Currently on display in the temporary exhibition From the Land of the Great Spirit, are three Native American pouches that are made from buckskin and decorated with glass beads. These are tobacco pouches and not only once carried tobacco leaves, but also a sacred pipe known as Chanunpa.

Traditional tobacco used by Native American and First Nations people is a mix of tobacco leaves and other plants, and is primarily used for ceremonial and medicinal purposes. Traditional tobacco preparation and its use varies across Tribes and regions, with Alaska Natives not commonly using traditional tobacco. These variances are due to the many different teachings among Tribes of North America and Canada. In some cultures, the roles of growing, harvesting, and preparing tobacco are held by specific groups of people who use traditional ways to prepare tobacco for a specific use. One common teaching involves the importance of having good attitudes and thoughts while working with traditional tobacco. This is important because of the use of tobacco in healing and ceremonies where negative energy is unwelcome.

Tobacco pouch made of buckskin and glass beads. Anishinabek First Nation, Canada. 19th century. Accession number M6643a

Traditional tobacco is used as a medicine, which can be used in a prescribed way to promote physical, spiritual, emotional, and community well-being. Both men and women are traditionally seen as being healers in Native American society. Tobacco may be used as an offering to the Creator or to another person, place, or being. A gift of traditional tobacco is a sign of respect and may be offered when asking for help, guidance, or protection. Traditional tobacco is sometimes used directly for healing in traditional medicine. It may be burned in a fire or smoked in a pipe, yet the smoke is generally not inhaled.

Tobacco pouch made from buckskin and glass beads. Mandan tribe, North Dakota, USA. 19th century. Accession number M1150.2

In many teachings, the smoke from burned tobacco has a purpose of carrying thoughts and prayers to the spirit world or to the Creator. When used appropriately, traditional tobacco is not associated with addiction and adverse health impacts.

Many of the pouches are decorated with beadwork, and these reflect different styles and meanings. Early 19th-century European observers and travellers made constant reference to the decorative beadwork on the clothing of the Northern Plains people, such as the Cree. Traditional patterns consist of abstract forms. Later, through contact with European settlers, floral designs predominate. Beadwork was found on almost every item of traditional clothing, functional hide, and cloth work. The glass beads they used were purchased from European trading companies. Beaded creations were, and still are, an important source of income for many Native Plains women and families.

Tobacco pouch made from buckskin and glass beads. Plains Cree people, Canada. 19th century. Accession number M6643b

Beading was historically women’s work in Native Plains societies. Both women and men gained respect when their families were well-dressed, women for industriousness and artistry, and men as hunters and providers for supplying the skins. Often girls learned to bead from an older relative or other elder of the community. Prior to contact with Europeans, beads made from seeds, shells and quills were used.

From the Land of the Great Spirit is on display at Buxton Museum and Art Gallery until August 7th 2022.