Chris Cooper
Chris Cooper, Health Education Specialist II/Research Associate California Rural Indian Health Board

American Indian Imagery and Cigarette Branding

As I rode home on the train today, I observed one person bumming a cigarette off of another person.  As the man pulled the pack of cigarettes out of his pocket, I saw the familiar silhouette of an American Indian man wearing a head dress and a sacred pipe.  And as he pulled out the cigarette, the eagle was affixed on the side of the cigarette.  The other man grabbing the cigarette asked, “What brand is this?”

The man with the pack of cigarettes answered, “They are Natural American Spirit Cigarettes.  They are safe, because they are organic and no additives.  They are made by Indians, so it is their traditional tobacco, completely safe, because you know they wouldn’t smoke anything that is bad for them.  They are really good, and like I said they are made by Indians, so they are safe”.

Upon hearing this, I began to burn with a righteous anger.  There were so many things that I wanted to say, that I did not even know where to start.  Fortunately for them, they got off the train right then, before I gave them a piece of my mind.   First off, despite the imagery on the pack of Natural American Spirits, they are not made by American Indians or Alaskan Natives.  The cigarettes are made by the Santa Fe Natural Tobacco Company which is a wholly owned independent subsidiary of American Reynolds, the second largest maker of cigarettes that also includes Camel and Kool brands.  In the past American Spirit has said, they “were created based on our belief of the traditional American Indian usage of tobacco- in moderation and it’s natural state.  Our brand name was chosen as a symbol of respect for this tradition.”1  Currently, the Santa Fe Natural Tobacco Company website says, they “have a special commitment to American Indians, whose traditions serve as the inspiration for our products.”2

It is funny, but I don’t ever remember cigarettes as being traditional.  Traditional use is to sprinkle tobacco on the sacred fire as an offering for your prayers, it is to take a puff and release the smoke to carry your prayers, it is to give back to the earth as an offering, and to use for medicinal purposes.  Even to place in a sacred pipe and seal an accord by each member taking a puff.  It was not used in moderation, it is used sparingly as a sacred gift.

In my former life, as a smoker, never once did I smoke a cigarette and say a prayer with it, or place it on the ground as an offering.  I never thought anything sacred or traditional about the cigarette, the only thing I thought, was wow, I sure could use a smoke.  Cigarettes are about addiction and making profit, nothing about tradition.

People also mistake the fact that Natural American Spirits are safe for them.  The cigarettes are advertised as 100% organic and additive free.  However, American Spirits have the highest amount of nicotine of any cigarette.  And although the tobacco may be additive free, everything else about the cigarette has the additives.  The company still has to post the warning on each pack of cigarettes, and in advertisements, they still have to say organic and additive free does not mean healthier.  The Food and Drug Administration recently sent a warning letter to the company over the use of natural and additive free in the advertising of the cigarettes.

The Santa Fe Natural Tobacco Company may say that traditional American Indian use of tobacco influences their products, but there is nothing traditional about giving cancer, lung disease, heart disease, and even death to people.  It is time for Natural American Cigarettes and the Santa Fe Natural Tobacco Company to stop using American Indian imagery and respect for tradition as a way to sell their dangerous products.  There is nothing traditional about them.

Written by Chris Cooper, California Rural Indian Health Board

  1. Akst, D, (2000, August 6). On the Contrary: Who cares as long as it’s natural. The New York Times. Retrieve from
  2. Santa Fe Natural Tobacco Company Website. Retrieved from

Upcoming Events

Attending any of these upcoming events? Have other events to share? Let us know! Email us at NNN@ITCMI.ORG to share your event information or to get on our list serve for event updates.


AAIP 52nd Annual Meeting & Health Conference | LEARN MORE