INDIAN CALUMET: The Pipe of Peace
By Christopher Nyerges

 

 

On a recent hike in the Southern California mountains, a friend and I discovered some wild tobacco growing alongside the trail. The tobacco prompted a discussion about the American Indians' use of the Sacred Pipe, known today as the "peace pipe." The Indians used various species of tobacco in their pipes, along with a number of wild herbs.

Among the many North American Indian tribes, the use of the pipe was considered a sacred ritual. The smoking mixture consisted of various herbs, often tobacco mixed with willow bark, sumac leaves, certain manzanita leaves, cedar shavings, or white sage. Although some tribes at times smoked for relaxation and/or a narcotic effect, most did not normally inhale the smoke. Rather, they used the pipe as a major means of communication with the spiritual world. Erroneously designated as the "peace pipe" by numerous reporters, the pipe was actually used in the ratification of all solemn engagements, both of war and peace.

The clay pipe represents the clay body of the human ("Adam" means "red earth" in Aramaic), within which is contained the burning ember of life (i.e., the Breath Form or "living soul"). As one smokes, the thoughts and prayers of the communicant are carried heavenward in the smoke. The joint act of sharing the pipe was considered a common bond, or communion, among those who smoked.

In some respects, the use of the pipe is the Indian counterpart to the Christian concept of Holy Communion, wherein one takes the bread or wafer into one's mouth, and the eating thereof is said to be partaking of the "body of Christ." Similarly, the Indian takes the smoke into his body as a spiritual aid. The wafting, rising smoke of the pipe is also akin to the use of incense smoke, particularly the incense used in various ritualistic ceremonies. According to Ralph M. Lewis, author of "Behold the Sign", "The proper kind (of incense) - known only to the sects using the ancient Egyptian ceremonies - will induce or bring about spiritual attunement with nature's divine forces and thus make possible greater cosmic or divine illumination." Incense has been used for centuries to symbolize the flame and heat of the sacred fire on the altar - burning in splendor and ever alive with heat and flame.

The pipe smoke is also akin to incense smoke in Catholicism. For example, in Catholic processions there is usually someone preceding who swings the censer of burning incense. According to Father Dave of St. Elizabeth Church in Altadena, California, there are two reasons for this: One is to perfume the air with a special fragrance, helping to create the special atmosphere within the church. The second reason is because "incense produces smoke lighter than air, and thus the smoke rises. These symbolize our prayers rising to heaven. This is to make invisible things (our prayers) visible (the smoke). This can be compared to two people making peace; they share the pipe as a visible sign to all others of that peace." According to Father Dave, the use of incense in the Christian tradition has never been for repelling spirits, only as symbolic of prayers.

The Calumet
According to Sioux ontology, the sacred pipe was brought to the Sioux Nation by White Buffalo Woman. She appeared upon the prairie and instructed two young men she met to return to their tribe and tell of her coming. When she arrived at the tribal encampment, she met with the elders and ceremoniously presented to them the sacred calumet (as the pipe is more properly known). She explained to them the meaning and use of the calumet, saying:

"With this sacred pipe you will walk upon the Earth; for the Earth is your Grandmother and Mother, and She is sacred. Every step that is taken upon Her should be as a prayer. The bowl of this pipe is of red stone; it is the Earth. Carved in the stone and facing the center is this buffalo calf who represents all the four-leggeds (the animals) who live upon your Mother. The stem of the pipe is of wood, and this represents all that grows upon the Earth. And these twelve feathers which hang here where the stem fits into the bowl are from Wanbli Galeshka, the Spotted Eagle, and they represent the eagle and all the wingeds of the air. All these people, and all the things of the Universe, are joined to you who smoke the pipe - all send their voices to Wakan-Tanka, the Great Spirit. When you pray with this pipe, you pray for and with everything."

The elders listened intently and followed her instructions, and as she left the tipi, the mysterious woman exclaimed: "Behold this pipe! Always remember how sacred it is, and treat it as such, for it will take you to the end. Remember, in me there are four ages. I am leaving now, but I shall look back upon your people in every age, and at the end I shall return."" As she walked away, across the prairie, she turned into a buffalo, and, bowing to each of the four quarters of the universe, disappeared. The complete story of the pipe can be read in "The Sacred Pipe: Black Elk's Account of the Seven Rites of the Oglala Sioux", edited by Joseph Epes Brown.

How the Pipe is Made
Several materials have been employed in making the pipe: pipestone, bone, wood, and clay. The most preferred materials were whitestone in the East and Southeast, and among the Midwestern and Western tribes, red pipestone, a solid jade-like red catlinite from the pipestone quarry in Minnesota. The bowl of the pipe is cut from one piece. In a procedure that takes about eight hours, the pipe is gradually carved and ground from one piece of pipestone, and then the bowl and stem hole are carefully hollowed out, using a simple drill.

