IN FOCUS: This is not a pipe

Ren? Magritte, The Treachery of Images, 1928–29, Restored by Shimon D. Yanowitz, 2009

Anyone who has had the pleasure to sit down to a satisfying pipe of flame-cured Virginian tobacco (along with a touch of perique in the mixture) will stand in eternal debt to the indigenous peoples of the North American continent. They developed not only the sacred weed but also the pipes best suited for production of the “good thoughts” that inevitably accompany the pleasure of smoking the sacred substance. This pipe is more much than a pipe: it is a connection to the divine.

Native Americans are thought to have cultivated tobacco varietals for as long as 6,000-10,000 years! They are the sacred plant’s true discoverers and true cultivators. The Europeans picked up the practice of tobacco smoking from the Native Americans during the “age of discovery/conquest” of the Americas. Indeed many scholars have ventured to suggest that smoking tobacco in a sacred pipe is the practice that truly distinguishes North American Indian religion from all other religions ancient or modern. “If there is one aspect unique to aboriginal religion in the Americas, it is the ritual use of tobacco.” (Paper, p. 3) Steinmetz (1983) pointed out that the sacred pipe was used in virtually all Indian ceremonies and sacred rituals. It was associated with a wide array of mythological symbols and sacred legends. Paper (p. 13) says that the sacred pipe can only be compared in its holiness to the Qur’an in Islam or the Torah in Judaism. It, the pipe, was utterly holy and sacred in itself and was considered a virtually infallible means of communicating with the spirit worlds including the Great Spirit himself. The pipe was thought to ennoble its users and to reliably produce sublime and “good thoughts.”

The basic ritual involved uniting the bowl with the stem to create the smokable pipe, filling the bowl with ritually prepared tobacco, lighting the tobacco, offering smoke to the four directions and then to the earth and the sky, and finally passing the pipe to others who are seated in a sacred circle. The use of the sacred pipe was quite widespread across the North American continent and is believed to be thousands of years old. Some stone pipes that have been discovered at archaeological sites that date back to over a thousand years. Many of these ancient pipes are known as effigy pipes (Paper has pictures of several of these and a few other types of pipes, Plates I- XVI). They have carvings depicting a shaman in a ritual pose or a therianthrope (like a bear-Man) that must have functioned as the totem spirit for the clan that used the pipe or the shaman that owned the pipe. Some pipes appear to be imbued with the spiritual power of an entire tribal group or nation of tribes. These sacred pipes are cared for by special individuals and passed down the generations under strict ritual procedures. Other sacred pipes are owned and used by secret societies and are never handled by individuals not ritually prepared to handle such power. Handling such a pipe in a state of ritual impurity could get one killed.

The smoke is believed to be a spiritual substance. Like incense used in other cultures, tobacco smoke both ritually fumigated or purified the environs of demonic beings while also being pleasing to helpful spirits. According to Lakota beliefs, White Buffalo Calf Woman, a radiant and beautiful spirit being, gave the sacred pipe to the Lakota along with the seven sacred rites of the Lakota people. Like the Virgin Mary in the Catholic tradition, White Buffalo Calf Woman appeared to children to deliver a message to the people. In this case she appeared to two young boys–one of whom understood that she was wakan or spirit. This boy returned to his people and told them to prepare for the spirit’s arrival. She came and then instructed the people in use of the sacred pipe. She then presented the people with the first of the seven rites and said that the next six would be revealed in time. The seven sacred Lakota ceremonial rites turned out to be the sweat lodge ceremony, the vision quest, the Ghost keeping ceremony (a funereal year long mourning rite), the Sun dance, the Hunka ceremony (“the taking of relatives”), the throwing of the ball ceremony (where a ritual ball was thrown by a young girl to participants symbolizing the four sacred directions and representing the ages in a person’s life), and puberty rites. The sacred pipe is centrally involved in all of these rituals.

In addition to its use in the central ritual traditions of the Indian nations, the sacred pipe was used as a talisman by lone travelers throughout the continent. If you carried the sacred pipe into a territory that belonged to a foreign tribe, the warriors of that tribe would not and could not harm you or your party. Early European explorers soon discovered that the pipe was their only means of safe passage through hostile Indian territories. Both the bowl and the stem of the sacred pipe had to be prepared under strict procedures of ritual purity. Most bowls, the most revered bowls, were prepared from red catlinite stone obtained, again ritually, from a quarry in southwestern Minnesota, now Pipestone National Monument Park. The quarry is known to have been in use for over a thousand years. Stems were typically made of stone or wood and could be decorated with red ochre or feathers, beads or carvings of spirit beings.

The first native Americans entered the North American continent about 20 thousand years ago, crossing over the Bering land bridge during the last ice age. As communities proliferated across the continent and across the centuries, we can discern several cultural traditions emerging across these great expanses of time, each of which exhibited distinct religious traditions but with some striking similarities as well, the most common of all being the use of the sacred pipe.

What was and is the significance of the sacred pipe? Between 500 B.C. and A.D. 400, elaborate mortuary cults flourished over a wide area of the Eastern woodlands, marked by burial mound construction. The Hopewell tradition of 200 B.C. to A.D. 400 involved the construction of ceremonial buildings in which rites were performed for burial of the dead. These rites were probably conducted by secret societies, as all kinds of sacred objects (especially sacred pipes) associated with ceremonials were found in the mounds that were constructed over the building once their ceremonial use ceased. It is likely that these secret societies were the original pipe smokers among the Indian nations. The function of most secret societies was to develop political leadership of the tribe. In most tribes this meant hereditary chiefdoms and in large tribes or tribal confederations it meant divine “Kings.”

Near modern-day St. Louis, another ceremonial center, called Cahokia, flourished about 1,000 years ago. At its peak 20,000 people probably lived near or in Cahokia. There was a 40 acre ceremonial plaza that ran through the center. Earthen mounds flanked the plaza on both sides and “Monk’s Mound” at the eastern end of the plaza rises 102 feet above the floodplain and covers 16 acres. A thatched temple once stood on the summit. It is likely that a sacred king either lived in or presided over ritual performances from that temple atop the mound. One of the smaller mounds at Cahokia contained the remains of a wealthy man, probably a king as many servants were sacrificed at his death and buried with him in the mound complex. He was clothed in a splendid garment of thousands of brightly colored shells. Within all the burial mounds sacred pipes were a common find. Cahokia collapsed around A.D. 1250 but it bears witness to the fact that some of the Indian peoples of North America had developed the concept of the sacred or divine kingship wherein the King embodies what the sacred pipe also instantiated: a direct connection to the divine.

What a marvelously simple and beautiful ritual the sacred pipe was and is! It promoted both within group and out-group cooperation. It connected individuals to the divine on a daily basis and “gave them good thoughts.” It facilitated deliberations within secret societies around the leadership of the tribe. Its sacredness was inviolable; its power awesome. How could a pipe do all this? Well sometimes a pipe is not just a pipe. Sacred ritual can make a pipe not be a pipe. In his The Treachery of Images, Magritte shows that he understood this elementary fact of religious life. The painting shows a pipe as if it were displayed in an advertisement. Below the pipe is the phrase: “Ceci n’est pas une pipe” (“This is not a pipe”). Image and its referent are two different things. Like Charles Sanders Pierce said, they need a third to connect them and to make them intelligible and to generate new knowledge. The sacred pipe certainly was and is generative for Native American peoples.


Paper, J. (1988). Offering smoke: The sacred pipe and native American religion. University of Idaho Press, Moscow Idaho.

Steinmetz, P. (1984). The sacred pipe in American Indian religions. American Indian Culture and Research Journal 8(3), 27-80.

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.