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Impearls: HIC 4.08: Tobacco

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Earthdate 2005-11-12

Tobacco   by A. L. Kroeber

All the tobacco smoked by the Yurok was planted by them — a strange custom for a nonagricultural people far from all farming contacts.  The custom, which extends also to southwestern Oregon, and in the opposite direction probably to the Maidu, is clearly of local origin.  Logs were burned on a hilltop, the seeds sown, and the plants nursed.  Those who grew tobacco sold to those who did not.  A woman's cap full or not full was the quantity given for a dentalium shell, according as this was of second smallest or shortest length — a high price.  Tobacco grows wild also, apparently of the same species as the planted, but is never used by the Yurok, who fear that it might be from a graveyard, or perhaps from seed produced on a graveyard.  The plant does seem to show predilection for such soil.  Otherwise it sprouts chiefly along sandy bars close to the river; and this seems to have caused the choice of summits for the cultivated product.

The pipe was tubular, as always in California.  Its profile was concave, with the bowl flaring somewhat more than the mouth end.  The average length was under 6 inches, but shamans' and show pieces occasionally ran to more than a foot.  [Fig. 11, a; see also Pl. 30.]  The poorest pipes were of soft wood, from which it is not difficult to push the pith.  Every man who thought well of himself had a pipe of manzanita or other hard wood, beautifully polished, probably with the scouring or horsetail rush, Equisetum, which was kept in the house for smoothing arrows.  The general shaping of the pipe seems to have been by the usual northwestern process of rubbing with sandstone rather than by cutting.  The bowl in these better pipes was faced with an inlay of soapstone, which would not burn out in many years.  Sometimes pipes had bits of haliotis inlaid next the steatite; others were made wholly of the stone.  The pipe was kept in a little case or pouch of deerskin.  It could be filled by simply pressing it down into the tobacco at the bottom of the sack.  Pouches have been found in California only among the northwestern tribes.  Tobacco was stored in small globular baskets made for the purpose.  These receptacles are also a localized type.  (Pl. 73, e.) 

A few old Yurok were passionate smokers, but the majority used tobacco moderately.  Many seem never to have smoked until they retired to the sweat house for the night.  Bedtime is the favorite occasion for smoking throughout California.  The native Nicotianas are rank, pungent, and heady.  They were used undiluted, and the natives frequently speak of them as inducing drowsiness.



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