The Bakersfield Californian


Jon Hammond has written for Tehachapi News for more than 40 years. Send email to

lived between about 1850 and 1950, sometimes used little wooden frames to form rectangular tobacco cakes that were about four inches long, two and onehalf inches wide and an inch thick, about like an Altoids mint tin. The tobacco cakes were dampened each day, causing them to darken until they were blackish, and then allowed to dry. At this point they could be stored indefinitely.

So how would the Nuwä people utilize this processed tobacco? Well, it had multiple uses, including recreationally, medicinally and magically.

The most common usage was to break off a little of the cake, and then pulverize it with some slaked lime collected from near springs. This mixture could then be either “chewedlicked-swallowed-snuffed,” as Dr. Zigmond described, placing a small amount on the tongue or sniffing a little pinch.

Men also smoked tobacco, though only at night, by tradition. Some so’od was inserted into the end of a hollow section of Carizzo Grass (Phragmites australis), and this end was touched to a glowing coal to ignite it. Only a few puffs would be taken, then the burning end of this strawlike pipe was stuck into sand to be used again on another night.

Dr. Steven Cappannari, another anthropologist who worked with the Nuwä during the years 1947-49, reported that “the smoker took three puffs just before retiring. This engenders ‘good dreams.’”

Medicinally, Indian Tobacco was placed on cuts to halt bleeding, applied to insect bites to stop itching, used as snuff to clear a stuffy nose, or a small amount was ingested to induce vomiting to clean out the stomach.

The magical uses of so’od stemmed from the conviction that supernatural beings were afraid of it. A little of the mixture could be sprinkled in a campfire to keep away monsters or spirits, or a pinch could be blown into the air to keep away bad dreams. A little bit of tobacco could also be used as an offering.

Campanari wrote that “To keep from being bothered by Yawera (a threatening supernatural creature), one takes a stone, spits on it and rubs some so’od on the moistened area. Then crying “Su’un!” (He!) one flings the stone into the darkness. Setimo Girado did this every night while camped in the mountains.”

A semi-nomadic people for thousands of years, the

Traditional Nuwä moved from place to place with the seasons, mostly to harvest food resources. They carried their belongings with them on their backs, and in among the household items was usually a few cakes of the valued so’od. The age-old practice of harvesting Indian Tobacco apparently continued at least into the 1950s, perhaps even later.

As drought-tolerant annuals, the two wild tobacco species still grow in the Tehachapi Mountains, from Bear Mountain down to Sand Canyon and in many areas in between. While overlooked today, it has a rich history with the First People of our area.

Have a good week.





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