The blue clouds of tobacco smoke drifting lazily toward the Capitol dome Tuesday afternoon had nothing to do with cigar-smoking politicians or stereotypical backroom deals.
Rather, American Indians say they hope it was symbolic of a new era of government tolerance of their traditional values, culture and religion.Tribal elders from throughout Utah, and one from as far away as South Dakota, gathered in the Capitol rotunda Tuesday afternoon for the ceremonial smoking of the traditional American Indian pipe.
The ceremony was in celebration of Gov. Mike Leavitt's signing of HB149 - a bill that exempts Indian religious leaders from a state law prohibiting smoking in public buildings.
"The Indian people for thousands of years have used tobacco in their ceremonies," explained Ute tribal elder Clifford Duncan. "It is not the tobacco alone, but the prayers that go with it. As the smoke rises, the Great Spirit touches us."
And, Duncan added, "The Great Spirit is talking to us today."
Leavitt, who officially signed the bill into law last month, praised the spirit of religious freedom, saying the Capitol represents the commemoration of Utah culture. "Our government should be respectful of all people and all cultures," he said.
And respect for others' religious beliefs should be a paramount concern whenever government acts, he said.
Tribal elders, most of them Northwest Shoshoni and Utes, praised the governor's support of the legislation. They also presented a Pendleton blanket to Rep. Eli Anderson, R-Tremonton, for his sponsorship of the bill.
The traditional practice of American Indian pipe ceremonies was threatened by the passage of the Utah Indoor Clean Air Act, which prohibits smoking in all buildings accessible to the public. There was no exception for religious ceremonies, even in churches or at annual gatherings of Indians at traditional powwows.
Many civil libertarians viewed the law as a direct infringement of the American Indian's right to freedom of religion.
In sponsoring the legislation to exempting Indian religious leaders from the smoking ban, Anderson maintained the infringement of religious freedom was never the intent of the Legislature. After initial opposition by members of the House Rules Committee, the bill passed overwhelmingly.
According to American Indian tradition of the "trail of the tobacco spirit," tobacco originated in South America, spreading north through Mexico and throughout North America. It is religiously significant to most tribes, including the Ute, Shoshoni, Paiute and other Shoshonean-speaking peoples of Utah.
"Tobacco was one of the most important gifts given to Indian people," Duncan said. "The Indian people appreciate the recognition . . . that we shall have freedom of religion."
Under the provisions of HB149, those American Indians who have been designated by their tribes as religious leaders or pipe carriers are allowed to conduct pipe ceremonies in a public building at the invitation of the owner of the public place.
On Tuesday, it was the state which granted permission to Pete Yellowjohn, a Shoshoni pipe carrier, to smoke inside the Capitol.
"There will be more," Duncan said. "We must watch and learn. We must go back to the Indian way of doing things."