The Sacred Calumet Pipe

Derived from the French word chalumet, meaning reed or flute, the calumet is a significant object to many Native American tribes and cultures. Traditionally, calumets have been used in religious ceremonies to offer prayer, seal covenants or treaties, and to make ceremonial commitments. 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. The style of pipe, materials used to craft them, and the ceremonies in which the pipes are used are unique to each specific and distinct group.

The word calumet is itself a broad term referring to ceremonial pipes. Various tribes have unique names for them in their own languages and there is no single word to describe ceremonial pipes across the hundreds of Native cultures. Early settlers initially used the word to refer solely to what would be considered the stem/shank of the pipe while the bowl was often a separate ritual object. 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, potent spirits.

Outside observers and explorers could readily see the importance of pipes on Native culture and their extensive use in ceremonies and rituals. Father Jacques Marquette, the French Jesuit missionary who founded Michigan's first European settlement and helped explore and map the northern portion of the Mississippi River Valley, noted in 1673 during those travels the shared importance of ceremonial pipes across Native cultures. He asserted that even when the pipe was presented during battle, fighting would come to a halt due to its cultural significance. Members of the Illinois Confederation also reportedly gifted Marquette a pipe to ensure safe travel as he made his way through the land's interior.

George Catlin, Stu-mick-o-súcks, Buffalo Bull's Back Fat, Head Chief, Blood Tribe, 1832

A variety of materials have been used to craft these ceremonial pipes including clay, wood, and bone. Catlinite, or pipestone as it's sometimes called, is also a notable medium and is named after 19th-century American painter George Catlin who is best remembered for his portraits of Native Americans in the Old West. Catlinite is typically brownish-red in color and became popular because it's easy to work with and is fine-grained. Perhaps the most well-known type is red pipestone, which is primarily found in Minnesota and Utah, though other varietals such as blue, green, and black pipestone have all been used and excavated in various regions around the United States. The pipestone quarries, located in what is modern day Minnesota, were considered neutral ground as people from multiple nations journeyed to the quarry to obtain the sacred pipestone necessary to craft the revered pipes. The pipe stems are often fashioned from wood and are typically decorated with symbolic carvings, beads, horse hair, feathers, or animal effigies, depending on the pipe's ceremonial use.

The sacred pipe, with its array of ceremonial and symbolic roles, was held in high esteem and its storage and transportation were carefully considered. As with the pipe itself, the pipe-bag was labor intensive, and subject of much care and attention. Native American-made traditional pipe and tobacco bags, still produced to this day, are remarkably detailed, typically featuring extensive symbolic decoration laid out in careful beadwork, embroidery, and/or quillwork.

Though the origins of sacred pipes vary across cultures and some have been lost over the years due to a lack of written records, the Lakota have one of the most detailed accounts of how their sacred pipe originated thanks to a recorded interview author Richard Erdoes conducted in 1967 with Lakota holy man John Fire Lame Deer in South Dakota.

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

According to Lakota tradition, a sacred woman of supernatural origin named White Buffalo Calf Woman introduced the Lakota to seven sacred rituals necessary to protect and preserve Mother Earth, gifting them with a sacred pipe called the Čhaŋnúŋpa (chanunpa in English). Her name is steeped in symbolism as buffalo are considered sacred to many of the tribes located in the Great Plains and are associated with the delivery of messages from deceased ancestors, and information about medicine and creation. White Buffalo are even rarer, usually occurring only once in every 10 million births and are considered to be symbols of rebirth and world harmony.

According to the traditional legend, during a time of famine a Lakota chief sent two scouts out to hunt for food for the tribe, and after traveling for some time, the men saw a woman dressed in a white buckskin outfit in the distance (some sources allege it was a cloud that morphed into a woman when they got closer). Both men were awestruck by the young woman's beauty with one of the men asserting he planned on claiming her as his wife and reached out his hand to touch her. The other man warned that she appeared to be a sacred woman and attempting physical contact would be disrespectful and dangerous. His advice ignored, the man watched as his companion attempted to embrace the woman, was struck by lightning, and was reduced to a pile of blackened bones. The remaining man was frightened and started to draw his bow to defend himself but the woman beckoned him forward, telling the man that no harm would come to him and explaining that she was a spiritual entity. The man was instructed to return to his tribe and prepare for the woman's arrival.

Village of the Lakota Sioux Indians

The tribe prepared a medicine lodge per the White Buffalo Calf Woman's orders and days later she appeared walking toward the tribe, carrying a bundle with her and was invited inside the lodge. She walked around the interior to inspect the lodge and told the tribe they needed to construct a sacred altar in the center of the tipi. The altar was to be made from red earth with a buffalo skull and a three-stick rack to hold the venerated item she would bestow upon the tribe.

The woman opened the bundle and held out the Čhaŋnúŋpa, holding the stem in her left hand and the bowl in her right, establishing the way in which the pipe would be held during prayers and rituals. She showed the tribe how the pipe should be used, filling it with chanshasha, red willow-bark tobacco, and walking around the lodge four times to symbolize Anpetu-Wi, the great sun.

