Rabbitbrush Rambler: Smoke gets in your eyes

Full disclosure:  I have never tried marijuana, so I cannot testify personally about the weed’s effects on relaxation, pain, or detachment from reality. I don’t smoke tobacco either. I often burn incense and a candle while I pray, though, so I have some connection with primitive customs.

Pre-Columbian explorers in the New World found indigenous people inhaling the smoke of herbs and wood. Wherever native people roamed in the Americas, they used native plants for their smokes, from Cuba to Marlboro Country. And, as every school child knows, Sir Walter Raleigh introduced “tobah” or “tabaco” to the Old World, although they might not have known that even earlier Portuguese navigators brought it from South America to Japan, and Turkey soon had some as well.

This tobacco was not the same plant as some others that have loosely been called “Indian tobacco.”   

Here in this area, Poncha Pass, also known as “Punche Pass” in the old days, and Punche Valley got their names from a plant or plants that were popularly called Indian tobacco.   

Mullein, I believe, might have been their tobacco, along with other possibilities. Sometimes called “velvet plant,” mullein is a common, conspicuous weed along roadsides and in waste places. It has roots and leaves that have also been used for folk remedies for various ailments.   

Do not try it. Doing so may be hazardous to your health.

Marijuana, “mary jane,” is not native here. It grows in many places around the world and has various close botanical cousins, like one called “ditch weed” in Nebraska. Another, hemp, is raised as an agricultural crop. Smoking cannabis goes back thousands of years in the Middle East.

In religious ceremonies and folk practices, smoke from burning wood and herbal materials was employed for seeking cures for illness or evil. Smoke was believed by its practitioners to have power to ward off bad influences in the natural world.

Novels, poetry, and Westerns from Hollywood have helped to romanticize smoke in Indian lore. Ceremonies were and still are performed by Navajo medicine men, using smudges of smoke to treat physical or vague ills like curses. Peace pipes that were smoked in ceremonies were intended to show agreement and harmony among those sharing the pipe. And smoke from other substances had practical functions such as smoking meat and fish or sending smoke signals.

But with our without hallucinogenic drugs, European explorers and colonizers did not discover a garden of Eden in the New World. What they actually found, according to anthropologists and paleontologists, were indigenous people who had been on a downward trend for the previous thousand years or more, with decreasing population and shorter life spans. 

Surprisingly, anthropologists theorize that agriculture contributed to this declining condition in North and South American, rather than making them more robust as one might expect. Instead of hunting and gathering food wherever it might be found, as nomadic tribes like Ute Indians had been doing, covering large distances on their own two feet, agricultural people were growing crops close to home. 

They might have been working hard, but their diets were not well-balanced with all the green veggies, fruits, nuts, dairy products, and proteins that nutritionists like to tout today. And crops could be destroyed by disasters such as drought, flood, fire, insects, and enemy raids, causing hunger and more poor malnutrition.

Moreover, these farmers now were urban people, living in villages and apartments that were crowded, smoky, and poorly ventilated and lacking in hygiene and sanitation. Little wonder that respiratory and other diseases abounded, as archeology reveals. 

It’s hard for me to believe that such conditions could be improved with smudges or inhalations of smoke from Indian tobacco, but users seemed to think they could be. In reality, marijuana for its part is known to cause depression and addiction, hallucinogenic episodes, and reduced learning ability, and to slow reaction time and movement when they are most needed, like when the Europeans arrived with their guns and horses.