They wouldn't be heroes if they were infallible, in fact they wouldn't be heroes if they weren't miserable wretched dogs, the pariahs of the earth, besides which the only reason to build up an idol is to tear it down again. -- Lester Bangs
It's not often that in the hardscrabble tobacco industry a new kid on
the block can make a dent in the market share of the Giants of Smoking
like RJR and Philip Morris. And yet, that's exactly what scrappy
upstart American Spirit has done, gaining 15% share in the
all-important 18-24 target demographic in the 5 years since they
entered the fray.
How do they do it, you ask? The New Mexico-based corporation has a
secret weapon up its sleeve: the traditional cigarette-making wisdom
of an ancient and noble people.
American Spirits cigarettes are the collective pride of the citizens
of the Waiala Pueblo Tribe, located 150 mi. northeast of Santa Fe.
The Waiala have created tobacco products by hand since time
"Our elders say that the first cigarette was created by our Father the
Sun after begetting all the things of the earth by our Mother the
Moon," Waiala leader Sam Tchakaiolo informed Pigdog Journal during a
recent visit to the Great Southwest. "We celebrate the post-coital
glow of the All-Father each time we make a relaxing American Spirit
Tchakaiolo, the wiry, sun-wrinkled 54-year-old kapa or "cigarette big
man" of the Waiala, led us on a tour of the scenic Waiala Pueblo where
American Spirits are made. PJ was surprised to see that cigarette
production on a massive scale goes on side-by-side with traditional
"This is our way of life," the kapa explained. "Sooner ask us to stop
eating coyote-gut stew, to stop selling firecrackers and
anatomically-correct novelty statuettes by the roadside, than to stop
producing 50,000 gross of regular, light, wide and menthol cigarettes
American Spirits begin in the terraced tobacco fields of Waiala
Pueblo, hand-carved into the 4000-foot high walls of the Waiala
Mesa. The back-breaking labor of tending the fields is performed by
the married women of their tribe, who can often be seen bent in a
permanent agonizing stoop over the green, leafy tobacco rows, and
occasionally falling to their deaths on the canyon floor below.
No chemical pesticides or fertilizers are used on the plants. "We
fertilize them with corn husks, fish skeletons and human dung," says
Tchakaiolo. "This gives American Spirit cigarettes their unique
Once the tobacco is harvested, dried, and chopped, it's on to the
rolling kiva. It's here that we find the traditional rolling paper,
made from mesquite wood chewed for hours by the tribe's virgins,
stamped flat by foot and dried in the life-draining desert sun. Also
on hand are filters made of finest lambs' wool, sheered from the
nether regions of the newborn females on the night of the first full
moon in the Spring.
Rolling the cigarettes themselves, though, is the province of the
"The men of the tribe prepare for hours in the kiva, or religious
trailers, of our reservation," explains Ivan Kachumoro, the garana or
"rolling big man" of the Waiala. "We fry on all kinds of crazy-ass
desert plants for, like, _days_. You ever try to roll 100,000
cigarettes? You'd wanna be heap big fucked up, too."
Once spiritually and physically prepared for the task of rolling, the
men sit in the circular rolling kiva and begin their task. Taking a
filter and a handful of tobacco between the fingers of his right hand,
the warrior tears off a square of paper in his left, and with a flick
of his wrist, a perfect cigarette is made. This is repeated thousands
upon thousands of times per day.
Finally, the finishing touches are put on the cigarette itself. A
thin gold band is painted around the filter end of the butt. "We had
some problem coming up with all that gold," admits Tchakaiolo, "We
made a deal with the Mexican government to use the melted-down remains
of Aztec ceremonial masks. Turns out there's international indigenous
peoples' agreements out there that allow us to desecrate priceless
works of all humanity for our own gain. Who'd a thunk it?"
As cigarettes are made, they are gathered into packs of twenty (a holy
number to the Waiala) in the hands of small, dirty children who run
them over to the Packing Pueblo. Here, the eldest, wisest women in
this matriarchal society put the cigarettes in their final packages
and seal the closure with a brief chant and wave of a smudge stick.
The packages themselves are made by hand by in
Waiala Pueblo. Tin ore for the foil is mined on ancestral lands 200
miles away and carried by llama back to the Pueblo, where it is
smelted over dense, hot buffalo-dung fires.
The cellophane wrapper is harvested from the plentiful ana'i, or
cellophanus cactus -- it's peeled like sunburnt skin off the plant's
outer husk. Finally, the paper shell of the package is lovingly
hand-painted by a skilled artisan after much prayer and fasting.
But what about the logo on the American Spirits package, a silhouette
of what is obviously a Plains Indian smoking a peace-pipe, not a
"Well," Tchaikaolo says, "our most revered elder
was visited in a dream by Kahi'iki Pa'ona, the Kachina of Marketing.
He was told that having a picture of one of us Southwest Indians with
our traditional Moe the Stooge haircut just wasn't gonna get us
anywhere. So we use the Chief, there, instead."
Yet more proof that modern wisdom, matched with
ancient ways, makes for good business!