A sacred herb, cannabis has always been a resource of infinite potential to Native Americans. It was smoked in peace pipes as a tool of diplomacy, as many know, but its application in everyday life in the 1400s – and much earlier – is far broader than that, as you’ll see.
The Fibers of the Five Leaves
Modern English gets its word “canvas” from the Latin word for “hemp,” which was “cannabis.” Throughout history, this plant has been known more for its textile versatility than its hallucinogenic properties. Native Americans benefitted from its durable fibers, and they grew it to produce hemp thread, cordage, clothing, paper and food. Ropes made from hemp could be used for hunting, building shelter, dispensing justice and myriad everyday things. In 1619, a Virginia law referred to two kinds of hemp – English and Indian – when mandating that all farmers grow hemp. The so-called “Indian” hemp was dogbane (formally, Apocynum cannabinum), which is distinct from the hemp that actually comes from India, cannabis indica. Native Americans had been using dogbane for thousands of years to make rope, and the plant is indigenous to North America.
The Medicinal Marijuana of Yesteryear
Science continues to discover ever more uses for cannabis in treating a multitude of ailments, from nausea to seizures to impaired vision and, yes, even COVID-19. Even without having any of today’s laboratories and technological wonders though, Native Americans were availing themselves of cannabis just as innovatively. They used it in various forms (e.g., tea, root decoction) as a stimulant and psychological aid, and to treat gas, gout, joint pain, hip pain, muscular atrophy, lethargy and other maladies. Dogbane also acts as a vasoconstrictor and diuretic, so they administered it through tea or a poultice to treat heart palpitations, eye disease and headaches. Also, the Chickasaw and Choctaw tribes chewed the fresh root and swallowed the juice as a treatment for syphilis. And the Lakota (who, today, actually oppose marijuana, as do the Dakota) once used the milky sap of the plant to remove warts.
The Spiritual Side of Smoking
Sacred pipes (also known as peace pipes) were sometimes packed with cannabis to intensify visions experienced during special ceremonies. Smoking through these holy objects served as a means of communicating with sacred beings, and could even be used as offerings to the Almighty. The pipes were believed to be living beings, and the names they were given were indicators of their importance. Personal accounts from some Native Americans have described smoking cannabis as part of a sacred ceremony and as a conduit for meditation.
The Cherokees have a legend that says cannabis (which they call “Gatunlati”) was brought to this planet by the Star People, who seeded our world with what we know as humanity. The story says that this plant was so important that the Star People believed it was integral to the survival of humans as a species. Ironically, however, the Cherokee Nation of today does not allow any medical or recreational marijuana.
In modern-day Mexico, some tribes regard cannabis as a sacred gift from Rosa Maria or Santa Rosa. In Veracruz, Hidalgo and Puebla in particular, tribes there practice a communal curing ceremony with a plant called Santa Rosa, identified as cannabis sativa. The herb is considered both a plant and a sacred intercessor with the Virgin Mary, and is worshipped as an earth deity that represents part of the heart of God.
From History to the Here and Now
Today, cannabis offers Native Americans burgeoning entrepreneurial opportunities. Although there remains hostility between the federal government and federally recognized tribes concerning the legality of cannabis, the prospects are still debatably good. Ganjapreneur has an entire webpage dedicated to reporting on developments in this area, and New Cannabis Ventures provides a list of Native American cannabis-related businesses. Similarly, Emerald’s list of indigenous-owned cannabis businesses contains more than 100 retailers and is updated regularly. And Canna Con published an article on the role of cannabis in furthering Native American sovereignty, which is one objective in legalizing it.
The Debate: Was what the Native Americans used really cannabis/hemp?
To many, it might seem intuitive to suppose that Native American peace pipes sometimes contained cannabis. As it happens though, not everyone believes that. In fact, there are two sharply divided schools of thought concerning whether cannabis was present in the Americas before Europeans “discovered” the New World.
Argument 1: Native Americans had cannabis/hemp crops before the New World was established.
One theory is that cannabis made its way to the continent of North America when humans crossed the Bering Strait from Asia, the plant’s continent of origin. (Read the full explanation here.) The core argument is that, since humans were likely using cannabis regularly in Asia, there’s no reason why that plant wouldn’t accompany them from that point forward. When you move, you take everything with you that you need; you don’t leave important things behind. Cannabis was important for fiber, wood and oil – all indispensable commodities.
Multiple academic studies, archeological findings, journal entries from early European explorers, and other firsthand accounts conclude that indigenous peoples were using cannabis long before any settlers came to North America. Some of the earliest evidence of hemp in North America is associated with the ancient Mound Builders of the Great Lakes and Mississippi Valley. Hundreds of clay pipes, some containing cannabis residue and wrapped in hemp cloth, were found in the Death Mask mound of the Hopewell Mound Builders, who lived in modern-day Ohio in roughly 400 B.C.
Argument 2: What Native Americans had wasn’t actually cannabis/hemp, which didn’t exist in the Americas until the colonizers brought it there.
The other side claims that cannabis didn’t complete its journey from Asia to North America until its transit was the product of political and economic influences. You can read the full explanation here, but here’s the gist of it.
Cannabis originated on the Tibetan Plateau, and nomadic Asian tribes brought it to the Middle East and Europe. Much later, Middle Eastern merchants brought cannabis to Northeast Africa (specifically, Egypt and Ethiopia), and its use spread throughout the continent from there. Much, much later, when Portuguese slave traders purchased cannabis-consuming slaves from Angola (Southwest Africa) and brought them to Brazil, the plant was introduced to South America. Then, Spanish colonists introduced the plant to Colombia, Chile and Mexico, and British colonists introduced it to the indigenous peoples of North America. Prior to that, however, the plant was nowhere to be found in the Americas.
