Tobacco policy sent back to committee

School board member concerned about cultural issue

An update to the Shawano School District’s policy on student tobacco use is going back to its policy committee after a member of the school board raised concerns about Native Americans and tobacco.

The policy, which has been in effect for years and was being revised to give specifics on nicotine, does not differentiate between commercial tobacco, which is used for cigarettes, and traditional tobacco, put into pouches by many tribes and used in special ceremonies. The lack of distinction was a concern for board member Starlyn Tourtillott, a direct descendant of the Menominee and Stockbridge-Munsee tribes.

“Overall, I’m happy with this policy. We do need this policy to protect our students and grounds from the harmful effects of smoking,” Tourtillott said. “However, with the native community, there is a difference between commercial tobacco and traditional tobacco.”

Tourtillott has a pouch that she wears that is filled with tobacco. She said she wears it to special ceremonies and keeps it close whenever she is nervous.

“It’s a medicine pouch that I wear; it includes tobacco in there,” Tourtillott said. “I would hate — and I’ve heard about this at other schools — that students wear it to school, and they get into a situation where they’re violating policy. I don’t want that to happen to any native student here in the Shawano School District.”

Traditional tobacco is not inhaled like commercial tobacco, Tourtillott explained, and it’s a lot harder to get than a pack of cigarettes.

“Traditional tobacco is grown (by natives) and it doesn’t have any of the additives,” Tourtillott said. “It’s used for ceremonial and religious purposes. It’s not addictive; commercial tobacco is addictive.”

Tourtillott pointed to an incident that happened with the Gresham School District in 2015, where a then-13-year-old student was confronted by an employee about a medicine pouch that she hung around the neck and used for silent prayer periodically throughout the day. After the family objected to how the student was treated, school employees had to go through Native American cultural training.

Tourtillott noted that the district has a number of Native American students attending its schools, so it is possible for such a cultural misunderstanding to take place in Shawano’s schools.

The board voted to send the policy back to the committee for potential revisions. The committee meets at 4 p.m. Monday in the district conference room at Shawano Community High School, 220 County Road B, Shawano.


The Great Lakes Intertribal Council, which includes the Ho-Chunk, Menominee and Stockbridge-Munsee tribes, has a booklet about tobacco and its use in Native Americans’ lives. Here’s how the council defines traditional tobacco.

“Traditional tobacco, also known by its scientific name, Nicotiana rustica, is one of the plants used alone or in combination as traditional tobacco. N. rustica is indigenous to many areas all over the world including the Great Lakes region. N. rustica grows to a maximum height of about three feet. The flowers on N. rustica are shaped like those on commercial tobacco. However, they are yellow. The leaves also vary in size with the largest being on the bottom and the smallest on top. However, the leaves of N. rustica reach a maximum length of about nine inches and are wider than those of commercial tobacco. Finally, N. rustica has four to 15 times the nicotine content of commercial tobacco, which could explain why traditional tobacco is not usually inhaled when smoked in a pipe.”