Indian Tobacco, a plant highly esteemed by the Nuwa people,
There is a plant growing in the Tehachapi Mountains that is almost entirely unnoticed by people today, but it once had considerable significance to Nuwä people who were the original inhabitants of this area. This plant with small white flowers and narrow leaves is commonly known as Indian Tobacco, and in fact it is a true tobacco and has several traditional uses.
Tobacco plants are members of the Nicotiana (usually pronounced nih-coh-shee-ANNA) genus, and there are many species — nearly 80 of them. The two species of wild tobacco found in the Tehachapi area are Indian Tobacco (Nicotiana quadrivalvis)
These two species look very similar and can be difficult to tell apart.
Both of these wild tobaccos look quite different from the commercially grown Cultivated Tobacco (Nicotiana tabacum), which is native to tropical and subtropical America, but not found in the West. Cultivated Tobacco has much larger, rounded leaves, while the wild tobaccos of our areas have more narrow, pointed leaves.
All three of those tobacco plants have sticky leaves and stalks with fine hairs, however, and they all have five-lobed flowers, though Cultivated Tobacco has pinkish blossoms and the wild ones are white.
Nuwä people knew Indian Tobacco, which tends to have larger, more robust leaves, as so’od (pronounced SOH-oh-d) and it was this species that they preferred, though Coyote Tobacco could be used when necessary, and was the only option available to some
tribes living in more interior regions of the West.
Processing tobacco for use involved many steps. In order to harvest larger leaves of Indian Tobacco, which are annuals, the Nuwä women engaged in some cultivation practices. Late in summer, the Nuwä momo’um (women) would go out to an area with Indian Tobacco and select some of the best plants for special attention.
The women would weed around these plants to reduce competition, and then they would remove the small weak leaves, the new growth just above the large leaves and stalks, and the flowering
tops, which tend to be leggy and tall. This left a denser cluster of the lower leaves in the center of the plant.
This process was repeated once a week for three successive weeks. Since the roots weren’t harmed at all, the plants responded to this pruning by growing out much larger leaves at the lower levels of the central clump. After the third pruning, the only parts remaining were the large leaves and the stems where they were attached.
This work was performed the first thing in the morning, before it got hot, to avoid fumes from the plant. An informant told ethnobotanist Dr. Maurice Zigmond in
the 1930s that this was because “the sun makes the plant smell strong and makes you dizzy.” Tobacco is, after all, a plant containing poisonous alkaloids, and is part of the Nightshade (Solanaceaea) family.
About five days or a week after the last pruning, the remaining leaves were harvested, leaving behind just bare stems. The leaves were then wrapped with willows leaves and twigs for a few days, apparently to cause some fermentation or curing, and then the
tobacco leaves were spread out in the sun to finish drying. These drying leaves were shuffled daily to ensure even exposure to sun and air.
When fully dry, the leaves were pounded into a fine powder in a pa-haz, or bedrock mortar. A small amount of water was added so the mixture could be kneaded into small cakes, traditionally flat ovals about three and one-half inches long and two inches thick.
The Transitional Nuwä, who
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