Ceremonial pipe

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A Lakota (Sioux) chanunpa pipestem, without the pipe bowl, displayed at the United States Library of Congress

A ceremonial pipe is a smoking pipe used by some Native American cultures in sacred ceremonies. Traditionally it has been smoked to seal a covenant or treaty, or to offer prayers in a religious ceremony.


Indigenous peoples of the Americas who use ceremonial pipes have names for them in each culture's indigenous language. There is no single word for all ceremonial pipes across the hundreds of diverse Native cultures.

In some historical sources written by colonists, a ceremonial pipe is referred to as a calumet (kal-yə-ˌmet, -mət)). Calumet is a Norman word (pronounced: [kalyme]), first recorded in David Ferrand's La Muse normande around 1625–1655,[1] and used by Norman-French settlers in Canada to describe the ceremonial pipes they saw used among the First Nations people of the region.[2] Its first meaning was "sort of reeds used to make pipes", with a suffix substitution for calumel,[3] It corresponds to the French word chalumeau, meaning 'reed' (Modern French also means 'straw', 'blowlamp').[4][5] and to the current Umatilla term, čalámat.[6] The name of the Calumet Region in Illinois and Indiana may derive from the French term or may have an independent derivation from Potawatomi.[7][8]


Catlinite bowl of a ceremonial pipe used by Black Hawk, on display at Black Hawk State Historic Site.

Tobacco, Nicotiana rustica,[9] was originally used primarily by eastern tribes but western tribes often mixed it with other herbs, barks, and plant matter, in a preparation commonly known as kinnikinnick.[10]

One material used for ceremonial pipe bowls in the Upper Midwest is red pipestone or catlinite,[11] a fine-grained easily worked stone of a rich red color of the Coteau des Prairies, west of the Big Stone Lake in South Dakota. The pipestone quarries of what today is Minnesota, were neutral ground as people from multiple nations journeyed to the quarry to obtain the sacred pipestone.[12] The Sioux people use long-stemmed pipes in some of their ceremonies. Other peoples, such as the Catawba in the American Southeast, use ceremonial pipes formed as round, footed bowls. A tubular smoke tip projects from each of the four cardinal directions on the bowl.

Ceremonial use[edit]

Harry Behn smoking a pipe with members of the Blackfoot nation

Native American ceremonial pipes have sometimes been called "calumets" or even "peace pipes" by Europeans or others whose cultures do not include these ceremonial objects. However, the smoking of a ceremonial pipe to seal a peace treaty is only one use of a ceremonial smoking pipe, by only some of the nations that utilize them. Various types of ceremonial pipes have been used by different Native American cultures. The style of pipe, materials smoked, and ceremonies are unique to the specific and distinct religions of those nations. Ceremonial pipes have been used to mark war and peace, as well as commerce and trade, and social and political decision-making.[7] Many Native American cultures still practice these ceremonies.

During his travels down the Mississippi River in 1673, Father Jacques Marquette documented the universal respect that the ceremonial pipe was shown among all Native peoples he encountered, even those at war with each other. He claimed that presenting the pipe during battle would halt the fighting. The Illinois people gave Marquette such a pipe as a gift to ensure his safe travel through the interior of the land.[7]

Jesuit missionary Pierre-Jean De Smet gives an account of a pipe ceremony done by the Cheyenne people.[13]

In ceremonial usage, the smoke is believed to carry prayers to the attention of the Creator or other powerful spirits. Lakota tradition tells that White Buffalo Calf Woman brought the chanunpa (Lakota sacred pipe) to the people, and instructed them in its symbolism and ceremonies.

According to oral traditions, and as demonstrated by pre-contact pipes held in museums and tribal and private holdings, some ceremonial pipes are adorned with feathers, fur, human or animal hair, beadwork, quills, carvings or other items having significance for the owner. Other pipes are very simple. Many are not kept by an individual, but are instead held collectively by a medicine society or similar indigenous ceremonial organization.

Pipestone varieties[edit]

Inlayed Pipe Bowl with Two Faces, early 19th century, Brooklyn Museum
Uncompahgre Ute Salmon alabaster ceremonial pipe. Ute pipe styles are similar to those of the Plains Indians, with notable differences. Ute pipes are thicker and use shorter pipestems than the plains style and more closely resemble the pipe styles of their Northern neighbors, the Shoshone.

A number of Indigenous North American cultures make and use ceremonial pipes. However, there are also Native American cultures that do not have a ceremonial smoking tradition, but make pipes for social smoking only. The types of materials used vary by community and locality. Some of the known types of pipe stone and pipe materials are:

Clay – The Cherokee and Chickasaw both fashion pipes made from fired clay, however these are only used for social smoking. They use small reed cane pipestems made from river cane. These pipes are made from aged river clay hardened in a hot fire.

