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Published: Thursday, 3/22/2001

Some Indians think smoking law cuts freedoms

FROM BLADE STAFF AND WIRE REPORTS

COLUMBUS - Some Native Americans say Ohio's new anti-smoking law may violate a federal law that protects their religious freedom.

But the founder of a Toledo group said the new law is needed to protect American Indians from cancer and emphysema. The state law, which took effect last week, makes it illegal for those younger than 18 to buy, possess, or use tobacco products.

Chris Link, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union, said the state's American Indian tribes have grounds to challenge the new law.

Some Native Americans have said the new law violates the American Indian Religious Freedom Act because many tribes, including the Cherokee, Miami, Sioux, and Delaware, believe tobacco is one of four sacred plants. Some tribe members carry tobacco around in pouches and use it in religious rites.

“I think they're getting things mixed up,” Joyce Snowfeather Mahaney, president and founder of the American Indian Intertribal Association, said. “We talk about ceremonial use of tobacco, as opposed to ingesting it in the lungs.”

Mrs. Mahaney, who supports the new law, said that tobacco traditionally has been used for sacred purposes and has been given to elders as a gesture of respect.

But she said even at ceremonies, participants don't have to smoke the traditional pipe - and she doesn't.

“You can just touch the pipe on your shoulders and still be part of the ceremony,” Mrs. Mahaney said. “I don't see how [the law] violates our religious freedoms. The religious freedom act is for ceremonies.”

She noted that the association's Eagle Wing Drug Prevention Program deals with smoking “because Native Americans have a high percentage of cancer deaths from smoking.

“We're anti-smoking because too many of our Indian people have died because of cancer, emphysema, lung problems.”

Robert Ruark, 14, of Columbus, disagrees.

A member of the Munsee Delaware Indian Nation, the youth said he would rather risk being labeled an outlaw than giving up his right to worship the way his ancestors have for generations.



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