The Delaware Tobacco

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Delaware Tobacco Plant growing on Delaware homeland. Delaware Indian Sacred Nicotiana seeds are available at Baker Creek Heirloom Seed Company
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James Thompson, born in 1867, was an Elder of the Delaware tribe, a traditional speaker and knowledge keeper.
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James Rementer worked with his mentor James Thompson for many years.
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“I just want my people to be well remembered and well thought of.”

By Nora Thompson Dean

Touching Leaves Woman

James Rementer never imagined he would spend most of his life amongst the Delaware Indians. He grew up in southeastern Pennsylvania in Abington, a northern suburb of Philadelphia. There was nothing particularly remarkable in his post war upbringing. His family, like many others from the region, rented a summer place in Ocean City, New Jersey, and delighted in the carefree months spent close to the shore. Ocean City was a wonderful family shoreline destination with a two-and-a-half-mile boardwalk and an adjacent pedestrian promenade filled with shops proffering salt-water taffy, fudge, French fries, and soft ice cream.

As he got older, his parents sent him to Camp Lenape, pronounced locally as “leen-ah-pee,” where he spent two summers. The camp was located on Fairview Lake, formerly known as Big Pond. Camp Lenape was established in 1920 and featured tennis courts, basketball, archery, rifle ranges, swimming, and boating. The usual. For Rementer it was not the facilities that inspired him, rather the camp’s name and its location on the ancestral home of the Lenape Indians, plus two of the counselors at the camp, the Douglass brothers, were Indians. Unlike most suburban kids, he was inspired to learn about the people who had largely disappeared from their homeland. He wanted to understand the forsaken place names, landmarks, and rivers. Thus began Rementer’s lifelong journey and affiliation with the Delaware or Lenape Indians. 

The tobacco that Rementer was to inherit traveled across the same place names, landmarks, and rivers until it, along with its Indian keepers, was forced to migrate to a new land far from their ancestral home. Nicotiana rustica, Sacred tobacco, was and still is the sacred tobacco of eastern North America. The exact origination of this plant is not clear to botanists. It came from the Andes, supposedly the result of the natural cross breeding of two wild species producing the rustica tobacco, which then likely became a domesticated crop in this region.

How and when this plant reached the eastern part of North America is unclear, and it seems that sacred tobacco culture was firmly in place by 500 AD, although likely introduced several hundred years earlier. It is conceivable that tobacco was used even earlier in eastern North America, although this may have been a wild species obtained through trade. Eastern North America became one of the primary regions of cultivation, variety development, and usage of this species.

While this plant first migrated to Mexico, presumably from seeds transported by Indians, it was not present in the Southwest until well after it reached the eastern shores, indicating that it did not traverse the Southwest by land but rather skipped over it, perhaps taking a more easterly route via the Gulf and Caribbean. Additionally, wild species from the Southwest may have initially satisfied the demand for tobacco, and there was no need for a new domesticated variety.

The plant is relatively coarse, about 18 inches to three feet tall, with deep green oval pubescent leaves which taper as they move up the stem. The flowers are yellowish green, less than an inch long, produced in the leaf axils along the upper part of the plant.

During the 19th century wild stands of tobacco were found at a variety of natural locations in the east, creating speculation amongst botanists that rustica was a native plant. Most likely these represented feral remnant populations from Indian habitations and indicate the extent to which it was planted.

Tobacco is a member of the Solanaceae family, that interesting and often poisonous plant family which yields edibles such as the new world tomatoes, tree tomatoes, peppers, tomatillos, ground cherries, potatoes, and old world eggplants and the Chinese nutraceutical Goji or Wolfberries, Lycium barbarum, and Lyciumchinense. There are several thousand species in this big plant family of which about 75 are tobacco.

In the non-food realm the Solanaceae has often been associated in the New World with shamans because of the use of various poisonous and mind altering plants such as Datura, Brugmansia, Iochroma, and tobacco; while in Europe plants such as Belladonna, Henbane, and Mandrake, considered plants of the medieval witches, were well known by early botanists and herbalists. 

The Solanaceae is also a source of valuable medicinal constituents. Perhaps the most well known is atropine derived from belladonna, used to dilate the pupils in ophthalmic medicine, and once used by Italian Renaissance Italian women to make their eyes appear bigger and more beautiful, hence literally bella, beautiful, and donna, woman. Atropine is used to counter the effects of certain poisonous nerve agents. Scopolamine contained in plants such as Henbane and Datura is sometimes used to control motion sickness and spasms. Withania somnifera another family member is known in Ayurvedic medicine as ashwaganda and is used for a wide array of symptoms.

In 1960, Rementer started visiting the American Philosophical Society’s newly constructed Library Hall in downtown Philadelphia with its Georgian facade replete with a statue of Benjamin Franklin, the society’s founder. Here he researched the life and culture of the Lenape Indians. Especially valuable was the Society’s collection of papers by famous anthropologist Frank Speck who in the first half of the 19th century had focused his work on eastern North American tribes including the Delaware, Penobscot, Iroquois, and Cherokee. 

In the 1930’s, Speck mentioned one of his significant contacts, Freddie Washington. Rementer wondered if Washington was still alive. He was, and would be alive for another 16 years. He began corresponding with Washington, who lived in the community of the Delaware Tribe of Indians in Bartlesville, Oklahoma. There individual Indians had land allotments and the practice of allotting land was actually a government effort to break up Indian tribes by not giving them a contiguous land base. Washington said, “Well if you want to learn about us why don’t you come out here?” The next year he went to Oklahoma and met, among others, James Thompson, a 94-year-old elder and a traditional speaker.

Tobacco, both wild and cultivated, was used traditionally by tribes throughout much of North and South America for a wide variety of healing, initiation, prayer, offerings, communication, and other sacred purposes in pre-colonial times, expanded in post colonial times, and often persisting today.

Tobacco was an extremely important plant to many tribes, and it is difficult if not impossible for non-Indians to fully comprehend the significance of this plant to numerous facets of culture and religion. This was certainly true in the eastern woodland culture of North America where it was the most significant sacrament. Tobacco was often smoked in a mixture with other plants, burnt or left intact as an offering, snuffed, chewed, and in some South American tribes drunk as a liquid for initiation and other rites and applied as an enema.

Nicotiana tabacum was also domesticated in the Andes from several wild species, probably after rustica and cultivated in the warmer regions of North American from meso-America to the Caribbean. Nicotiana rustica was grown in the eastern half of North America, from the upper Mississippi Valley to the Gulf of Mexico, Great Lakes, and adjacent Canada, New Brunswick to Florida. Rustica is much better suited to the cooler sections of North America, easily reaching maturity from outdoor seed-grown plants, while tabacum is a far less reliable producer of viable seed if direct sown.

The first exports of leaf tobacco from North America consisted of rustica grown in the Virginia Colony at Jamestown beginning in 1612. A few years later 20,000 pounds a year were being exported to England. Smoked on its own, this tobacco is very potent and relatively harsh. Soon the mellower and less potent tabacum species were introduced to the American colonies and quickly became a replacement crop, ultimately forming the basis of the worldwide tobacco industry. It was the Spanish, however, who first started cultivating tabacum tobacco for export, and plantations were established by 1535 in the Caribbean, Mexico, and the Philippines.

About 9 additional wild tobacco species and varieties were utilized by Indians in North America, the leaves gathered from the wild, and in some cases the plants cultivated but not domesticated. Where the wild species were dominantly used, typically the tabacum and rustica species were not grown. In time there became greater usage and overlap between the wild and domesticated species, and expansion of the use of tobacco by tribes beyond the limit of cultivation, particularly after prehistoric times, for example by the Inuit. Wild species used include Nicotiana attenuata in California, the Southwest, Northwest and adjacent Canada, various subspecies of Nicotiana quadrivalvis from the west coast and upper Missouri, Nicotiana glauca and trigonophylla from the Southwest, California, and Mexico.

When Rementer returned home, he took courses in anthropology and archeology at the University of Pennsylvania. He was especially interested in the Lenape language and ensuring its preservation. He didn’t stay for very long in Pennsylvania, and in 1962 he packed up his belongings and headed back to Oklahoma, never to return. He began working closely with James Thompson who was born in 1867 near Kansas City and as a baby he and his family were forced to relocate to Indian Territory in present day Oklahoma. Thompson was one of the few modern day speakers of the Lenape language and was instrumental in preserving knowledge of Delaware language, dances and other customs. Rementer worked with him for a few years until his death at the age of 97, and subsequently began working with Nora Thompson Dean, James’ daughter and a talented herbalist. Nora was raised traditionally, and throughout her life was instrumental in keeping alive Lenape religious ceremonies, social functions, dances, craftwork, herbal medicines, and language.

Nora and her family had maintained the sacred Delaware tobacco, leni kwshatay, for generations.  The sacred tobacco was dubbed leni meaning “common” or the “real” tobacco to distinguish it from the increasingly prevalent white man’s smoking tobacco.

The seeds had been carried with them from the time they were pushed out of the East in the late 18th century to Ohio and subsequent removals further west, ultimately ending up in Oklahoma on Indian land the Lenape were forced to purchase from the Cherokee. The Delaware group suffered a great diaspora, and tribal members ended up scattered from Canada, New York, Wisconsin, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas.

The Delaware’s use of sacred tobacco was analogous to practices across the woodland complex. It was without a doubt the most important sacred plant used on a regular basis by most Indian tribes.

Amongst the Lenape a gift of tobacco was given to a healer or herbalist to engage their services. The healer would then seek out the plant or plants required for healing. When the first patch of the plant was discovered, he would pray to appease the spirit of the plant, and tobacco was placed in a small hole dug at the base of the plant. The plant that was given the tobacco was not gathered. It was felt that it would communicate to the other plants of its type what the person was asking for. 

Other types of Delaware healers would perform good and sometimes evil through supernatural means. These multipurpose healers could be termed conjurers. A conjuror might work to effect a change in a person’s life such as reconciling a marriage or dispelling an evil charm, or a more malevolent outcome such as breaking up a marriage. Tobacco was ritually used to facilitate these practices. A witch supposedly could supernaturally travel to his enemy’s or victim’s home but had to return to his own lodging before a pipe of tobacco he had lit before journeying went out, or he could be discovered.

Tobacco was offered to various manitous, that is the spirit or supernatural power such as Fire and Thunder. At the feast to honor Fire, tobacco was offered by throwing it onto the 12 stones representing the 12 manitous.

Tobacco was used in the sweat lodge ceremony to communicate with the Creator to ensure a good outcome for the varied purposes for which it was employed. It was smoked to appeal to the creator to deliver “good” dreams because negative dreams were often a symbolic indication of something unpleasant that would become reality. Tobacco was used as part of prayer to ensure a good outcome for the hunt and sprinkled upon the planting of the corn.

A gift of tobacco was given to the attending midwife of a pregnant woman by her husband. As a remedy to help alleviate stomach pains, tobacco smoke was blown into a cup of water, while tobacco smoke blown into a child’s mouth was reputed to cure colic and into the ear for earache.

Rementer remembers people actively growing the Delaware sacred tobacco in the 1960’s. The Delaware mixed the tobacco leaves with the leaves of the sumac (Rhus. spp) which were harvested for this purpose as they turned red in the early autumn. About a third to a half of this tobacco mixture was sumac. Other plants known to have been used in tobacco mixtures by the Delaware include angelica and elder.

Gradually, as traditional practices declined, so did the cultivation of tobacco on the reservation.  In the Dean household, in addition to planting the tobacco outdoors, some years the leni kwshatay became a houseplant as a means of ensuring its preservation. While the plants were dwarfed, they bloomed well. Rementer became the assigned “honeybee” and went around the house with a Q-tip, transferring pollen between plants to ensure good pollination.   Because tobacco is a largely self-pollinating species, this step was probably unnecessary but gave Rementer a particular fondness for this plant. Later in life Nora created a mail order business “Touching Leaves Indian Crafts,” based on her Indian name, Touching Leaves Woman. She sold a variety of traditional clothing, accessories, including men’s tobacco pouch, and Lenape language tapes. Item number 29 (original order form on opposite page) was Smoking Mixture (for Pipe or Cigarette) known as Kellekkennikun utilizing the Delaware tobacco.

James Thompson adopted Rementer into his family as a family member, a form of adoption called laphala, a rare distinction for a white person. Thus Nora Thompson became Rementer’s aunt. Rementer actively worked on the preservation of the Lenape language with many other speakers for the rest of his life, and in 1997 the Delaware tribe appointed him Director of the Lenape Language Project. He retains his active role today in preserving Delaware language and culture.

Around 1996 I began to seek a verifiably authentic Algonquian rustica tobacco. While there were a variety of rustica tobaccos in circulation and a good representation of Iroquois types, there did not appear to be any extant Algonquian type. All of the varieties that I could locate being grown by Algonquian individuals or tribes were not original to those tribes pre-contact.  I cannot remember just how I located James Rementer, but eventually I did. He still possessed seed of the Delaware tobacco and was not sure anyone else affiliated with the tribe was still cultivating it. He sent me a sample of the seed. It germinated well, or at least well enough, and pretty soon I had regenerated fresh seed stock. Some of this seed was circulated through the Eastern Native Seed Conservancy catalog.

Having a good supply of seed, I sent some to Dr. Joseph Winter, an anthropologist at the University of New Mexico. Joe ran a small tobacco seed bank and organization called T. N. A. T. -The Traditional Native American Tobacco Seed Bank and Education Program. The organization had two distinct purposes. The first was to collect and preserve traditional sacred tobaccos and redistribute them to any Native American for free as long as they agreed to use the tobacco in a sacred manner. The second purpose was to educate, especially Native American youth, to the dangers of smoking commercial tobacco.

Many years passed and I had stopped growing the plant. In 2012, I noticed Delaware tobacco seed in the Baker Creek seed catalog. I wondered if it was the “true” Delaware tobacco. I called up Jere Gettle, but he could not remember the source of the seed. A number of catalogs were also offering Delaware tobacco seed. Surely they would know where they got it. They did. It was from Baker Creek Seed.

There was another Delaware tobacco seed given to me around 1999 from a source that was less reliable than the Dean family’s seed. Could the seed in Baker Creek be the first or second tobacco? Could it be a third Delaware variety?  Or could it be, as sometimes occurs, that someone simply added the name Delaware? I feel this variety is distinct with slightly greener yellow flowers. Typically there are only subtle physical differences among the cultivated rustica tobaccos, so identification by visual characteristics was not going to be useful.

The solution was simple. Get some seed from TNAT. I tried calling Dr. Winter. The phone number I called no longer worked. I tried finding his number or TNAT’s number online and could find nothing. I knew it would be easy to reach him at the University of New Mexico. When I reached the anthropology office administrator, she told me that he no longer was affiliated with the university and she could not give me any additional information. It seemed I had hit a dead end.

Not one to give up on the seed search, I remembered his partner in TNAT was a Native American, Lawrence Shorty. A little bit of searching revealed a few people by that name but only one who really looked like an Indian on Google images and of the right age, even though I had no idea of his age. This person worked for the USDA Tribal Land-Grant Colleges program, so I hoped I had located the correct individual.  I found a phone number for him and eventually he returned my call. I told him I was looking for Joe and he said that “Joe had fallen off a cliff. “I replied that “sure seemed like he did; I can’t find him anywhere.” He said, “No you don’t understand . . . he actually fell off a cliff hiking out west and died.” I was stunned. Four years had passed since his death.

He did not know what happened to the tobacco collection, but he had a clue for me. There was an obituary somewhere on the internet and it mentioned his wife and several siblings. I knew he had roots in upstate New York. The obituary was from a New York State publication and his wife was living in New York. I was able to locate a number for her and left a message for a voice I hoped was the right individual.

There were a couple of brothers listed, and I located one in St. Paul, Minnesota. He was a priest, so I wasn’t sure how empathetic he was to Joe’s work on a sacrament used by “pagans”. He called me back the next day and was very helpful. He told me I should talk to Joe’s other brother who lived near him in New Mexico. I asked about the tobacco and Joe’s papers. He thought everything was still intact in Joe’s trailer.  Soon I reached the other brother. Joe’s nieces were living in the trailer and everything had been thrown out. “Everything?”  He replied “Everything.” I ventured “What about the seeds?” He said “We didn’t know what to do with them so we threw them out.” It’s a story I have heard many times with a Native American elder or old timer. They die and the family makes no effort to pass the seeds on. And that is the end of the line.

Since that route wasn’t working out, I figured I’d go back to the source. It didn’t take much effort to find Rementer. He was still working for the tribe, and while he didn’t have regular hours at the tribal office, they obligingly gave me his home phone number. We had a nice conversation. He remembered me and sending me the seeds. He still had a big bag of seeds. The same stock he had sent me almost 20 years earlier. He had tried growing the seeds a few different times and they no longer germinated. Another dead end.

I looked through some of my old Seed Savers Exchange yearbooks that list thousands of varieties of seed. One listing caught my eye. It was Delaware Tobacco and it had originated with me. Finally. This individual was a botanist which was even more reassuring. A bit of internet searching and I found him. The only problem was he had died just a few years before. I called the Seed Savers Exchange to see if they might have kept this variety in their accessions.  There were few varieties maintained by them and not the Delaware.

A few weeks later I got a call from Baker Creek Seed. They found some information about the Delaware tobacco seed they were featuring in the seed catalog.  It had come via the Seed Savers Exchange. I called Aaron Burmeister at Seed Savers and with a little bit of sleuthing located a record that indicated the seed had indeed come from the Eastern Native Seed Conservancy, thus collected by me from James Rementer.

This plant traveled from the Andes to Pennsylvania and back halfway across the continent to Oklahoma with a few stops in between. Unfortunately, it does not appear this seed is being grown by the Delaware today. Fortunately, it is no longer in any danger of extinction because of the number of seed companies carrying it. Each cultivated plant has a different journey, a different story.  We never know when the touch of our hands becomes an instrument for bridging the past into an abundant future.


We give thanks.

WARNING: The Heirloom Gardener magazine does not encourage the use of tobacco products. The Surgeon General has determined that tobacco use is dangerous to your health.

Lawrence Davis-Hollander is an ethnobotanist, founder and former director of the Eastern Native Seed Conservancy, and long-time heirloom gardener.

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