What is it that makes tobacco such a sacred object in the spiritual world of American Indians?
"It's not an item that we smoke at our leisure," says Wilfrid Cleveland, president of the Ho-Chunk Nation in central Wisconsin. "It's a blessing from the Creator. He gave us this tobacco to use in our ceremonies, to ask Him for guidance."
Sacred tobacco, Cleveland says, is no different from crosses, rosaries, Bibles or any other important religious objects. Most Ho-Chunks carry it with them, or keep it near them, in small pouches. When they join the military, their sacred tobacco goes with them.
"From the beginning of time, we had our ceremonies, and we were in unison with the Creator and the things around us," Cleveland says. "The harmony that we live in with creation - part of that is our sacred ceremonies, and our elders offer tobacco to the Great Spirit for safekeeping our young ones going off to war."
Because sacred tobacco has a greenish-brown color - and usually looks quite different from the processed, chemical-added version packed into cigarettes - it is sometimes mistaken for marijuana. Over the years, several American Indian servicemembers have had their tobacco pouches confiscated by military authorities. The contents are tested and determined to be perfectly legal but are almost never returned to the individuals.
The Ho-Chunk Nation wants the Department of Defense to stop taking its sacred tobacco.
Robert Mann is a veterans service officer for the Ho-Chunks, and works closely with three American Legion posts in the area: 442, 556 and 129. Whenever a tribal member's tobacco is confiscated in boot camp, during personnel inspections, or just before overseas deployments, Mann usually becomes involved. He thinks that some DoD personnel simply don't understand the importance of sacred tobacco in the Ho-Chunk belief system.
"You'd have to compare it to something that's precious to you," Mann says. "Let's say you carry a Bible. This Bible means an awful lot to you, and you carry it at all times. And somebody walks up and says, ‘You can't have that,' and takes it away from you with no explanation.
"You think about our young warriors when this tobacco is given to them, and they're told what to use it for, and why it's there. Then it means much more to them, and they hold on to it tighter." So when a drill sergeant or an inspector takes the tobacco away, Mann says, "they're taking a part of their life from them."
Mistaken for Marijuana. Since Aug. 11, 1978, the American Indian Religious Freedom Act has been on the books to protect tribal rights "to believe, express, and exercise" their traditional religions, including "access to sites, use and possession of sacred objects, and the freedom to worship through ceremonials and traditional rites."
Less than a month after the 1978 law was passed, Marine Corps Pfc. James Pettibone had his sacred tobacco confiscated at Camp Lejeune, N.C. In a statement he wrote last year for the Ho-Chunk Nation's records, Pettibone explained that his tobacco was taken "because it resembled an illicit drug." One question put to him at the time was, "Is this that wacky tobacco you smoke to go on the warpath?"
"Thirty-two years later," Pettibone wrote, "we are still dealing with wars that our sons and daughters have to contend with; thirty-two years later, our kids die and are still being stripped of their sacred tobacco pouches."
Among Ho-Chunks serving in the military, tobacco confiscation is infrequent. But it happens often enough to remind the tribe that some members of the armed forces continue to violate federal law, and remain ignorant about American Indian beliefs.
In 2009, Marcus Carriaga had his tobacco confiscated by U.S. Navy customs when his Marine unit deployed to Qatar. Mann believes that most such incidents go unreported.
James Greendeer, who joined the Marine Corps in 1959, thinks the use of marijuana by troops in the Vietnam War caused military authorities to become suspicious of sacred tobacco. Greendeer says he never had problems overseas with his tobacco or another sacred item he took from his Deer Clan's war bundle.
A former veterans service officer for the Ho-Chunks, Greendeer believes that marijuana use in the military is "why our Native Americans are being denied to have the sacred Indian tobacco. It's been more restrictive since the Vietnam era."
The Ho-Chunks never felt the need to explain their religious beliefs to the military or any other federal agency. "We never made a loud commotion about who the Ho-Chunk people are," Mann says. "We just passed along the traditions down to our children. But now we see that, because of the drug problems the United States has, they are more scrutinizing."
A Warrior's Protection. The importance of sacred tobacco to Ho-Chunks, especially for those going to war, can be difficult for others to grasp. When an Army drill sergeant forced Pfc. Conroy Greendeer Jr., to surrender his tobacco pouch at Fort Sill, Okla., in 2003, he poured the sacred material on the ground, called it contraband, and told Greendeer he had no rights that permitted him special consideration.
Recounting this incident in a Dec. 29, 2003, letter to Secretary of the Army Les Brownlee, then-tribal president George Lewis wrote that the Army's actions "have dishonored the traditions of the Ho-Chunk Nation. American Indian warriors have a long and illustrious history of sacrifice and service in the armed forces of the United States, and the extremely serious nature of this incident has the potential to affect all Indians who serve in the United States military."
According to DoD, American Indians historically have the highest rate of military service per capita compared to other ethnic groups. Many Ho-Chunks have died in combat overseas, defending a country their ancestors once warred against. One of the tribe's fallen warriors, Cpl. Mitchell Red Cloud Jr., received the Medal of Honor for his actions in the Korean War on Nov. 5, 1950. Stationed on the point of a ridge right in front of his company's command post, Red Cloud was the first to face an onslaught of Chinese Communist troops charging from a brush-covered area less than 100 feet away.