Red pipestoneCatlinite is an iron-rich, reddish, soft argillite or claystone typically excavated from beds occurring between hard Sioux Quartzite layers[14] below groundwater level, as the stone erodes rapidly when exposed to the weather and outside air. Red pipestone is used primarily by the Plains Tribes, and the Western and Great Basin Tribes. The stone can be found in Minnesota (Pipestone), and Utah (Delta, Uinta). Sacred pipestone comes from Pipestone, Minnesota. The quarry is located just north of the town at the Pipestone National Monument. Today only Native Americans are allowed to quarry the pipestone from this quarry. The pipestone or catlinite from this quarry is softer than any other catlinite.

Mississippian and Eastern Woodlands style "acorn" pipe. These pipes have been found in Mississippian culture earthwork mounds in the Eastern United States. This acorn pipe is made from South Dakota red pipestone.

Blue pipestone – is used predominantly by the Plains Tribes for certain types of ceremonial pipes. Deposits of the stone are found in South Dakota.

Bluestone – a hard, greenish-blue quartzite stone from the southern Appalachian Mountains. After being worked, it takes on a decidedly greenish cast. This stone has been used by several Eastern Woodlands tribes for pipemaking. Several ancient Mississippian culture bluestone pipes have been excavated.

Uncompahgre Ute Salmon alabaster ceremonial pipe with pipestem.

Salmon alabaster – the Uncompahgre Ute People make ceremonial pipes from salmon alabaster mined in central Colorado.

Green pipestone – A white on green marbled cupric pipestone found in Wyoming and South Dakota is used by the Shoshone, Ute, and Plains Tribes for personal and ceremonial pipes. This stone is also used to carve sacred effigies and religious items.

Black pipestone (South Dakota) – a soft, brittle, white on black marbled pipestone found in South Dakota and used by some of the Plains Tribes for certain types of ceremonial pipes.

Black pipestone (Uinta) – an extremely hard black quartzite slate which has undergone metamorphic compression and is found in the southeastern drainage of the Uinta Mountains in Utah and Colorado. This stone has been used by the Great Basin Tribes for war clubs and pipes that are jet black with a high gloss when polished. Stones which have tumbled down creeks and drainages are always selected, since these stones typically contained no cracks or defects.

Traditional pipemaking tools[edit]

Both raw and cut-and-slabbed high grade red pipestone from Delta, Utah.

One traditional method of manufacture is the use of bow drills made with hard white quartz points for drilling sacred objects from stone.[citation needed] One technique uses moistened rawhide strips rolled in crushed white quartz and stretched with a bow handle to shape and rough the pipes. Pipe bowls may also be shaped with hard sandstones, then polished with water and sanded with progressively finer and finer abrasive grit and animal hide, finally being rubbed with fat or other oils to complete polishing.[citation needed]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ CNRTL site etymology of calumet
  2. ^ Rowland, Dunbar (1907)
  3. ^ The word comes from Late Latin calamellus. The Northern Norman dialect retains the group /ca/, when it turns into /ʃa/ (cha-) in Common French and it retains the suffix -el, when it has turned into -eau in Common French. The fall of the final /l/ is specific for the Cauchois dialect, which explains the later confusion with another suffix -et, pronounced the same way [e].
  4. ^ CNRTL
  5. ^ T.F. Hoad, English Etymology, Oxford University Press, 1993, p. 59
  6. ^ Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation; Rude, Noel (2014). Umatilla Dictionary. Seattle: Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, in association with University of Washington Press. p. 558. ISBN 9780295994284. 
  7. ^ a b c Moore, Powell A. (1959). The Calumet Region: Indiana's Last Frontier. Indiana Historical Bureau. Retrieved 20 August 2015. 
  8. ^ Calumet River-Frontal Lake Michigan, Watershed Central Wiki, U.S. EPA, quoting from the "City of Chicago Calumet Land Use Plan"
  9. ^ The Native American Chanunpa, the Sacred Pipe, Barefoot's World
  10. ^ Charles L. Cutler. Tracks that speak: the legacy of Native American words in North American culture. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (Boston : 2002).
  11. ^ "Catlinite, Calumet Pipes and Pipestone National Monument". Maps, Material, Culture, and Memory: On the Trail of the Ioway. University of Iowa. Retrieved 20 August 2015. 
  12. ^ "Pipestone National Monument". National Park Service. Retrieved 19 May 2012. 
  13. ^ Life, letters and travels of Father Pierre-Jean de Smet, S.J. 1801-1873: missionary labors and adventures among the wild tribes of the North American Indians Vol 1.
  14. ^ Geologic Formations, Pipestone National Monument, Minnesota, National Park Service


  •  This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainChisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Calumet". Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. 
  • Charles L. Cutler. Tracks that speak: the legacy of Native American words in North American culture. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (Boston : 2002)

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