Tobacco is the first plant that the Creator gave to First Nations Peoples. It is the main activator of all the plant spirits. Three other plants, sage, cedar and sweetgrass, follow tobacco, and together they are referred to as the Four Sacred Medicines. The Four Sacred Medicines are used in everyday life and in ceremonies. All of them can be used to smudge with, though sage, cedar and sweetgrass also have many other uses. It is said that tobacco sits in the eastern door, sweetgrass in the southern door, sage in the western door and cedar in the northern door. Elders say that the spirits like the aroma produced when we burn tobacco and the other sacred medicines. Traditional people say that tobacco is always first. It is used as an offering for everything and in every ceremony. “Always through tobacco”, as the saying goes.
Traditional tobacco was given to us so that we can communicate with the spirit world. It opens up the door to allow that communication to take place. When we make an offering of tobacco, we communicate our thoughts and feelings through the tobacco as we pray for ourselves, our family, relatives and others. Tobacco has a special relationship to other plants: it is said to be the main activator of all the plant spirits. It is like the key to the ignition of a car. When you use it all things begin to happen. Tobacco is always offered before picking medicines. When you offer tobacco to a plant and explain why you are there, that plant will let all the plants in the area know why you are coming to pick them. When you seek the help and advice of an Elder, Healer or Medicine Person and give your offering of tobacco, they know that a request may be made as tobacco is so sacred. We express our gratitude for the help the spirits give us through our offering of tobacco. It is put down as an offering of thanks to the First Family, the natural world, after a fast. Traditional people make an offering of tobacco each day when the sun comes up. Traditional tobacco is still grown in some communities. For example, the Mohawk people use traditional tobacco that they grow themselves and that is very sacred to them.
Sage is used to prepare people for ceremonies and teachings. Because it is more medicinal and stronger than sweetgrass, it tends to be used more often in ceremonies. Sage is used for releasing what is troubling the mind and for removing negative energy. It is also used for cleansing homes and sacred items. It also has other medicinal uses. There is male sage and female sage. The female sage is used by women.
Sweetgrass is used in prayer, smudging and purifying ceremonies. It is usually braided, dried and burned. It is usually burned at the beginning of a prayer or ceremony to attract positive energies.
Like sage and sweetgrass, cedar is used to purify the home. It also has many restorative medicinal uses. Cedar baths are healing. When cedar is put in the fire with tobacco, it crackles. When it does this, it is calling the attention of the spirits to the offering that is being made. Cedar is used in fasting and sweat lodge ceremonies as a form of protection: cedar branches cover the floor of the sweat lodge and a circle of cedar surrounds the faster’s lodge.