Firing into the oncoming enemy wave with his automatic rifle, Red Cloud delayed the assault and gained time for his company to defend itself. When Cpl. Red Cloud died for his country, his sacred tobacco was with him.
In Vietnam, Andrew Thunder Cloud carried a pouch of tobacco given to him by his grandfather, who taught him about its purpose and how to use it. "Before you leave for Vietnam, go down to the ocean and put tobacco in the ocean for the Water Spirit," his grandfather advised. "Tell Him that you're going to be crossing the water and that you want a safe journey. When you get to the country that you're going to, put tobacco on the ground and offer it to God ... you're at the playground, and you're going to go play with the enemy. Ask Him to ensure your safety."
Thunder Cloud was a Navy corpsman whose tour in Vietnam lasted from January 1967 to March 1968. His tribal elders told him to use his tobacco "when I was going into something difficult, or to use the tobacco when I returned from something that was difficult. And thanking God that I had made it through that ordeal safely. So that's what I did. I don't think I overdid it, but I found myself using my tobacco frequently."
When Thunder Cloud finished his Vietnam tour and arrived in Okinawa, his sacred tobacco was confiscated, tested and never returned. He asked an officer to put his tobacco into a fire, instead of just throwing it away. "He said, ‘Will do, Doc.' Whether he ever did or not, I don't know. But I tend to think the colonel was a man of honor. I'd like to think he kept his promise."
Enforcement and Education. If the sacred objects of American Indians are already protected by federal law, why doesn't the military enforce zero-tolerance of confiscations that are clearly illegal?
Every Monday morning, in front of the tribe's administrative building, the U.S. flag is raised while Ho-Chunks sing songs that honor their warriors. "Some of them never came back. Some came back, but they were different from before because of what they witnessed, what they did in the war," Cleveland says. "So every Monday morning, we raise the flag."
The Ho-Chunk president says it's frustrating that, given the wartime sacrifices his nation has made, legally protected sacred objects are still confiscated. "We understand the mindset of this society that dominates us, and it has no real consideration for what (a warrior) is carrying with him and the sacredness of it."
In 2009, William Goodbear was upset when he heard that two Marines from his tribe had tobacco pouches taken away when they returned from Iraq. So he approached Ray Lopez, who was commander of Post 129 in Black River Falls, to pass a resolution that would call for a policy change.
"He carried through, and got something passed on the district level," Goodbear says. "So maybe on the state level we can do something about this."
David Kurtz, adjutant of The American Legion's Department of Wisconsin, thinks the key to solving the issue is education. DoD has to do a better job in teaching its own people that sacred tobacco is not a controlled substance.
"It's got to be a priority of leadership to penetrate down to the drill instructors, to the NCOs, get down to where the rubber meets the road and educate them," Kurtz says. "The military has so many administrative procedures to deal with somebody who enlists with different medical needs, or if they have different religious beliefs. It's a question of willingness to accommodate these beliefs."
Kurtz doesn't see any good reason why the military can't solve the problem. He refers to a 1996 executive order signed by President Bill Clinton, protecting American Indian sacred sites, as an example of the federal government's commitment to resolve such issues favorably. Perhaps another executive order is needed to finally drive home the message that sacred tobacco is not to be confiscated. Or maybe another amendment, as the Ho-Chunks recommended in a 2004 resolution that urged Congress to "include traditional tribal practices relating to the carrying of sacred materials by Indian members" of the military.
"Does it mean a congressional investigation?" Kurtz asks. "Is that what it would take to impress the leadership in DoD?
"Sexual harassment, sexual assault, substance abuse, drinking - these things have been sufficiently emphasized by the leadership, and have penetrated to the boots on the ground that these kinds of behavior are not tolerated," Kurtz says. "That same type of emphasis, making these sacred objects a priority, will solve this problem."
For God and Country. Whether or not DoD decides to train its personnel more effectively, Cleveland wants to see another federal law passed that would specifically protect "our items that we feel are sacred to us, when our young men and women are making the ultimate sacrifice and going out to war for the United States."
Mann says sacred tobacco is linked to a warrior's spirit, and that spirit lives on forever when a Ho-Chunk is killed in action. "This is part of our belief system. It is very sacred to us. Trying to explain this to people who don't understand is really hard, because you have to live this life to understand it."
Whatever one's religious beliefs and whatever objects a servicemember holds sacred, they need to be respected by military authorities, Kurtz says. "As veterans, as Americans, we respect each other's beliefs.
"So if we're going to associate with our brothers and sisters in all branches of the services, from all races, colors and creeds, it starts with those words: ‘For God and Country.' That's the beginning of camaraderie, and that's what we're all about."
Sitting in a large room with many photographs on the walls depicting Ho-Chunks who have served in war, Mann holds up his pouch of sacred tobacco and says, "If you take this away from me right now, I'd be hurt. And I would cry, because it's part of my life."
Whenever the military confiscates a pouch of sacred tobacco, it hurts that person not only mentally, but spiritually, Mann explains. "That's what I think a lot of people don't understand, the spiritual part of a Native American's life. We're a very spiritual people, and that spirituality goes real deep and far.
"So when you take this tobacco away, it's taking a part of our life. It's like you took a knife and stabbed that person. You might as well have done that, because what you're doing to that person is hurting (him)."
Philip M. Callaghan is media marketing director for The American Legion.