The Mayans were the first to cultivate tobacco and either chewed or smoked it as part of their sacred/ceremonial acitvities. The Mayans passed this custom on to the Aztecs, and tobacco eventually made its way north to the Natives of North American who used tobacco smoking in their religious ceremonies.
Here's a timeline:
6000 BCE (Before Common Era): Experts believe the tobacco plant, as we know it today, begins growing in the Americas.
c.1 BCE: Experts believe American inhabitants have begun finding ways to use tobacco, including smoking
c. 1 CE (Common Era): Tobacco was "nearly everywhere" in the Americas. (American Heritage Book of Indians, p.41).
470-630 CE: Between 470 and 630 A.D. the Mayas began to scatter, some moving as far as the Mississippi Valley. The Toltecs, who created the mighty Aztec Empire, borrowed the smoking custom from the Mayas who remained behind. Two castes of smokers emerged among them. Those in the Court of Montezuma, who mingled tobacco with the resin of other leaves and smoked pipes with great ceremony after their evening meal. Mayas who settled in the Mississippi Valley spread their custom to the neighboring tribes. The latter adapted tobacco smoking to their own religion, believing that their god, the almighty Manitou, revealed himself in the rising smoke. And, as in Central America, a complex system of religious and political rites was developed around tobacco.
600-1000 CE: UAXACTUN, GUATEMALA. First pictorial record of smoking: A pottery vessel found here dates from before the 11th century. On it a Maya is depicted smoking a roll of tobacco leaves tied with a string. The Mayan term for smoking was sik'ar.
Most tribes in North America have a myth or legend that explains how they got tobacco. For example, according to Henry Schoolcraft: Of the sacred origin of tobacco the Indian has no doubt, although scarcely two tribes exactly agree in the details of the way in which it was conferred on man. In substance, however, the legend is the same with all. Ages ago, at the time when spirits considered the world yet good enough for their occasional residence, a very great and powerful spirit lay down by the side of his fire to sleep in the forest. While so lying, his arch-enemy came that way, and thought it would be a good chance for mischief; so, gently approaching the sleeper, he rolled him over toward the fire, till his head rested among the glowing embers, and his hair was set ablaze. The roaring of the fire in his ears roused the good spirit, and, leaping to his feet, he rushed in a fright through the forest, and as he did so the wind caught his singed hair as it flew off, and, carrying it away, sowed it broadcast over the earth, into which it sank and took root, and grew up tobacco.
If anything exceeds the Native American belief in tobacco, it is that which attaches to his pipe. In life it is his dearest companion, and in death is inseparable; for whatever else may be forgotten at his funeral obsequies, his pipe is laid in the grave with him to solace him on his journey to the happy hunting-ground. The first pipe is among the most sacred of their traditions; as well it may be, when it is sincerely believed that no other than the Great Spirit himself was the original smoker.
Many years ago the Great Spirit called all his people together, and, standing on the precipice of the Red Pipe-stone Rock, he broke a piece from the wall, and, kneading it in his hands, made a huge pipe, which he smoked over them, and to the north, south, east, and west. He told them that this stone was red, that it was their flesh, that of it they might make their pipes of peace; but it belonged equally to all; and the warclub and the scalping-knife must not be raised on this ground. And he smoked his pipe and talked to them till the last whiff, and then his head disappeared in a cloud; and immediately the whole surface of the rock for several miles was melted and glazed. Two great ovens were opened beneath, and two women (guardian spirits of the place) entered them in a blaze of fire; and they are heard there yet, and answer to the invocation of the priests, or medicine-men, who consult them on their visits to this sacred place.
The sacred place here mentioned is the site of the world-renowned Pipe-stone Quarry (aka PipeStone, Minnesota). From this place all North American Indians obtained material for his pipe. Catlin asserts that in every tribe he has visited (numbering about forty, and extending over thousands of miles of country) the pipes have all been made of this red pipe-stone. In fact every adult had made the pilgrimage to the sacred rock and drawn from thence his pipe-stone.
From the very numerous marks of ancient and modern diggings or excavations, it would appear that this place has been for many centuries resorted to for the red stone; and from the great number of graves and remains of ancient fortifications in the vicinity, it would seem, as well as from their actual traditions, that the Indian tribes have long held this place in high superstitious estimation; and also that it has been the resort of different tribes, who have made their regular pilgrimages here to renew their pipes.
As far as may be gathered from the various and slightly conflicting accounts of Indian smoking observances, it would seem that to every tribe, or, if it be an extensive one, to every detachment of a tribe, belongs a potent instrument known as medicine pipe-stem. It is nothing more than a tobacco pipe, splendidly adorne yet it is regarded as a sacred thing to be used only on the most solemn occasions.
Selected myths about the origin of tobacco
Menominee Myth: Grasshopper and the Origin of Tobacco
One day Manabush was walking past a high mountain when he smelled a delightful fragrance which seemed to be coming from a crevice in the cliffs. He went closer and found that the mountain was home to a Giant who was known to be the keeper of tobacco. Manabush found a cavern in the side of the mountain and went inside, following a passage which led into the center of the mountain where the Giant lived. The Giant asked Manabush very sternly what he wanted. Manabush answered that he had come for some tobacco, but the Giant told him that the spirits had just been there for their smoke. Since the ceremony only happened once a year, the Giant told Manabush to come back in a year. Manabush found this difficult to believe, because when he looked around the Giant's cavern, he saw bags and bags of tobacco all around it. So he snatched one of the bags and dashed out of the mountain, closely pursued by the Giant. Manabush reached the top of the mountain and leaped from peak to peak. The Giant followed him closely, and when Manabush reached the edge of a cliff, he fell down flat and the Giant leaped over him and fell over the cliff and into the chasm.
The Giant was badly bruised, but managed to climb up the face of the cliff, where he hung at the top with all of his fingernails torn off. Then Manabush grabbed the giant by the back and threw him to the ground and said, "For your stinginess, you will become the Grasshopper, and everyone will know you by your stained mouth. You will become a pest and bother all those who raise tobacco."
Then Manabush took the tobacco home and divided it among the people and gave them the seed so they could grow it themselves and use it for offerings and blessings.
Winnebago Myth: When Earthmaker created all things he ordained that every one of the spirits, as many as there are, should long for the taste and the aroma of tobacco. The spirits asked one another, "Who shall control this Life-evoking herb? Surely none other but we ourselves," they said. When they met together, Hare stood up among the spirits and said, "It is my aunts and uncles who shall control tobacco. No spirit shall take any tobacco unless something is offered the two-legged walkers in return. Thus has the Creator made things. Indeed, not even he shall receive tobacco except from the humans. So when any of you spirits accept a pipe full of tobacco, smoke it heartily, but do not fail to give the humans something in return. Thus has the Created ordained things." In this way did Our Nephew speak.
The lives of men were short, but by this Life-evoking herb did the Creator extend the lives of the two-legged walkers through the gifts of the spirits.
BA Anthropology and American Indian Studies
W.J. Hoffman, 1890, "Mythology of the Menomini Indians," American Anthropologist 3:243-58
Paul Radin, The Road of Life and Death: A Ritual Drama of the American Indians. Bollingen Series V (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1973 ) 151.
Schoolcraft, Henry R. Historical and Statistical Information respecting the Indian Tribes of the United States (Philadelphia, 1851-57)