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The Sacred Pipe

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  The Sacred Pipe

The Sacred Pipe "is the most mysterious thing in the World. The Scepters of our Kings are not as much respected; for the Savages (sic) have such a Deference for this Pipe, that one may call it the God of Peace and War, and the Arbiter of Life and Death."
     -- Father Marquette, 1673.

The Pipe Ceremony

The sky is clear and a cool morning breeze is giving way to a hot summer day. The tipis of our campsite are perched at the edge of two worlds: directly to the west are the Northern Rockies, to the east lie the Great Plains. On a grassy hillside, we sit together in a half- circle and gaze down onto the vastness of the Great Plains, bathed in sunlight. The men sit on the north side of the half-circle and the women on the south. The leader of the ceremony, the "pipe carrier", sits on the west side, facing the morning sun, arranging the items for the ceremony. Next to him sits his wife. He places dried sage in an abalone shell and causes it to smolder and produce a pleasant smoke. Similarly a braid of sweetgrass also produces a fragrant smoke. The shell is passed around the circle so that each person may pass the smoke over themselves with the intention of removing impurities. The leader takes the pipe bowl and pipe stem and passes them individually through the sweetgrass smoke to bless and purify them. Then the pipe stem and pipe bowl are joined together. The leader fills the pipe bit by bit. Each pinch of tobacco is blessed in the sweetgrass smoke and invested with a prayer before it is placed in the pipe bowl.

Now lighting the pipe, the pipe carrier offers the pipe and smoke to the four directions, touches the pipe to the earth, and offers it to the sky. As he holds the pipe with the stem pointed toward the sky, he prays. He incrementally brings the pipe lower as he continues to pray, seeming to pull down blessings from above. During the time he is praying, all the others present are also voicing their prayers so that there is a confusion of voices, some are soft and reverent, others plead and call out for healing and relief from suffering. After some minutes have passed, each one falls silent again, having voiced their deepest concerns and needs. The pipe is relit and is passed in a sunwise direction, that is, clockwise, around the circle. Each person in the circle receives the pipe, puffs the smoke, and, while turning the pipe in a sunwise direction, passes it to the person on their left. When the pipe has completed the circle, the leader sings a song. Then he carefully takes the pipe apart. This completes the ceremony. The aspen leaves shimmer in a gentle breeze blowing from the rugged peaks to the west.

History of the Pipe

The ceremony described above occurred in the early 1990's, but similar ceremonies have been part of North American culture since antiquity. At Mummy Cave in northeastern Wyoming, archaeologists uncovered tubular pipes made of bone, estimated to be 4400 years old. The earliest known stone pipe was found in Illinois and is 4000 years old. Three thousand year-old pipes were found near the Columbia River in Washington and the Sacramento River in California.

Later between 200 B.C. and 200 A.D. an extensive trade network existed which is referred to as the Hopewell interaction sphere. Evidence shows that this network connected distinct cultural groups and transported materials to Ohio from western Wyoming, Florida, Lake Superior, and North Dakota. The well-crafted pipes of this era, which did not have a separate stem, have been found from the Missouri Basin eastward to the Atlantic and north to Maine. Clearly the ceremonies of the sacred pipe have been evolving over thousands of years.

For years historians believed that the ritual of the sacred pipe became widespread only after European contact. Now there is evidence that pan-Indian ritual use of the pipe was established over a large part of North America before European contact. While oral traditions explain that the sacred pipe ceremony has been around since the distant past, we also know that designs on some 2000 year-old pipes emphasize the four directions suggesting that current philosophical elements of the pipe ceremony reach back at least to the beginning of the Christian era. Furthermore the earliest explorers in widespread areas were greeted with a pipe ceremony. For example, when Champlain landed near the mouth of the St. Lawrence in 1603, the natives greeted him with a pipe. The Spanish trader Diego Romero has described the pipe ceremony which was part of his ritual "adoption" by the Plains Apache in 1660 in present-day northeastern New Mexico or northwest Texas. Ritual use of the pipe was also recorded by European explorers on the mid-Atlantic coast in 1615, on the Upper Mississippi in 1667, and on the Lower Mississippi in 1684.

