Peace Pipes




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By Ernest Thompson Seton

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Fig. 94

 So far as I know, the American Indian is the only race that makes a solemn ceremony of smoking the pipe. The origin of this custom is surmisable, if not provable.

Incense has always been the symbol of prayer; it rises from the mystery of the Fire below, and ascends to be lost in the mystery of the All Above, the Home of the Great Mystery.

The first easily handled smokes were in the form of a fire-bowl or censer. These burned better when a hole was made near the bottom through which the priest could blow, so as to nurse the fire.

By chance, probably, he found that he could stimulate it better by drawing, especially if it were lighted with a live coal laid on top. This practice became pleasant in time, especially since it further glorified the priest by having the holy smoke proceed from his own mouth and nostrils.

This explanation is only my theory, but is supported by so many facts and probabilities that I consider it sound.

It should be a pleasant thought for our smokers, our imitators of the Redman, that in smoking they are not merely indulging in a doubtful habit, they are burning incense to the Great Mystery-they are giving up-mounting wings to their secret prayer.

The ceremony of smoking the Peace Pipe-and remember it was always a peace pipe, never a war pipe--differed greatly among the various tribes. By selecting elements from the tribes I best knew, I have assembled the Chief's part in the Ceremony as it appears in Peace Pipe Ceremony. This is suitable for use in the councils of the Woodcraft Indians.

The Making of the Peace Pipe

The ideal peace pipe has a bowl of the red pipestone (claystone or catlinite) that is found in the famous Pipestone Quarry of southwestern Minnesota. This deposit, when first quarried, is so soft as to be readily carved with a knife; and later turns hard with exposure.

But I have seen primitive pipe bowls made of soapstone, terra cotta, bone and wood. Since the White man came, many have been made of metal. These were commonly a combination of tomahawk for war on one side, and pipe for peace on the other; so that the mere act of smoking the peace pipe entailed burying the hatchet, the opposite edge.

When, in 1874, as a fourteen-year-old boy, I founded my first group of Woodcrafters, I made the official peace pipe myself. The bowl I carved out of a soft red brick; the stem I made of a long piece of elder, from which the pith was easily punched. A portrait of this pipe is given in Fig. 94 (a).

Since those days, I have made one or two peace pipes, and gathered a collection of authentic Indian examples.

Many of our campers want to make a sacred pipe for themselves. At once, they are up against the problem of boring the stem. There are five different answers to this:

(1) Use a hollow reed or bamboo of the required length; that is, about 20 inches. This undoubtedly was the original method; for the stems, and by inclusion, the whole pipe, is still called the calumet, which is old French for a hollow reed (Latin calamus).

(2) Use a hollow bone, such as the leg bone of a deer, or the wing bone of a large bird.

(3) Cut a stem out of maple, willow, poplar, or other splittable wood. Split it down the middle, dig out a central channel in one piece, then glue and lash the two pieces together again. The joint is easily hidden.

(4) Having selected the stem piece, flatten the upper surface for the whole length. In this, cut a deep, narrow groove, say 1/4 inch wide and deep. Finally, cover this with a thin strip of wood, reaching the whole length, and glued as well as lashed on. The lashings may be of ornamental stuff, such as bead-strings, porky quills, or colored threads.

(S) This is by far the most used in modern times. Select for stem some sapling with a well-developed pith. In various parts of the country, different species will suggest themselves. Personally, I have used white ash, sumac (either stag horn or smooth), and elder. Cut a piece 24 inches long and 1 1/2 to 2 inches thick, as straight and free from knots as may be. Peel the bark, trim it down a little to make sure that it has no bad flaw. Then, with a wire heated red-hot at the tip, burn out the pith, working from both ends; so that a wire 14 inches long will burn the hole through a 24-inch stem. The best size of wire is 3/16 inch thick. If heavier, it makes too large a hole; if smaller, it carries so little heat that the operation is slow.

Among the Indians, the cleaning-rod of a rifle was the wire most used. Of the twelve peace pipes now lying on my desk as I write, every one has a stem bored in this way.

I have known hours spent in boring a green ash stem; but also, I have several times bored sumac or elder stems in a minute each. Elder is by far the easiest to handle, especially when dry; but the difficulty is to get a piece of elder thick enough.

The decoration of tile stem offers endless scope for individual taste; but I should advise the beginner to stick closely to some authentic pattern.

The Peace Pipe officially used when I was admitted to the Sioux nation at Standing Rock is shown in Fig. 94 at (c) . The stem is of ash, and is 18 inches long. In the Plate I have indicated the decoration--bands of colored porky quills at each end; the skin and feathers from a mallard's neck, yellow ribbons, and a red-dyed horsehair tuft in the middle. The duck neck feathers are an important traditional decoration; the porky quills are red, white, blue, and yellow, gorgeous as aniline dyes can make them.

The stem is shown separate from the pipe and edge up because, when joined to the bowl, it is flat side up.

In Fig. 94., (a) is the peace pipe which I made as a boy. Its head was carved out of a soft red brick; the stem is of elder.

(b) is a pipe which I bought from an Indian in Winnipeg in January, 1887. The bowl is made of wood, lined with tin. It is painted black and decorated with lines that are incised and filled with red or yellow paint. The bosses are brass-headed tacks. The stem is of ash; and is shown in section just above. When first I got it, it had a piece of otter skin wrapped around near the mouth end.

(c) is the Sioux pipe already described.

(d) is a model peace pipe, composed of elements from many different examples--all of them authentic, and all of Plains Indian origin. The bowl is of red pipestone, inlaid with bands of soft metal supposed to be galena. The stem is separated and turned on edge to show the relief carving on the upper side. In the original, these carvings were twice as far apart. The corona of feathers hangs straight down. The feathers are strung together on two strong threads which are fastened to the under side of the stem. The feathers are white, with a spot of red sealing wax holding streamers of yellow hair on to the tip of each.

(e) is one of the war and peace tomahawk-pipes, copied from Catlin. So far as I can learn, the construction of pipe and hatchet in the same weapon was unknown before the coming of the White man.

(f) In the lower right-hand corner of the Plate is a four-way censer, of ancient type. This has four draught-holes to the fire. It typifies the fourfold fire of the Woodcraft Indians, as well as illustrates the oldest known type of fire-pot. It was given to me by J. E. Steere, of Charlotte, N. C. It is made of burnt clay, and was a usual type among the Indians of that region.

When I was quite a youngster, I wrote the following:

    They Were Nigh Kin

An Injun got his dander up, 
    And vowed he'd do some killin'; 
He tied a stone upon a stick,
    To do it with (the villain)!

He made it tight with thongs, and bright
    With paint and beads galore;
He bound a thong to hang it on--
    And lo! his club of war.

But as he worked with all his might,
    His dander simmered down;
He'd spent his fury on the club,
    He couldn't even frown.

And so he trimmed it down a bit,
    Drilled holes for fire and smoke;
He grinned, and added feather fringe,
    And even made a joke.

He added other symbols now,
    Gave merriment new lease;
He filled the bowl with spark and coal--
    And lo! the pipe of peace.

Rhythm of the Redman






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Last modified: October 15, 2016.