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The famous peace pipes of the Plains Indians are often referred to as calumets. The term is derived from chalemel, an Old French word for "reed." French adventurers of the seventeenth century were some of the first Europeans to see and record calumets in use. Indeed, the early historical literature of the Great Lakes and Mississippi Valley is packed with descriptions of highly ornamented wands that were used by the Indians in their ceremonial dances. Because these wands sometimes doubled as stems for pipes, it was not always clear to the French whether the calumet was the stem or the bowl of the pipe, or perhaps both. Among Plains Indian tribes, however, the term calumet usually did signify the highly decorated stem, so it is probable that this also was the case in the Midwest.

In 1673 the French missionary and explorer Father Jacques Marquette noted two types of calumets. One was used for peace and the other for war. He described the stems for these calumets as being made out of hollow cane about two feet in length and decorated with long, colored feathers and the heads or necks of various birds. Le Page du Pratz, a French adventurer of the early eighteenth century, reported that Indians of the Lower Mississippi Valley often used eagle feathers and duck skin for their peace calumets. For the war variety, however, they adorned their calumets with flamingo feathers and buzzard skins. As Father Jacques Marquette wrote in his journal:

Every one, at the outset, takes the Calumet in a respectful manner, and, supporting it with both hands, causes it to dance in cadence, keeping good time with the air of the songs. He makes it execute many differing figures; sometimes he shows it to the whole assembly, turning himself from one side to the other. After that, he who is to begin the Dance appears in the middle of the assembly, and at once continues this. Sometimes he offers it to the sun, as if he wished the latter to smoke it; sometimes he inclines it toward the earth; again, he makes it spread its wings, as if about to fly; atother times, he puts it near the mouths of those present, that they may smoke. The whole is done in cadence; and this is, as it were, the first Scene of the Ballet.

Calumets often had pipe bowls made out of a red stone. These are generally referred to as catlinite, named after the nineteenth-century artist and adventurer George Catlin. There is a famous pipestone quarry in southwest Minnesota, which was a primary source for many of these red stone pipes, but it should be stressed that this quarry was not the only source for pipe bowls used in calumet rituals. Pipestone is actually a form of argillite. It is fine-grained, dense, and carves easily. Prior to the introduction of iron implements, American Indians used flint or other hard minerals to cut and shape pipe bowls. They drilled holes by applying sand to the surface as an abrasive agent and then rotating hollow reeds between their hands.

Tobacco was the principal substance smoked in calumets. The only type of tobacco known to have been used in the Eastern Woodlands prior to European contact was Nicotiana rustica L. Interestingly enough, its prehistoric distribution in the eastern half of North America approximates the distribution of sacred pipes. This particular species of tobacco reaches a height of between 1.0 and 1.5 meters and has large fleshy leaves with small, pale yellow blossoms. Although tobacco can be chewed or snuffed, Native Americans in North America most commonly smoked it. Even today smoke is considered an offering to the spirits. As tobacco is an extremely potent species, particularly in terms of nicotine content, in both prehistoric and historic times combining it with other plant products prior to smoking toned it down. The resulting substance is called kinnikinnick, after the Eastern Algonquian word meaning "mixture."

The short-stemmed calumet pipe bowl form appeared in the eastern Plains after about 1200 c.e., but the anthropologist Robert Hall believes that the calumet pipe evolved over a period of 4,000 years, which is basically equivalent to when pipes first appeared on North American sites. He has argued that the calumet ceremony may have originated as an adoption ceremony that was closely associated with a mourning ritual. That may be true, but by historic times the chief purpose for presenting and smoking calumets in the Plains and Midwest seems to have been to preserve peace for periods of interaction. Under the umbrella of the calumet, groups that normally were mortal enemies were assured that they could complete their negotiations safely. Trade was often conducted at such times. One of the reasons why the famous Lewis and Clark Expedition of 1804–1806 was so free of hostilities is that these men wisely carried calumets with them and made great use of them whenever encountering new tribes. Admittedly, the calumet has always been more than just a peace pipe, but the Europeans who explored the territories between the Appalachians and the Rockies quickly learned that the smoking of such a pipe was a powerful tool of diplomacy and declining such an invitation was most unwise.

See Also Native Americans; Pipes; Religion; Shamanism.



Hall, Robert L. An Archaeology of the Soul: North American Indian Belief and Ritual. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1997.

Paper, Jordan. Offering Smoke: The Sacred Pipe and Native American Religion. Moscow: University of Idaho Press, 1988.

Thwaites, Reuben Gold, ed. The Jesuit Relations and Allied Documents: Travels and Explorations of the Jesuit Missionaries in New France, 1610–1791. Vol. 59. Cleveland: Burrows Brothers, 1896–1901.

argillite a smooth, black sedimentary rock. American Indians sometimes carved tobacco pipes from argillite.

calumet pipe a highly ornamented ceremonial pipe used by American Indians.

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