- Indigenous to the Americas, tobacco is a sacred and powerful plant in many indigenous cultures. Its intoxicating effects were well known and rarely used for recreational purposes. In some cultures, it was never smoked or ingested in sufficient quantities to cause intoxication or addiction, but was utilized as a means of making smoke that was understood to carry invocations and prayers to respected or powerful other-than-human persons. Many North American indigenous ceremonies and events are initiated by the communal smoking of a tobacco pipe. These animist actions are the broad context or milieu of more specifically shamanic performances and understandings.However, many Amazonian shamans make extreme use of tobacco’s intoxicating powers. Carlos Fausto notes that tobacco consumption is “the hallmark of shamanic activity” in Amazonia and that it is used more widely and more commonly than any other psychoactive plants or derivatives. While contrasting Amazonian and Andean shamanism in South America, Juan Ossio notes that inhalation of sufficient quantities of tobacco to induce the vomiting of copious phlegm for healing purposes, alongside sucking as a curative practice, is commonplace in the Amazonia lowlands but not in the Andes. Similarly, Eduardo Viveiros de Castro’s observation that, among the Amazonian Araweté, “the usual way of saying that someone is not a shaman is petıTobacco ã-ıTobacco, a ‘noneater of tobacco’” demonstrates the centrality of intoxication among shamans. In nighttime communal rituals, men are served large cigars by their wives or female friends and smoke (“eat”) tobacco until they become “translucent enough to experience shamanic visions.” New initiates smoke almost until they faint, but the tobacco that “slays” them in this way is also a means of reviving those who have fainted and, perhaps, lost their souls. The smell of tobacco and the unpleasant odor given off by the bodies of shamans made dangerously ill by overconsumption of tobacco and, via smoke, nicotine may mask the stench of blood and thus disguise the malevolent activities of “dark shamans.”
Historical dictionary of shamanism. Graham Harvey and Robert J. Wallis. 2007.