Published on March 29, 2012 by Amy
The pipe ceremony is a sacred ritual for connecting physical and spiritual worlds. “The pipe is a link between the earth and the sky,” explains White Deer of Autumn. “Nothing is more sacred. The pipe is our prayers in physical form. Smoke becomes our words; it goes out, touches everything, and becomes a part of all there is. The fire in the pipe is the same fire in the sun, which is the source of life.” The reason why tobacco is used to connect the worlds is that the plant’s roots go deep into the earth, and its smoke rises high into the heavens.
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There are different kinds of pipes and different uses for them. There are personal pipes and family pipes as well as pipes for large ceremonies. The particular stone used depends upon the tribe’s location, and various symbols are added to attract certain spiritual energies. Also, the type of tobacco used depends on tribal custom in the pipe ceremony. But despite these differences, there are certain important similarities: The pipe ceremony invokes a relationship with the energies of the universe, and ultimately the Creator, and the bond made between earthly and spiritual realms is not to be broken.
Ed McGaa (Eagle Man), an Ogalala Sioux, and author of Mother Earth Spirituality: Native American Paths to Healing Ourselves and Our World, says that most pipe ceremonies have the same intention: to call upon and thank the six energies: “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.”
Eagle Man begins a pipe ceremony by beseeching the West power, while thinking about the life giving rains and the ever present spirit world. Next, he beseeches the north power, the source of endurance, strength, truthfulness, and honesty, which are qualities needed to walk down a good path in life. Then, he will look to the east power. The east is where the sun rises, and the sun brings us knowledge, the essence of spirituality. Without knowledge, we become ignorant and cause harm to ourselves and others. The fourth energy is the south power, which brings us bounty, medicine, and growth. Next to be acknowledged is the earth spirit. Eagle Man touches the pipe to the ground, and says, “Mother Earth, I seek to protect you.” Since Mother Earth depends on the sun’s life giving energy, the pipe is then held up towards the sky. Lastly, the pipe is held straight up to the Great Spirit, the Great Mystery, the unexplainable source of all life. These words are then spoken: “Oh Great Spirit, I thank you for the six powers of the universe.” Unlike many westerners, Eagle Man explains that the person reaching out to the spirit world has no fear: “Most of us are not afraid of the Great Spirit. We don’t fear something that has given us our life.”
It is unimaginable for a Native American to break his word after smoking the sacred pipe in the pipe ceremony. In the past, the signing of treaties was always accompanied by pipe ceremonies because Indians believed that smoking the pipe would secure the arrangement. No one would be foolish enough to lie or go back on their word once the pipe was smoked because the pipe was the vehicle for carrying their word up to the Creator. And in return, a blessing would descend from the Creator to the individuals smoking it.
Of course, we all know that the United States government did not share in these understandings, and sent representatives to the Indians to use the pipe as a means of deception. As White Deer of Autumn explains: “You’ve heard of the peace pipe. There is no such thing, in a sense, because that came about when the government sent emissaries to the Native Americans. At that time, we were still the lords of the land; we still held the power. The U.S. government had to deal with that. They understood that the pipe would allow peaceful transactions because no Indian would ever lie once spoken on the pipe.”
By dishonoring the meaning of this sacred practice, treaties were broken and land was taken but the benefits were short-lived, as White Deer of Autumn explains, “When the Europeans started to use tobacco, they saw it as a market, and thus corrupted its function. Now it is being misused, and you see what happens when a gift that has been given is misused.”
Yet, to those who understand its true significance, the pipe ceremony holds great power, White Deer of Autumn continues, “When a stem and bowl are disconnected, you have two sacred objects. When a stem and bowl are connected, you have a living being. And the pipe is addressed as a living, breathing being. A Catholic priest traveling down the Mississippi observed men laying down their arms in conflict before the pipe. They would not fight in its presence. He said that by carrying the pipe you could pass from one end of this land to the other, without being harmed. A great holy man, named Lame Deer, said that as long as one Indian holds the pipe and prays to the Great Mystery, we will live. That’s how powerful it is.”