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August 25: Tobacco Gardens

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Dr. Gilbert Wilson, a University of Minnesota anthropologist, journeyed to North Dakota around 1912 to interview Buffalobird-Woman, who was in her 70s. In the forward of his subsequent book, Agriculture of the Hidatsa Indians, Wilson wrote:

“[Buffalobird-woman] is a daughter of Small Ankle, a leader of the Hidatsas in the trying time of the tribe’s removal to what is now Fort Berthold reservation … She has a quick intelligence and a memory that is marvelous...”

Among the crops Buffalobird-woman explained to Wilson was tobacco. Here’s a portion of what she said:

“Tobacco was cultivated in my tribe only by old men. Our young men did not smoke much … They were taught that smoking would injure their lungs and make them short winded so that they would be poor runners. But when a man got to be about sixty years of age we thought it right for him to smoke as much as he liked. His war days and hunting days were over. Old men smoked quite a good deal.

...tobacco gardens were planted apart from our vegetable fields … [because] tobacco plants have a strong smell which affects the corn.

Tobacco plants began to blossom about the middle of June; and picking then began. … Tobacco was gathered in two harvests. The first harvest was of [the] blossoms … Old men were fond of smoking them.

Picking blossoms was tedious work. The tobacco got into one’s eyes and made them smart just as white men’s onions do today. Only the green part of the blossom was kept. The white part I always threw away; it was of no value... The blossoms were always dried within the lodge. If dried without, the sun and air took away their strength... When the blossoms had quite dried, my father fetched them over near the fireplace...and roasted [a piece of buffalo fat] slowly over the coals. This piece of hot fat he touched lightly here and there to the piled-up blossoms, so as to oil them slightly, but not too much...

… Just before frost came, the rest of the plants were gathered … Leaves that remained on the plants were smoked, of course; but it was the stems that furnished most of the smoking.”

Those were the words of Buffalobird Woman as told to Dr. Gilbert Wilson in or around 1912.

Dakota Datebook by Merry Helm

Wilson, Gilbert Livingstone, Ph.d. “Agriculture of the Hidatsa Indians: An Indian Interpretation.” Bulletin of the University of Minnesota. Minneapolis: Nov 1917.

Dakota Datebook is made in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota, and funded by Humanities North Dakota, a nonprofit, independent state partner of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in the program do not necessarily reflect those of Humanities North Dakota or the National Endowment for the Humanities.

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