American Indians have an ancient relationship with tobacco, which is seen as a sacred medicine and is often central to tribal culture. But for generations, the commercial tobacco industry has corrupted traditional tobacco practices, and has marketed directly to American Indians by exploiting their images in advertisements.
As reported earlier this year by Minnesota Public Radio, today the smoking rate among American Indians in Minnesota is enormously high: 59 percent compared to 16 percent in the general population. Smoking-related diseases are the top killers in their communities, with cancer and heart disease at epidemic levels.
There are a number of reasons smoking among American Indians has not declined as fast as in the mainstream population. “Indian Nations are sovereign, and so state policies that reduce smoking, like cigarette taxes and the smoke-free law, don’t apply to them,” said CoCo Villaluz, who leads ClearWay Minnesota’s efforts in Indian Country. “Many American Indians are also cautious, considering the damage historically done to their culture by outsiders trying to ‘improve’ their ways,” she added.
ClearWay Minnesota is addressing these challenges by working directly with tribes. Through our Tribal Tobacco Education and Policy Initiative, we fund reservations working to advance smoke-free policies and raise awareness of the dangers of commercial tobacco use and secondhand smoke exposure. The project allows the tribes themselves to drive the work, and to determine readiness for specific changes within their communities.
A new advertising campaign this year is also reaching American Indian communities around the state. Billboards remind Native audiences that there is a difference between sacred tobacco practices and commercial tobacco use like cigarette smoking – a traditional teaching.
“A campaign trying to reach American Indians can’t talk down to them,” said Villaluz. “Keeping tobacco sacred is a concept that has deep meaning for Native peoples, and these ads respect their traditions while educating about the harms of smoking.”