – were used to mix with the traders’ tobacco. Whether the Indians adopted these to make commercial tobacco “go farther”, or whether they had always used them is not clear. The trade tobacco was the rankest, coarsest, cheapest variety, but it seems unlikely that the Indian would deliberately adulterate it to make it milder.
Since the Beavers had no chiefs, or warrior societies, it is likely that they lacked the traditional sacred ceremonies in which the pipe played such a prominent part as among the Indians of mid-Alberta, especially the Blackfoot, Stoneys and Sioux.
Nevertheless, a certain point on the old Athabasca River route was known as Pierre au Calumet or “pipestone”. The name may have been given by the French Canadian voyageurs.
Whenever the Indian used the pipe, it was not for personal pleasure or amusement. The pipe was an exceedingly holy, religious object, used only on solemn occasions. The smoke was “incense”. Before the pipe was smoked, it was lighted in a ceremonial way and offered up to the North, South, East and West, with prayers and songs to invoke the Great Spirit’s powers.
The pipe attained great significance after the news of the famous visions of the great Sioux holy man or wishasha wakon, Black Elk, began to circulate among the Plains tribes. Then, sometime before 1890, the famous Sioux “Sitting Bull” had a vision or dream of a Messiah in white buffalo robes, and saw dead relatives restored to life and the buffalo returning to cover the plains. The Messiah, he said, instructed the defeated old Chief, once the mightiest of warriors and the most feared man of the Western Prairies of Canada and United States, to lead his people in a return to their old glory. Sitting Bull met his death, if not premeditated murder, as a result of the Indian’s excitement over the message. Old ceremonies were revived. They have not died out. Even today there are militant or semi-militant groups in both United States and Canada, embracing many tribes. Some Indians report that a sort of password is current, – the question “Do you know the pipe?” This writer has encountered it in correspondence with some Indians prominent in Native Rights movements. Our native researcher, Rick Belcourt, reported that he was challenged with the same question when he interviewed native leaders at the big pow-wow held in Alberta in 1973.
It is unlikely that the peaceable Beavers, “know the pipe.” The fact that so powerful a symbol seems – and we emphasize this word – never to have taken on a religious symbolism for them, would indicate a profound separation of Athapaskan and Algonkian cultures from earliest times to the present.
In his book, Tatanga Mani, Grant McEwan makes the statement that “The Blackfoot did grow tobacco”, although he doubts that they settled down long enough to plant and mature a crop.
The item recalled to mind an incident in the Cariboo. There are many Indian graveyards along the highway. In one, in a grassy “cove” in the hills near Lytton I was poking about the graveyard when I noticed several two-foot stalks bearing an unusual seed capsule. A vague recollection of a similar distinctive fruit could not be resolved until I remembered the fruit of the evening-scented “flowering nicotine” of flower gardens. The Flora of Southern British Columbia by Henry disclosed that Nicotiana attenuata grows wild in that area.
The question arises, “Did the Athapaskan-speaking Chilcotin and other Indians know its use?” Not too far away is “Botany Valley”, a famous place for gathering medicinal herbs from time immemorial. Could the product have penetrated North through the system of barter, especially into the hands of “medicine men” of the Northern Athapaskans?
Tobacco was grown at or near Peace River Town before the turn of the century.