Sacred Pipes Mean Way More Than Peace for Native Americans

By: Jennifer Walker-Journey  | 
Ojibwa pipe
This pipe bowl and stem, circa 1885, is believed to have belonged to the Ojibwe Indians who lived mainly in Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, North Dakota, and Ontario, Canada. Public Domain

You've probably heard the expression "pass the peace pipe." It might have been when two parties struck a compromise after previously being at an impasse. The phrase comes from early American settlers and soldiers who noticed Indigenous peoples smoking ceremonial pipes during treaty signings. They misunderstood this to mean pipe smoking symbolized peacemaking in Native American culture and hence the word "peace pipe" and phrases like "pass the peace pipe" came about.

But, like many conventional American ideas about the history and culture of Indigenous peoples, the term peace pipe is a misnomer, says Gabrielle Drapeau, an interpretive park ranger at Minnesota's Pipestone National Monument and an enrolled member of the Yankton Sioux Tribe of South Dakota. Tribal enrollment requirements preserve the unique character and traditions of each tribe. The tribes establish membership criteria based on shared customs, traditions, language and tribal blood.


Many Native Americans smoke pipes — and not just in recognition of peace, but in ceremony and prayer as well as a way to connect with God. "So, don't use the term peace pipe," Drapeau says. "It's just 'pipe.'"

But these were — and are still — not just pipes. These artifacts, the tradition of pipe smoking and the ceremonies during which they are smoked hold far more significance for American Indian peoples across North America than the misnomer conveys.


A Short History of the Ceremonial Pipe

Blackfoot pipe ceremony
American author Harry Behn (center, smoking) is participating in a calumet (pipe) ceremony with members of the Blackfoot tribe in 1916. Behn befriended the Blackfoot tribe while doing research at Glacier National Park, even becoming an honorary member of the tribe. Public Domain

There is no singular word for these ceremonial pipes that spans all Native American cultures. The broad term often given to them is calumet, from the French word chalumet, which means reed or flute. Various tribes have their own unique names in their own languages. For example, the Lakota sacred pipe is called a chanunpa.

Ceremonial pipes have been a part of several Native American cultures for at least 5,000 years and are still used for ceremony and prayer. "I grew up this way. It's the only way I know how to pray," Drapeau says. "To me, it is like a physical representation of your connection to God."


The legends of how tribe elders first received pipes differ, too. The Lakota, for instance, were said to have been given its sacred pipe (chanunpa) by White Buffalo Calf Woman. She taught the Lakota to pray with the pipe, and it still has significance in Lakota tradition. That's why the white buffalo calf is so sacred to Native Americans. And every part of the pipe or chanupa — from the stem and bowl to the tobacco and smoke — is symbolic of the tribes' relationships with plants, animals, human and spiritual beings.

How Do Native Americans Use Pipes?

Slow Bull and Dakota man
(Left) A Dakota tribesman is seen smoking his calumet while kneeling by his altar inside a tipi. (Right) Oglala Lakota sub chief Slow Bull is squatting while holding his pipe with the mouthpiece pointing skyward and with a buffalo skull at his feet. Library of Congress

The Dakota — the tribe with which Drapeau is associated — smoke pipes during ceremonies such as sun dances, sweat lodges, marriages and vision quests. The smoke is believed to carry prayers to the Creator, other powerful spirits or ancestors. Similarly, the Lakota use the pipe ceremony to pray and offer blessings.

Just as different tribes have different pipes, there are different pipes with different uses, including personal pipes, family pipes and large ceremonial pipes. The type of tobacco smoked also might depend on the tribal ceremony. But the common thread is that these pipe ceremonies evoke their relationship with the Creator.


According to Ed McGaa (Eagle Man), an Oglala Lakota Sioux, and author of "Mother Earth Spirituality: Native American Paths to Healing Ourselves and Our World," most pipe ceremonies have the same intention: to call upon and thank the six energies. From his book:

All of our Sioux ceremonies beseech to the four directions, the earth and sky, and ultimately the Great Spirit. We see our Creator through nature, and we try to emulate what the Creator has made. This has worked out well, as you can see from the track record of Native American people. The old time Indians were honest, ethical people, and they had an unblemished environmental record. When the Pilgrims first landed, they kept them alive, and they took in black slaves. They were extremely humanistic. That's one of the main reasons that I believe in the natural way.


What Do Ceremonial Pipes Look Like?

The bowl of this Dakota (Eastern Sioux) catlinite is made of red pipestone, while the mouthpiece is made of wood, porcupine quills and wrapped with ribbon. Smithsonian Institution National Museum of the American Indian

When and how pipes are smoked are unique to each tribe as well as each individual. So are the pipes themselves. In their most basic form, they are made up of wooden stems and separate L- or T-shaped bowls carved from stone, shale, limestone, bone, pottery or other materials.

Most commonly, the bowls are made from pipestone. This type of stone is found across the United States in different colors — black, white, yellow, green and blue. But the pipestone that holds the most significance and history is the red pipestone found at the Pipestone National Monument in the southwest corner of Minnesota, Drapeau says. It's considered sacred by many nations of Indigenous peoples.


"We still have Native Americans from all over the country making the journey here to put in the physical labor just to get the stone," she says. Red pipestone, known as catlinite, is an iron-rich, soft argillite or claystone found between hard layers of Sioux quartzite.

The wooden stems of pipes are usually made of alder or ash and are sometimes decorated with quill, beadwork and/or feathers, but some are plain. These pipes are often filled with an herb mixture, typically the dried bark of a red oyster dogwood tree. Some tribes use tobacco, prairie plants or a ground-covering shrub called kinnikinnick. Like pipe smoking itself, the substance smoked is a personal preference. And no, tribes don't use pipes to smoke marijuana.

According to interviews with Native Americans by the Buffalo Bill Center of the West, ceremonial pipes and stems should not be joined together when on display in museums because the joining of the two signifies the beginning of a ceremony.

And if you're wondering whether Native Americans still use ceremonial pipes the answer is yes. While these pipes have played an important role in Native American culture for more than 5,000 years, they are still used to connect Indigenous people to their Creator.

"People like to refer to Native Americans in the past tense and leave that narrative behind," Drapeau says. "But we're still here and we're still practicing our traditional ways and we always will."