An Indian tribe in Western New York holds a deep connection to the cannabis seed.
The year was 1957. Chief Tracy Johnson’s mother stood crying. He tried to comfort her, but he was near tears himself. The New York state troopers stood their ground, awaiting any attempts to interfere with the “legal” confiscation of Tuscarora land, but the deal had already been sealed. The Indians knew that any resistance would be of little consequence. The Tuscarora Indian tribe, whose land once stretched from Niagara Falls to the Carolinas, was losing yet another huge tract. This time it was the New York Power Authority behind the thievery.
“They stole it – steamrolled right over our treaty,” says Crandy Johnson, Chief Tracy’s son. He was a young man at the time and witnessed the scene. The Tuscarora chiefs had told the state that their land was not for sale at any price, but Robert Moses, the legendary “master builder” of New York who oversaw the construction of highways, bridges, parks, beaches and whole suburbs, had prevailed. As chairman of the Power Authority, Moses was determined to build a massive hydroelectric installation, which would require the Tuscarora to give up even more of their land. Five hundred acres were seized for the Niagara Power Project, and the families who had lived there for generations were moved into mobile homes.
Tracy Johnson consoles his mother in 1957 when the New York Power Authority seized Tuscarora land.
The Tuscarora first coalesced as a people around the Great Lakes, probably at about the same time as the Iroquois. But the tribe migrated to the region known as Eastern Carolina long before the Europeans arrived on America’s shores.
By the late 1600s, their land was being encroached upon by the British. Following bitter fighting, many returned to the New York–Pennsylvania region. (Many who remained were sold into slavery.) Significant numbers of Tuscarora still live in North Carolina despite not having a reservation there. In 1722, they were accepted into the Iroquois Confederacy, the powerful alliance of the Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga and Seneca nations, who had banded together for mutual protection and prosperity.
Tuscarora translates literally as “People of the Hemp.” Other translations offer “hemp gatherers” or “shirt wearers” as the meaning, but scholars agree that those shirts – for which the Tuscarora were commonly known – were doubtless woven from hemp. In Joseph Campbell’s authoritative volume The Way of the Seeded Earth, he writes: “The Tuscarora were well-known among other tribes for their gathering and use of Indian hemp for fiber and ‘medicine’” (Campbell’s quotation marks).
Sprigs of cannabis adorn a decorated deer hide.
However, the issue of whether cannabis is native to America remains an open question. Archaeobotanists believe the plant originated in Asia. Certainly, it has been cultivated there for many millennia, as early as 6500 BCE in China; in Europe, its use goes back more than 2,000 years.
In America, explorer Jacques Cartier reported seeing wild hemp during three different voyages to Canada – in 1535, 1536 and 1541. On his last trip, he wrote: “The land groweth fulle of Hempe which groweth of it selfe, which is as good as possibly may be seen, and as strong.”
Historians concur that cannabis was already present in the New World long before the first European colonist set foot on its shores. Perhaps early Chinese explorers brought the crop here, or migrating birds; even drifting shipwrecks have been suggested as the source of seeds. Or perhaps it was carried across the Bering Strait by the ancient peoples themselves thousands of years ago.
But for traditional Tuscarora like Crandy Johnson, there are no doubts about the origin of the cannabis seed. As a small child, he was told that the Creator placed his people on “Turtle Island,” the North American continent, and gave them divine instructions to be caretakers of the earth. The creation tale of the Tuscarora told to Crandy by his elders states that in the beginning the world was not as we know it now. Up above, in the Sky World, a Tree of Life grew that was very special to the people of the Sky World. Beneath the Tree was a great hole, the entrance to the world. A woman who was with child fell into the hole. As she was falling she grasped at the edge and clutched in her hand some of the earth from the Sky World.
“We received the seed from the Sky Woman,” Crandy says. “The lady who fell from the sky – she grabbed seeds from the Tree of Life and they fell with her. All the gifts of earth fell from the sky, but the Tuscarora were given the cannabis seed. We were given instructions on how to take care of it, how to use it – how to pray with it. The deer came and showed us where to find it. We were told that it was the seed of peace, the seed of life.”
He remembers growing up and being told to stay away from the hidden gardens his grandfather cultivated in the woods. He also remembers the smoking rituals that his older relatives engaged in and the tinctures they made for healing.
Crandy Johnson and his brother Tracy sound the drum.
Now in his 70s, Crandy is a former ironworker, one of the fraternity of daring Native American “steelwalkers” who built the skyscrapers and bridges of this country after World War II. He is also a “Road Man” (spiritual leader) in the Native American Church. His veneration of the cannabis seed is an active ritual. He prays with it daily and tries to practice the ceremonies that he was instructed by his elders to carry out in order to keep his people’s connection to the cannabis seed strong. In the past, he was an ardent grower and was arrested three times for cultivation. On each occasion, though Crandy was eager to defend himself and his heritage, the charges were dismissed before the case ever went to trial.
Today, he lives on the land that has been in his family for generations. His brother, Tracy, lives next-door. The sprawling Tuscarora homeland once encompassed millions of acres but, over time, has shrunk to an expanse of less than 10 square miles comprising a reservation located northeast of Niagara Falls – even though, following the Revolutionary War, the new US government promised in a treaty that the tribe could remain “in possession of their lands on which they settled” as a reward for fighting alongside George Washington.
Although in poor health, Crandy remains extremely sharp. He’s saddened and angry at the state of the Tuscarora nation. Nearly half of the reservation’s population lives in mobile homes or shacks and must buy drinking water. Twenty percent of the people live at or below the official poverty line, and roughly 50 percent are on some form of government assistance. Many of the traditional clans have died off, and the management and leadership of the Tuscarora, which was handled by clan mothers, has suffered drastically under a corrupt tribal leadership that has allegedly embezzled millions.
Political prisoner Leonard Peltier painted the tragic moment of "land theft".
Crandy is also disheartened by the fact that many modern Tuscarora attend Christian churches. “They’ve lost their way,” he says. “We are supposed to be relatives to certain kingdoms – the mineral kingdom, the water kingdom, the animal kingdom. We were given instructions to have ceremonies so that these kingdoms function right. These kingdoms were created in beauty to be in balance with mankind and be in harmony with nature and all its forces. But because of white man’s law, we’re out of balance with nature. We can’t hold our feasts and use this herb in the proper way, to send our smoke skyward to appease the guardians of the earth.”