Honoring traditional tobacco and health serve as big motivators for some Native Americans to quit commercial tobacco.

Returning to Tradition

By Mallory Black/Native Health News Alliance



Motivation to Quit Smoking from Native Health News Alliance on Vimeo.

SAN DIEGO—A little over a year ago, Pernell-Thomas Begay made a New Year’s resolution to stop smoking cigarettes.

“I was 29 at the time and I thought, ‘Wow, I’m going to be 30,’ so definitely it was kind of an age factor and knowing full well that [smoking] was bad for you,” he remembers.

Begay, a Navajo college student who lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico, began smoking nine years ago after a friend offered him a cigarette.

After one previous attempt to quit, he decided it was time to talk with his dad about his habit; that conversation that finally put things into perspective.

“He just talked to me about how tobacco is sacred for the Navajo and that it’s abused nowadays, and we were just talking about how it was used as medicine, [for] ceremonial purposes and how it was used as payment to tribal medicine men,” Begay said. “Taking that point of view – that mindset – seeing the tobacco as sacred and something that shouldn’t be abused, it kind of helped me more not to smoke cigarettes.”

His dad helped in other ways, too, serving as the foundation for what he calls his ‘support network,’ including his sister, elders and other people in the community who encouraged him to quit smoking for good.

For generations, Native Americans have grown and used traditional tobacco for medicinal, religious and ceremonial purposes. An old Lakota tradition says the spirits enjoy the smell of traditional tobacco smoke. Another Blackfeet story says tobacco calms the spirit and brings peace, health and unity.

Kathy Wilcutts is a Lakota sacred pipe cultural educator with the Southern California American Indian Resource Center (SCAIR). She said the connection Native Americans have with tobacco is the same connection they have to Mother Earth – and one of the biggest reasons tobacco has played a part of ceremonies for so long.

“To me, [traditional tobacco] is energy – energy that we can utilize when we use those sacred plants,” Wilcutts said.

But over the years, traditional tobacco has become harder to come by in parts of Indian Country, especially for those living in urban areas, according to Dana Kingfisher, tobacco program coordinator at the Missoula Urban Indian Health Center and a member of the Blackfeet Nation.

She said this lack of access forces some Native Americans to substitute with commercial cigarettes.

This switch-up is sending mixed signals about the dangers of commercial tobacco to Native communities, said Diana Bigby, another member of the Blackfeet Nation and program manager of the Tobacco Use Prevention Program in Montana’s Fort Belknap Indian Community.

“There’s a specific purpose for traditional tobacco – it’s for prayers, for offerings, to honor somebody and positive things like that,” Bigby said. “Then there’s commercial tobacco, where there’s a lot of negative effects on your health, the environment, so be conscious of the differences between the two.”

Instead of offering commercial cigarettes, Wilcutts suggests using other natural elements like dried flowers, cedar and sage, if traditional tobacco is unavailable.

What matters, she said, is the spiritual connection one makes with the plants.

‘It’s never too late’

Commercial tobacco use isn’t anything new in Indian Country. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, American Indians and Alaskan Natives have the highest prevalence of cigarette smoking compared to all other U.S. groups, but more than half say they want to quit.

Judy Krejce, an Ojibwe from Minnesota’s White Earth Reservation, had her first cigarette when she was 12 years old. Both of her parents smoked, as well as most of her siblings.

Krejce attempted to quit smoking cigarettes 25 years ago, but eventually she gave in to the temptation to continue the habit.

Determined, she quit again last summer. Like Begay, she wanted to respect the spiritual connection with tobacco and something else: herself.

“I wanted to quit because I was starting to get worried about my health,” said Krejce, now 62 and smoke-free. “I didn’t want to go end up on oxygen.”

It’s no secret that commercial tobacco can lead to severe respiratory problems like asthma and lung disease, but it can also lead to heart disease, cancer, and increased risk and complications of diabetes and stroke.

From health to spirituality, to family and respect, there are many motivators inspiring Native people to kick the habit. But despite the increased awareness of the health impact of smoking cigarettes, commercial tobacco use continues to be one of the leading factors in health problems facing Native Americans today.

Krejce said the first key to quitting smoking is the smoker acknowledging they are mentally ready to overcome the temptation and then allowing that knowledge to keep them motivated.

“Today when I think about it, and I do – I still think about having a cigarette once in a while, once a day probably – it doesn’t linger, I don’t let it linger,” Krejce said. “I just go, ‘Remember why you want to quit,’ and then it’s gone.”

Begay, a former high school cross country athlete, started running again after he quit, and says that keeps him motivated to stay smoke-free.

“Here in Albuquerque, I’ve ran three or four 5K races, so it’s just looking at my next race and improving my time for the next 5K, and [I do] simple exercises when I get a craving,” Begay said.

Bigby said running and other exercises can help recent smokers stay motivated. She also suggests smelling cinnamon sticks – not using e-cigarettes – to help stave off cravings.

Research by the University of California, San Francisco showed electronic cigarettes are not effective in helping adults to quit smoking. In fact, the study found smokers were 28 percent less likely to stop smoking when using e-cigarettes as an alternative.

Julie DePhilippis is an Aleutian youth coordinator for SCAIR’s tobacco use prevention education program. While she works primarily with Native youth, she said no matter what age, it’s always worth trying to quit – especially for those concerned about their health.

“What’s really amazing is your body repairs [its] self over time,” DePhilippis said. “I tell participants… ‘If you quit now, you’re less likely to get that stroke from smoking and other stuff as well.’ It’s never too late. It’s pretty amazing what your body can do.”

Her advice for quitting? “Stay busy,” she said.

Chewing gum, eating hard candy or exercising to get a boost of feel-good adrenaline can all be effective in place of smoking commercial tobacco or e-cigarettes.

“Try to find something you like to do, even if it’s like 30 minutes every other day,” DePhilippis added. “Stick to it and do it.”


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