The chanupa wakan, Lakota for sacred pipe, is an important part of American tribal culture. It’s a means of showing respect for the natural order of things, and in offering prayers to the creator, which are carried to Wakan Tanka on the smoke, by the spirit of the tobacco plant, one of the four sacred herbs.
Sometimes tobacco only is smoked, and at other times, knick-knick (from the Algonquian word for “mixture”), traditionally a mixture of red willow bark, tobacco and other herbs. Some are personal pipes, and others are used for large ceremonies. A pipe is not owned, but carried. It is too sacred for ownership.
One of the most sacred and spiritual areas in North America is located near the town of Pipestone, MN, at the Pipestone National Monument, where the pipestone, or catlinite, a form of fossilized clay, is quarried. It has always been a place of peace, where all people, regardless of tribal affiliations, put down their weapons of war. It is considered hallowed ground, and only those who were purified in ceremony could set foot there. It was limited to men only, because they were the ones who quarried the stone.
Here, small quarries are worked by individuals, and families, often for generations, to obtain the sacred pipestone for making the chanupa wakan. By federal law, it can only be quarried by Native Americans, using hand implements and the process is exceedingly arduous, and time-consuming. In a new quarry, it can often take two months or more simply to reach the pipestone. The sacred stone is covered with eight to ten feet of quartzite, the second hardest mineral on earth, and its removal, as well as the final extraction of the pipestone is an art which has been perfected over time by those who quarry the sacred stone.
While Catlinite is found in other locations, only that which is quarried in the sacred quarries at Pipestone is considered suitable for making the chanupa wakan. One reason is the stone’s working characteristics. Pipestone is from the sacred quarries is soft enough to be worked with files, pocket knives and hack saws. Catlinite from other regions, and even that obtained in other quarries in close proximity to Pipestone tends to be too hard or brittle, and lack consistent workability.
The quarry area is also the place where the thunderbird lays her eggs, and approaching the nest of the thunderbird is a very dangerous thing, and many have been swept away by ferocious storms and lightning. There are many ancient petro glyphs in the area, and hundreds of years ago, the tribal people would gather there to wait for the thunderstorms, before quarrying the stone. If no storms came, the stone would not be quarried.
The Sacred Pipe
The sacred pipe has two parts; the bowl, traditionally made of Catlinite, and the stem, made of wood (usually sumac or ash, but may be almost any wood). There are many different shapes for pipes but the most prevalent are the calumet, which is shaped like an upside down “T”, and the elbow pipe which is, as its name suggests, as simple “L” shape. While the bowl and stem are kept together, they are never joined except for ceremonial use, because when they are put together, they become a living altar; the union of male and female; the joining of the earth, our mother, and the sky, our father.
While there are degrees of commonality in almost all pipe ceremonies, there are also many differences which make them unique, and any two ceremonies, even by members of the same tribe, will rarely if ever be exactly the same because the rote memorization of prayer is very uncommon among the People, and different traditions may use different colors for the cardinal compass points, and/or begin with a different direction.
The common theme is the filling of the bowl while addressing of each of the cardinal points in turn, rotating in a clockwise direction. At each point, a pinch of tobacco taken from the pouch is held in one hand, and the pipe, its stem pointed outward in the direction being addressed, in the other. A small amount of tobacco is dropped to the ground, to remind us of our connection to Mother Earth, and the rest loaded into the bowl, as a prayer is offered. After the four cardinal directions have been addressed, the bowl is pointed at the ground, and again, tobacco is sprinkled, and a prayer is offered to Mother Earth while the rest of the pinch is loaded into the pipe, and the stem is pointed at about a forty-five degree angle and the action is again repeated, this time addressing Father Sky. Finally, the stem is pointed straight up, tobacco sprinkled, and prayers offered to Wakan Tanka, the Creator, as the last bit of tobacco is loaded into the bowl.
If the pipe has been filled for use in an inippi, or sweat lodge, the bowl will typically be covered with a sage leaf, and the pipe will be placed on a mound of earth, or if it is a calumet, often the tip is pushed into the ground, with the stem pointing up at an angle, in front of the opening to the sweat lodge, and smoked when the inippi is concluded.
If it is to be smoked immediately, it would then be lit, and passed in a counterclockwise direction as each person in turn takes a puff or two, and passes the pipe to their left. When the pipe had made one complete trip around the circle, the last person in the circle may finish the last few bits of tobacco in the pipe, or they may elect to hand it to another person in the circle who possibly smokes tobacco other than in ritual. When the tobacco is gone and the pipe goes out, it is cleaned carefully, with the ashes being returned to the earth, taken apart, and stored very carefully.