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Tobacco Gardens


Dr. Gilbert Wilson, a U of M anthropologist, journeyed to Independence, ND, around 1912 to interview Buffalobird-Woman, who was in her 70s at the time. 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 was born in one of the villages at Knife River two years after the ‘smallpox year,’ or about 1839... she has a quick intelligence and a memory that is marvelous... In the sweltering heat of an August day she has continued dictation for nine hours, lying down but never flagging in her account, when too weary to sit longer in a chair. Goodbird’s testimony that his mother ‘knows more about old ways of raising corn and squashes than any one else on this reservation,’ is not without probability.”

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

“Tobacco was cultivated in my tribe only by old men. Our young men did not smoke much; a few did, but most of them used little tobacco, or almost none. 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 still commonly planted when I was twelve years old; but white men had been bringing in their tobacco and selling it at the traders’ stores for some years, and our tobacco gardens were becoming neglected.

“...tobacco gardens were planted apart from our vegetable fields in old times [because] tobacco plants have a strong smell which affects the corn; if tobacco is planted near the corn, the growing corn stalks turn yellow and the corn is not so good. Tobacco plants were therefore kept out of our corn fields.

“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, which we reckoned the best part of the plant for smoking. Old men were fond of smoking them. Blossoms were picked regularly every fourth day after the season set in. If we neglected to pick them until the fifth day, the blossoms would begin to seed.

“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...Now and then he would gently stir the pile of blossoms with a little stick, so that the whole mass might be oiled equally.

“About harvest time, just before frost came, the rest of the plants were gathered–the stems and leaves...When the tobacco plants were quite dry, the leaves readily fell off. 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.

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

Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm