Event educates youth on commercial tobacco dangers by understanding sacred uses


LaVonne Bellanger held a white square sheet of fabric for her 4-year-old daughter Victoria Gonzalez on Monday night while Gonzalez tied it to make a pouch, safely containing kinnikinnick — a mix of tobacco, sweet grass, sage and red willow for sacred uses in Anishinaabe culture.

The pair completed a tobacco tie, an Anishinaabe tradition used for prayers and positive thoughts. Bellanger, of Duluth, said she wants her daughter to learn the sacred uses of tobacco because neighbors in their apartment building smoke commercial tobacco.

“She knows it’s not good,” Bellanger said. “I’m just trying to set an example for my daughter to know what tobacco’s really for.”

Denfeld High School’s Anishinaabe Club and Duluth American Lung Association hosted an educational event about sacred and commercial uses of tobacco Monday night at Denfeld.

The night was part of an initiative to educate youth about the dangers of menthol and flavored tobacco, said Deb Smith, tobacco control manager of the American Lung Association in Duluth.

Educating attendees on sacred tobacco was also a way to celebrate National Indigenous People’s day, observed Monday, Smith said.

Many tobacco users start at young ages with menthol or flavored tobacco, Smith said, because tobacco companies target that age group through marketing and advertising.

“It’s an additive that’s highly addictive — hooks kids at an early age,” Smith said of menthol. “E-cigarettes are also an introductory product for kids to get addicted to tobacco.”

Designing their products to look like candy is one of the ways tobacco companies get kids hooked early, Smith said. She compared a green tub of Ice Breakers Sours candy to a similarly shaped and styled green Copenhagen Wintergreen tub of chewing tobacco.

“It’s very deceptive,” she said.

It is important for Native American youth to understand sacred uses of tobacco in particular because almost 50 percent of Minnesota’s Native American population smoke tobacco, Smith said.

Sacred tobacco is used for prayers, ceremonies and to honor or welcome guests, Smith said. It can be used to bless a place and as an offering in the form of a tobacco tie, she said.

“When you’re touching it, it is medicine,” Smith said of tobacco. “As you fold it up, you’re making an intention. It’s a positive thought.”

Donna Bergstrom, Republican candidate for Minnesota Senate in District 7, also attended Monday’s event. She said that as a Native American, she uses sacred tobacco every day by offering it to people and to the Earth. For example, if she asks someone for advice or a favor, she said she offers them tobacco. This is another traditional use of sacred tobacco, she said.

Bergstrom said that educating others on sacred uses of tobacco might make them more mindful when consuming commercial tobacco.

“I think it will make them pause and think about that before they strike up a cigarette,” she said, adding that the community should educate youth on dangers of commercial tobacco products.

“Children are sacred,” Bergstrom said. “We need to come together as a community and help protect them.”

Written by  Kim Schneider as published in the Duluth News Tribune