Native American Culture: The Sacred Pipe

One aspect of Native American culture that non-Natives are widely aware of is the Sacred Pipe. It is represented on one of the Native American blanket designs we offer here at Indian Traders.

What does the Sacred Pipe represent?

The Sacred Pipe is also known as the Peace Pipe or Calumet – but it is much more than the stereotype of “peace-pipe” suggests. While not all Native American Nations have pipe traditions, the pipe is an intrinsic spiritual ceremonial item, and particularly relevant to the American Indians of the Great Plains and the Northeast. It was used:

  • In prayer offerings
  • When making a ceremonial commitment
  • To seal a treaty or covenant
  • For rites of passage
  • Soul-keeping

The Sacred Pipe was smoked ceremonially and is highly revered as a holy object in Native culture, and this reverence continues to this day. Even between warring tribes, the Sacred Pipe was shown universal respect. Presentation of the Pipe during battle would almost always call a stop to the fighting, and a person carrying a peace pipe was frequently allowed to pass unharmed through enemy territory as a sign of respect. The pipestone quarries of modern Minnesota were even neutral ground, as many tribal nations travelled to obtain their sacred pipestone from there.

The Pipe was smoked during collective rituals, as well as for personal prayer and divination, and was the primary source of communion with the Spirit World. The Pawnee, for example, performed complex dances to present smoke offerings to The Creator on behalf of the Tribe.

Sitting Bull

Sitting Bull, Hunkpapa Sioux, with Sacred Pipe 1877

The Pipe itself was also symbolic, with the colors, motifs, and component parts corresponding to aspects of the Universe. Its design and symbolism differed between nations, and the rituals, pipe style, and smoke medium were also distinct between tribes and regions.

Some Sacred Pipes were very simple, while others were adorned with feathers, human hair, animal fur, quills, beading, carvings, paintings, or other personally significant items.

The Material of which the pipe bowl was made varied depending on the availability of local materials. Indians of the Upper Midwest (including the Sioux, Blackfoot, and Chippewa) used catlinite, which is the fine-grained red stone of the local Prairies. The Cherokee and Chickasaw used fired river clay pipes; Indians of the Appalachians and the Eastern woodlands used Bluestone. The Uncompahgre Ute used salmon alabaster and the Shoshone and some other Plains tribes used green pipestone. Others used black pipestone.

Some Native American cultures do not have any ceremonial smoking traditions but do smoke socially.

Smoking Material

The medium smoked also varied.

Tobacco was considered by the American Indians to be powerful and sacred. Tobacco was often smoked on its own by the tribes of the east, while further west it was usually mixed with plant matter, often bark or herbs. The smoking materials were carried in a pipe bag.

Smoking the Sacred Pipe opened the door for communication between humans and sacred beings; the tobacco had a mildly narcotic effect and this, combined with the symbolism of the smoke being drawn into the body and ascending on exhalation, was an affirmation of the success of this communication. The smoke was widely believed to carry prayers to The Creator or other powerful spirit entities.

Peace Pipe

The “Peace Pipe” by Carl Moon, Taos, NM, 1908

Ceremonial Smoking Ritual

This also varies between Nations. Generally speaking, the ritual of smoking the pipe began with invocations to the directions the Native Americans recognized: east, south, west, north, to the sky, and the earth.

Smoking the Sacred Pipe is not restricted to only Native Americans; however, it is a sacred, spiritual practice that must be respected by all ceremony attendees.

Other Types of Pipe

  • The War Pipe – was smoked by warriors prior to going into battle. It was decorated with red feathers, which symbolized blood.
  • The Medicine Pipe – used ceremonially for healing purposes by Medicine Men, Shamans, and Healers.

Indian Traders offers the Big Medicine Pendleton Blanket design. Available in a choice of sizes and colors, it honors the legend of the white buffalo.

In 1933, a white buffalo, later named “Big Medicine”, was born on the Flathead Reservation in Western Montana. Big Medicine was believed by many Native Americans to be the fulfilment of an ancient prophecy. The oral tradition of this prophecy was of a coming of a herd of pure white buffalo which signaled a brand new beginning for the People of Earth.

In the blanket design:

  1. Seven buffalo represent seven directions of Native lore: North, East, South, West, Above, Below and Within.
  2. Sacred Pipes symbolize Mankind’s communication with the Great Creator.
  3. Four hands within the Circle of Life represent the diversity of the people of Earth and the new beginning promised by the birth of the white buffalo.

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