She would also explain that the bowl not only represents the tribe's flesh and blood but the respected buffalo, symbolizing the universe and the four directions since he stands on four legs with each leg a representation of the four ages the Earth will go through. The bowl's surface was engraved with seven circles, symbolizing the seven sacred ceremonies that were to be performed with the pipe. The stem represented everything that grows on Earth and featured twelve feathers hanging from it which came from a sacred spotted eagle that served as the Great Spirit's messenger. Before leaving the village, the woman spoke to the chief, stressing the pipe's sacredness and how it would take care of the tribe. She then departed in the same direction she came with her silhouette cast against the setting sun. She then stopped along the way and rolled over four times, each roll transforming her into a black, brown, and red buffalo before finally turning into a white buffalo — the rarest and most venerated of them all.

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

Crafting subsequent Čhaŋnúŋpas would be a collaborative effort between the men and women in the tribe as the men would carve the bowl and make the stem while the women would adorn it with decorative, colored bands sourced from porcupine quills. The pipe would become a significant part of marriage ceremonies as well. The man and woman would hold the pipe together while a red trade cloth was wrapped around their hands, symbolically tying them together for life.

Pipes have endured continuously for centuries, providing us with a means of relaxing and affording us moments of quiet contemplation and reflection. For others, pipes offer spiritual transcension and are a vital aspect of their culture, having been passed down for generations and used extensively for ceremonial purposes. Pipes have proven to be significant artifacts for people around the world, transcending cultural and linguistic barriers, and gradually becoming integral parts of culture.

Category:   Pipe Line
Tagged in:   Editorial History Pipe Culture


    • Gary Hansen on May 10, 2020
    • Interesting little tid bit on the Indian pipe I used to have one until someone thought they should take it, hope the spirit's give them no peace. Thanks for the insight.

    • Kenneth Snipes on May 10, 2020
    • Much appreciate the effort, reasearch, & fascinating historical results.

      Pipe appreciation & enjoyment knows all ages, but no borders.

      Thanks, again.

    • Gus Kund on May 10, 2020
    • Nothing about what kind of tobacco was
      smoked in those ? English , Aromatic. Indian ??

    • Wayne F on May 10, 2020
    • Very interesting post, thank you

    • Ken P Voorhees on May 10, 2020
    • Once again an absolutely fabulous article on little known pipe history. You are an excellent writer and should author s book on pipes. Perhaps smoking should consider offering Indian pipes and accessories for sale. I would definetly buy some.

    • Linwood Hines on May 10, 2020
    • Thank you for your article!
      For more - check out Indian Art in Pipestone, George Catlin's Portfolio in the British Museum by John C. Ewers, editor.
      Another book on use of the pipe is Black Elk Speaks, by John Neihardt,
      A special pipe for a vision quest - is somewhat carried on to modern times, I think, as we still utilize our pipes for quiet, meditation and inspiration!

    • A.C. WORLRY on May 11, 2020
    • Great article

    • Grant Mann on May 11, 2020
    • Excellent article, Jeffery Sitts. Many of the American Indians' ceremonial, social and sacred aspects associated with pipes and pipe smoking that you describe are practiced today by "modern pipe smokers". Indian history is replete with romanicised versions of their activities, sometimes embroidered or exaggerated accounts that portray them all as holy. In reality they were much like ourselves, although more closely connected to the earth than us. They enjoyed the peace and relaxation for which we all seek. Perhaps we "moderns" should take example and refer to pipe smoking for what it is... sacred activity.

    • Capt. Swindells on May 11, 2020
    • Most interesting, When I was on sailing ships I met a lady whose great-grandfather was one of the chiefs at 'Wounded Knee' I lived in West Australia for some years-I was taught to play the didgeridoo by man who had been made a Shaman of an American Indian tribe. He had a Tepee on his land and we would sit around and pass a stick round as a symbol - smoking was not allowed, much to my chagrin, but ' when in Rome etc.' I sometimes think there is a connection, for a 'didge' is not just to make a noise but I'll say no more in case I upset the 'Wandjina' I second Grant Mann's comments.

    • Mark on May 12, 2020
    • Thank you. I always welcome articles about the history of tobacco, smoking, and pipes—and if it is about tobacco, pipes and the American Indians, so much the better!

    • John on May 12, 2020
    • To reply to Gus Kund, the indigenous people of NA would smoke Nicotania Rustica, a pretty strong variety of tobacco. Sometimes they would mix it with other herbs and plants like Deertongue.

      Great post guys.

      To Ken Voorhees, Mr. Brog produces pipes for this purpose, in this style. It feels weird to pay money for these items and treat them like a commodity, for somebodies profit, for what should be something a little more “sacred”. I understand though, they can’t just give them away.

      I feel like making your own would mean more.

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