On the other hand, certain areas seem to have received the sacred pipe as a result of increased mobility following indirect or direct European influence. For example the western movement of certain tribes with the acquisition of the horse may have brought the pan-Indian pipe ceremony west to the Rockies from the Missouri and Upper Mississippi Basins. Similarly the fur trade may have led to the adoption of the sacred pipe along the MacKenzie River in the present-day Northwest Territories of Canada. Because the pipe is portable and easily concealed, the pipe ceremony has survived during decades of attempted extermination of Native American cultures.

While the pipe is not universally used among Native American peoples, it is perhaps the most defining artifact of Native American culture, and is a symbol of high spiritual values. For example in traditional Lakota marriage ceremonies, the groom and bride together hold a pipe, while red cloth is wound around their hands tying their lives together. At all times, and especially during the vision quest, the pipe serves as a shield against danger and fear. Traditionally, every sacred and important event begins with the offering of the pipe to the Great Spirit and the Four Directions.

One who possesses a pipe is required to live a clean life, for example, never speaking against the character of any person. There are certain extremely sacred and powerful pipe bundles that require daily observation of many customs and rituals. It is a very demanding responsibility.

Construction of the Pipe

The most famous material from which pipes are made is catlinite that is obtained from a single quarry in Minnesota. Among the Blackfeet, the preferred pipe stone is a black or green slate or sandstone known as argillite. An ivory-colored stone from Nevada has also been an important pipe-making material. Nowadays pipes are formed with modern tools such as hacksaws, drill bits, files, and sandpaper. The stone is cut roughly to the intended shape with a hacksaw. Often a "T"-shaped design is used. The hole for drawing the smoke is then drilled, first with a small diameter bit. Later this air passage is drilled out to its final size of about 3/16 inch. After drilling, the pipe is shaped with files and sanded smooth. Finally the pipebowl is sealed with melted beeswax. Alternatively mineral oil can be used to seal the pipestone. The pipestem can be made of any type of wood. Certain types of wood, such as sumac, have a soft pith and can be bored out with a hot wire. Among the Blackfeet, the pipestem is regarded as being the most sacred part of the pipe.

The bowl of the pipe, being made of stone, symbolizes the earth, while the wooden stem symbolizes all that grows on the earth. The bowl of the pipe is always held firmly in the left hand and the stem is held in the right hand, pointing outward. The bowl and the stem become powerful when inserted together at the beginning of ceremonial use. At all other times, these pieces are kept together but unconnected. The smoke stands for truth: truthful words, truthful actions, and a truthful spirit. While praying with the pipe, it is not necessary to inhale the smoke.

Spiritual Functions of the Pipe

The sacred pipe is used to link the world of everyday existence with the spirit world. During the pipe ceremony it is intended that the person praying with the pipe becomes a bridge connecting the sacred world of manifestation below and the sacred world of pure spirit above. The pipe is both symbolic of and the means to achieve the interconnectedness of all things: "The two-leggeds, the four-leggeds, the winged ones, the trees, the grasses... they are all related, one family." When people pray with the pipe, it is their responsibility to pray for all people and all elements of the universe, which are all joined together in the pipe. The smoke is offered as an expression of gratitude for the many gifts we have received. As the smoke rises, it is intended to carry the prayers to the Great Spirit.

