Mat Pendleton grew up on the Lower Sioux reservation, and over the years he has learned a lot about his culture, especially as it relates to tobacco and keeping it sacred....

Mat Pendleton grew up on the Lower Sioux reservation, and over the years he has learned a lot about his culture, especially as it relates to tobacco and keeping it sacred.

When Pendleton talks about tobacco, he is not referring to the commercial tobacco one might purchase in a store.

Rather it is the traditional tobacco from the branches of the red willow tree.

Pendleton is the tobacco prevention coordinator for the Lower Sioux Indian Community, and in that role he not only works to maintain the tradition of his culture, but he also educates others on the dangers of commercial tobacco use.

Keeping tobacco sac-red was also the theme of a recent Lower Sioux pow wow. That event, which was held to honor veterans, also provided an opportunity for those in attendance to learn about the red willow tobacco (Can-sa-sa) that is an important part of the Dakota heritage.

“Growing up I knew a lot of people my age who were smoking cigarettes, and there was not a lot of education for them to learn how bad that was for their health,” said Pendleton, adding he believes through the tobacco prevention program the community has available fewer of today’s youth are smoking.

According to the Minnesota Department of Health Center for Health Statistics, 59 percent of American Indians in Minnesota report being current smokers, compared to 14 percent of all Minne-sotans.

That use of commercial tobacco is leading to cancer, coronary heart disease, diabetes, stroke and respiratory diseases, which are some of the leading causes of death among American Indians.

The traditional use of red willow tobacco, said Pendleton, is spiritual, ceremonial and medicinal, adding it also is used as a way to interact with others. For example, when the host drum was selected for the veterans wacipi, Pendleton said the agreement was sealed with tobacco.

Pendleton said he learned about some of the traditional ways of his people from other relatives, adding he believes it is important to pass them on to the next generation of Dakota.

“Without following these traditions and understanding your culture you really don’t know who you are,” said Pendleton, adding he is doing his best not only to share what he knows with others but also to learn what he can. “This is our way of life.”

Funding for the tobacco prevention program comes from a state grant.