Ceremonial Pipe

By Peggy Derrick

This Ho Chunk pipe has been in the collection of the Historical Society since 1930; it is probably much older than that. The ribbons tied to it are manufactured, dating to the late 19th or early 20th century, but the rest of the materials and techniques in this pipe are entirely traditional. They reflect ways of making and decorating that date before European contact. The stem is wood and the bowl is catlinite, a red stone also called pipestone, that comes only from a region in western Minnesota. Native peoples all over North America traded catlinite among themselves and used it for pipe bowls.

The ornamentation on the pipe includes strips of black fur, and a patterned red band in the middle that is created with flattened and dyed porcupine quills, in a technique known as quillwork. It has geometrical designs in white against the red ground.

It takes a lot of time and skill to process porcupine quills, flattening them, coloring them with vegetable dyes, weaving them together or embroidering them onto an object. Quillwork was traditionally done over birch bark or deer hide, and used to decorate all sorts of objects, as well as clothing and moccasins.

After the introduction of glass seed beads, beading nearly replaced quill work, but it never died out, and some artisans still practice the craft today.

The pipe is also ornamented with hawk feathers and a small fur tail, probably from a mink. The feathers and the mink tail are attached by a cord made of deer hide.

This type of traditional ceremonial pipe is sometimes called a calumet, or peace pipe. “Peace pipe” was a name given by white explorers and settlers who did not have pipe traditions themselves and did not fully understand the role of the pipe in mediating relations between individuals and groups. The smoke carries prayers to the Creator; by smoking from the pipe a person enters into a covenant, or sacred space, where only the truth can be spoken. It was therefore natural that to Native Americans the pacts they made as individuals or groups would be ratified by the ritual of the ceremonial pipe. They were probably very offended if their white visitors and neighbors failed to respect and honor the compact between people implicit in its use.

This article was originally featured in the La Crosse Tribune.