Not being an expert in Native American studies, anthropology, archaeology or any other relevant “ology,” I can’t intellectually align myself with either side. From what I read in the sources cited below though, I think the Bering Strait theory is highly plausible. And it was worth entertaining that notion simply to learn something obscure about the history of a culture that has had a profound impact on this country.
Civilized, “5 Facts About How Cannabis Was Used By Native Americans,” https://www.civilized.life/articles/5-facts-about-how-cannabis-was-used-by-native-americans/.
Civilized, Video: “5 Facts About How Cannabis Was Used By Native Americans,” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rfihL8SMAYs&feature=youtu.be.
Dispensing Freedom, “Did Native Americans Smoke Week?,” https://dispensingfreedom.com/2019/10/20/did-native-americans-smoke-weed/.
Marijuana Moment, “Largest Native American Tribe Takes Step Toward Reforming Marijuana Laws,” https://www.marijuanamoment.net/largest-native-american-tribe-takes-step-toward-reforming-marijuana-laws/.
Wikipedia, “Cannabis on American Indian reservations,” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cannabis_on_American_Indian_reservations.
Canna Con, “Can Cannabis Assist Native Americans In Self Sovereignty,” https://cannacon.org/cannabis-native-americans/.
Old West History, “Five Facts About How Native Americans Used Cannabis,” https://www.oldwesthistory.net/2019/12/07/five-facts-about-how-native-americans-used-cannabis/.
New Cannabis Ventures, “Tag: Native American Cannabis,” https://www.newcannabisventures.com/tag/native-american-cannabis/.
Sensi Seeds, “Cannabis History: How Cannabis Came to America,” https://sensiseeds.com/en/blog/cannabis-history-how-cannabis-came-to-america/.
Archaeology Review, “Cannabis in the Americas. When and from Where did it Arrive?,” https://ahotcupofjoe.net/2019/05/cannabis-in-the-americas-when-and-from-where-did-it-arrive//
Senate of Canada, “Historical and Cultural Uses of Cannabis and the Canadian ‘Marijuana Clash,’” prepared for the Senate Special Committee On Illegal Drugs (12 April 2002), https://sencanada.ca/content/sen/committee/371/ille/library/spicer-e.htm.
Wikipedia, “History of cannabis,” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_cannabis.
Terpenes and Testing Magazine, “Cannabis in Ancient Cultures; Native American,” https://terpenesandtesting.com/cannabis-in-ancient-cultures-native-american/.
Law Professor Blogs, “Native Americans & Cannabis: History, Religion, Fraud, & the Future,” https://lawprofessors.typepad.com/marijuana_law/2019/03/native-americans-cannabis-history-religion-fraud-the-future.html.
Vocal, “Cannabis and Native Americans,” https://vocal.media/potent/cannabis-and-native-americans.
Ganjapreneur, “Native Americans,” https://www.ganjapreneur.com/topic/native-americans/.
Medical Marijuana Inc., “The History of Hemp in America,” https://www.medicalmarijuanainc.com/news/history-hemp-america/.
Merry Jane, “America’s Long History of Hemp,” https://merryjane.com/culture/america-s-long-history-of-hemp.
Emerald, “Conscious Consumption: 100+ Indigenous-Owned Cannabis Businesses to Support Right Now,” https://theemeraldmagazine.com/conscious-consumption-100-indigenous-owned-cannabis-companies-to-support-right-now/.
RiNo Supply Company, “First Nation Americans Relationship with Marijuana,” https://www.rinosupply.com/first-nation-americans-relationship-marijuana/.
Government of Canada, National Indigenous Medical Cannabis Association (NIMCA), Position Statement – Indigenous People, Cannabis and Bill C -45, https://www.ourcommons.ca/Content/Committee/421/HESA/Brief/BR9074826/br-external/NationalIndigenousMedicalCannabisAssociation-e.pdf.
Dispensing Freedom, “The History of Indigenous Cannabis: Natives, Explorers, and Colonists,” https://dispensingfreedom.com/2018/03/14/history-indigenous-cannabis-natives-explorers-colonists/.
Hemp Shopper, “400 BCE: Hopewell tradition Mound Builders smoke marijuana and produce hemp fabrics,” https://magazine.hempshopper.com/en/hemp-history-bce/120-400-bce.
Buy Hemp CBD Oil, “Hemp and the Hopewell Mound Builders,” https://www.buyhempcbdoil.com/hemp-and-the-hopewell-mound-builders/.
Cannabis Digest, “Hopewell Mound Builders, Did Native Americans grow cannabis?,” https://cannabisdigest.ca/ancient-north-american-hempsters/.
Sunwest Genetics, “Did Native Americans Smoke Weed: History Can Tell,” https://www.sunwestgenetics.com/did-native-americans-smoke-weed-history-can-tell/.
The Pharmaceutical Journal, “Native North American medicines,” https://www.pharmaceutical-journal.com/news-and-analysis/features/native-north-american-medicines/20003905.article?firstPass=false.
Britannica, “Sacred Pipe,” https://www.britannica.com/topic/Sacred-Pipe.
Kathleen Hearons is an editor, writer, voice-over actor and avid cinephile. She lives and works in the greater Los Angeles area.