In the Begining, There Was the Calumet
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10 July 2012

In the Begining, There Was the Calumet

A pair of ceremonial calumets, as depicted by George Catlin, mid-19th century

A pair of ceremonial calumets, as depicted by George Catlin, mid-19th century.

The calumet, a catch-all term for the original tobacco pipe indigenous to North America, was an object of singular significance. Though often referred to simply as "peace pipes", there were in fact ceremonial calumets specifically created and adorned for numerous roles, including the declaration or prosecution of war.

Though a good pipe, being an object of some considerable labor investment (especially when shaped only by non-ferrous hand tools) would be a natural choice for the ceremonial occasions of tobacco use, it's also important to note that the tobaccos available were much harsher than those products of careful selective breeding that we enjoy today - not to mention that one common leaf, Nicotiana rustica, contained three times the nicotine as our strongest popular variations of Nicotiana tabacum. Furthermore, they were often mixed with other dried herbs as well. Tobacco was a commodity to be used only sparingly and on special occasions - "padded out" in mixture and puffed on through long-stemmed pipes which would help tame the blend. (Similarly, the Tainos of Cuba, the first smokers met by Europeans, rationed their own tobaccos by rolling them into cigars with a plantain or palm leaf wrapping.)

Access to the very pipestone itself (otherwise known as catlinite, after George Catlin) from which the calumet was most commonly carved was highly valued as well, to the point that amongst the peoples who inhabited areas where pipestone supplies originated, quarries were considered neutral ground, thus assuring that even within the context of oft-perpetual intertribal conflict, a supply would be secure. Given the importance of smoking the calumet in sealing bargains or, most famously, coming to terms of peace, this can be interpreted as quite a pragmatic measure - I would hazard a guess that a violation of this tradition would go over about as well as the killing of an emissary in the Occidental or Oriental spheres; a profane transgression against a trust both idealized as sacred and highly functional, which could see an entire kingdom, or even an empire, justly ground to dust in retribution. In short, the pipe of autochthonic North American societies was of such importance to politics not only within the tribe, but also in effecting relations (peaceful or otherwise) amongst other tribes, that the act of sacrilege in denying its availability or desecrating its symbolism was a line none could cross without expecting to earn a dire stigma, as well as consequences. When a pipe was puffed on in ceremony, the smoke was seen as carrying the participants' prayers, oaths, pacts, or decisions to the attention of the Creator-deity or other important and potent spirits - effectively serving to accomplish what we would now call "putting it in writing". In this light the pipes of a tribal leader or "medicine society" were both religious artifacts and, in and of themselves, akin to the highly-respected scribes who would follow lords, kings, and other powerful figures in European, Mediterranean, and Asian societies previous to the widespread use of the printing press.

The red pipestone bowl of Sauk leader Black Hawk’s personal calumet, preserved at the Black Hawk State Historic Site, Illinois

The red pipestone bowl of Sauk leader Black Hawk’s personal calumet,
preserved at the Black Hawk State Historic Site, Illinois.

Given the high esteem in which the indigenous pipe and its array of ceremonial and symbolic roles were held, it should come as little surprise that its storage and transportation required means fitting to its station. As with the pipe itself, the pipe-bag was an artifact of no little labor, and subject of much care and attention; Native-made traditional pipe and tobacco bags, still produced to this day, are on par with modern artisan-made briars in terms of the skill and cost involved, typically featuring extensive symbolic decoration laid out in careful beadwork, embroidery, and/or quillwork.

Northern Plains pipe bag and Sioux pipe bag, both circa 1870, from the Pierre L. Fabre collection

Northern Plains pipe bag and Sioux pipe bag, both circa 1870,
from the Pierre L. Fabre collection.

While public-domain images of modern calumets are hard to come by, in searching for pictures for this entry I did come across a Flickr set of some of the best examples of Native pipe-bowl art, the Hopewell-period Tremper Mound trove discovered in Ohio just shy of a century ago: The Hopewell Effigy Pipes

 

Eric Squires: Copywriter

 Eric Squires: Copywriter









Posted by eric at 4:00 PM | Link | 3 comments

Re: In the Begining, There Was the Calumet
Fascinating post. Nicely done.

Posted by Jeff Smith on July 10, 2012 at 8:34 PM


Re: In the Begining, There Was the Calumet
An extremely interesting article.
Had me wishing it was a whole book.
More please Eric.

Posted by squirenorm on July 10, 2012 at 8:47 PM


Re: In the Begining, There Was the Calumet
Nice post. Do you guys sell any of these pipes?

Posted by Brenden on July 10, 2012 at 8:56 PM



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