According to elders who have been praying with the pipe all their lives, such as the late Buster Yellowkidney, a Blackfoot elder from Browning, Montana, there is a whole world inside the pipe. The pipe is a highly developed way to connect to spiritual power, also known as the Absolute Reality, God, or the Great Mystery. As Don Emerjilio of the Cabecar tribe of South America said, "The prayers are our scientific philosophy about our special connection with nature and it is not possible to translate." Still words can sometimes convey some of the power of the pipe, as in the words of the Lakota elder, Lame Deer, describing the original Lakota pipe:

"I held the pipes. The bowls were my flesh. The stem stood for all the generations. I felt my blood going into the pipe, I felt it coming back. I felt the pipes coming alive in my hands, felt them move. I felt a power surging from them into my body, filling all of me. Tears were streaming down my face... I knew that within this pipe were all the powers of nature, that within this pipe was me. I knew that when I smoked the pipe I was at the center of all things, giving myself to the Great Spirit..."

Native American Spirituality -- Is It Relevant Today?

In today's world, with attendant ecological and psychological problems, there is a tendency to idealize Native Americans and their way of life. However a closer look reveals that Native American cultures have their own defects and disadvantages. All the same, Native American cultures and other indigenous people show us the strength and beauty of honoring the earth. They show us that we can make a choice to be generous enough to grant all species the right to live. These ideals can help us in the absolutely critical task of creating a sustainable world for generations to come.

While these qualities have probably been part of Native American cultures since antiquity, some may argue that these ideals have become defining features of Native American societies only due to the collision of European and Native American cultures. However, these concepts are so important to the future of life on this planet that it hardly matters whether they are truly ancient or not. The important point is that they provide us with a code of spiritual and environmental ethics that can be integrated into our thoughts and decisions.

The foundation of Native American spirituality is respect, including respect for Mother Earth, respect for each man and woman, respect for individual uniqueness and choice. Native American tradition recognizes that every being gives something essential to the richness of life and should be honored for that contribution. Native American spirituality recognizes that all creation is a continuous process of "giving away.

If we understand this, we have to face the question, "Because we have received so much, what can we give back?" According to the most traditional Native American elders, such as the Hopi elder Grandfather David Monongye, and the Chippewa/Shoshoni elder Rolling Thunder, the most important gift you can give is to fill your mind with all-embracing love, and to pray from the bottom of your heart with all your might for all people and all elements of the universe. In a nutshell, that is what the pipe ceremony is all about.


Anonymous. 1992. Quotation from Don Emerjilio, Cabecar tribe. University for Peace, Costa Rica. November 26, 1991. Quoted in Ayehli Adeyoha: a publication of Sunray Meditation Society. Spring 1992.

Bullchild, Percy. 1985. The sun came down. San Francisco, CA: Harper & Row.

Erdoes, Richard. 1989. Crying for a dream: the world through Native American eyes. Santa Fe, NM: Bear and Company.

Erdoes, Richard, and Alfonso Ortiz. 1984. American indian myths and legends. New York, NY: Pantheon.

Ewers, John Canfield. 1958. The Blackfeet: raiders on the northwestern plains. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma.

Ewers, John Canfield. 1979. Indian art in pipestone: George Catlin's portfolio in the British Museum. Washington, D.C.: British Museum Publications and Smithsonian Institution.

Grinnell, George Bird. 1962. Blackfoot lodge tales. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska.

Hassrick, Royal B. 1964. The Sioux: the life and customs of a warrior society. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma.

King, J.C.H. 1977. Smoking pipes of the north American Indian. London: British Museum Publications.

Lame Deer, Archie Fire and Richard Erdoes. 1992. Gift of power: the life and teachings of a Lakota medicine man. Santa Fe, NM: Bear and Company.

Lyon, Dr. William S. 1987. Essay in Shaman's Drum, Spring 1987.

McClintock, Walter. 1992. Old Indian trails. Boston, MA: Houghton Miflin.

McGaa, Ed. 1990. Mother earth spirituality: Native American paths to healing ourselves and our world. San Francisco, CA: Harper & Row.

Paper, Jordan. 1988. Offering smoke: the sacred pipe and Native American religion. Moscow, ID: University of Idaho.

West, George A. 1934. Tobacco, pipes, and smoking customs of the American Indians. Westport, CT: Greenwood.

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