Finally, the pipestone is oiled with grease, which gives it its distinctive bright red appearance. Sometimes clay is gathered, molded into a pipe, dried, and then fired in a fire pit. Bones, wood, and shell have been used, depending on their availability. The stem of the pipe is wood or reed decorated with feathers or porcupine quills, and tufts of horsehair and animal fur. These were believed to correspond to the essential parts of the Universe.

The word "calumet" is derived from the Latin word for "reed" because the marsh-inhabiting reed-like plant, calamus, has pithy stalks that have been used for pipe stems. I have made calumets from one piece of elder wood which I hollowed out and sanded. I have also made a calumet from a piece of soap stone for the pipe, and a straight, hollowed piece of elder for the stem.

Use of the Pipe
The sacred pipe has been used by the Indians in numerous ceremonies, and lends spiritual significance and meaning to these ceremonies. Traditionally, the pipe was used when greeting friends, when opening councils, when holding conferences (such as a peace or treaty conference), when taking part in sweat lodge ceremonies, when calling for a vision, and at other times.

Several variations of the actual use of the calumet have been recorded, depending on the tribe observed. Perhaps the specifics are not as important as the intent. One often-used method for opening meetings was to first light the calumet, then offer the calumet (or blow smoke) to the Thunderbird (or Eagle) in the east, and then make the same offering in a clockwise direction to the south, west, and north, and then to Father Sky and Mother Earth. Similar invocations survive in Central America as fragments of Mayan symbolism. The calumet is then passed around the entire tipi, circle, or lodge, to each of those in attendance.

The Calumet Dance
The Calumet Dance was a widespread ceremony which focused on elaborate smoke offerings to the Great Spirit. This highly sacred and elaborate ceremony originated among the Pawnee, and was accepted in nearly its original form by the Omaha and Kansa, in somewhat altered form by the Ponca, and by the Crow as their Medicine Pipe Dance. Two calumet stems were used, one representing the female principle, one representing the male principle. Feathers, squash rattles, and other apparati were used.

In the 19th century ritual, two dancers simulated bird flight in concentric circles, waving the calumet in their left hands and the rattle in the right. Afterwards, gifting and thanksgiving followed. The Cherokee Calumet Dance and the Iroquois Eagle Dance combine, in a highly condensed version, elements of the calumet ceremony and the Grass Dance. The pipe stem is simply a wand with an attached eagle feather. Pairs of dancers vibrate these in the left hand and shake a rattle in the right hand. Then they hop, as eagles feeding on the ground. The dance is for well-being and cure. As with the Grass Dance, the dancing is interrupted by interludes of boasting. Although this boasting is traditional, neither the meaning nor the purpose of it seems clear. Gifting follows the dances. Generally, the gifting was a time to practice generosity, sharing, and to practice the formula, "As ye give, so shall ye receive."

Use of the Calumet Today
The pipe is still used today, as Indian peoples are "rediscovering" their cultural roots. However, much of the sacred ceremonial meanings have been lost because, for the past three generations, tribal elders and medicine men have been unable to find enough tribal youth who were willing (or able) to receive the ancient teachings. In a public television documentary entitled "The Great Spirit Within the Hole," American Indians in prison were filmed, showing and explaining how the sweat lodge and the calumet are being rediscovered as valuable elements of mental and sociological rehabilitation.

Lakota spiritual advisor, Archie Fire Lane Deer, of Santa Barbara, California, has been teaching Indians at various prisons how to use "the sweat" and "the pipe" for spiritual purposes. According to Archie, "the pipe (and the sweat) enable two enemies to become brothers. These are needed for rehabilitation purposes."

Frankie Bearcub, a Sioux Indian interviewed in the television documentary, stated, "Now that we have our sweat and our pipe, I know who I am and what I am. I had to come to prison to discover who I am and what I am. Without the sweat and the sacred pipe, many of us were leaving prison and coming back again and again..." Real prayers have a specific type of reality. Such prayers produce tangible (and predictable) effects. Mere formalistic ritual smoking of a pipe, however, is simply that: rote smoking. The sacredness of the pipe, and of the smoke, can be discovered only by banishing roteness from its use.

As the Indians in the various correctional facilities stated in the television documentary, there is immense joy in coming to realize the existence of that "missing" part called Self. Whether this occurs in prison, or in the wilderness, or in a large city, is not important. The calumet is a tool for realizing this joy, and for experiencing real freedom within. The calumet is to be used only as a vehicle for the Breath because the Breath (as distinguished from "breathing") is the conduit for real prayers.

Christopher Nyerges is the author of several books, including "Enter the Forest," "Guide to Wild Foods," and "Urban Wilderness." He has taught classes in Native American skills, ethnobotany, and survival skills since 1974. A schedule of his classes is available from School of Self-Reliance, Box 41834, Eagle Rock, CA 90041, or at www.selfreliance.net .


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