Calumet or “Peace-pipe” of the Indians

[This text was originally published in 1907 by the Bureau of American Ethnology as part of its Handbook of American Indians North of Mexico.  It was later reproduced, in 1913, by the Geographic Board of Canada.  The work done by the American Bureau was monumental, well informed and incorporated the most advanced scholarship available at the time.  In many respects, the information is still useful today, although prudence should be exercised and the reader should consult some of the contemporary texts on the history and the anthropology of the North American Indians suggested in the bibliographic introduction to this section.  The articles were not completely devoid of the paternalism and the prejudices prevalent at the time.  While some of the terminology used would not pass the test of our “politically correct” era, most terms have been left unchanged by the editor.  If a change in the original text has been effected it will be found between brackets [.]  The original work contained long bibliographies that have not been reproduced for this web edition.

[For further information consult the pages on calumet and tobacco at the Encyclopedia of North American Indians.]

[Other Encyclopedias of American Indians can be found here.]

Calumet, (Norman-French form of literary French chalumet, a parallel of chalumeau for chalemeau, Old French chalemel, Provencal caramel, a tube, pipe, reed, flute, especially a. shepherd’s pipe; Spanish caramillo, a flute; English, shawm ; Low Latin, calamellus , diminutive of Latin calamus, reed).  Either one of 2 highly symbolic shafts of reed or wood about 2 in. broad, % in. thick, and 18 in. to 4 ft. long, the one representing the male, the other the female shaft, usually perforated for a pathway for the breath or spirit, painted with diverse symbolic colors and adorned with various symbolic objects, and which may, or may not, have a pipe bowl to contain tobacco, for making a sacred offering of its benevolent smoke to the gods.

In modern usage the term usually includes the pipe. Its coloring and degree of adornment varied somewhat from tribe to tribe and were largely governed by the occasion for which the calumet was used.  From the meagre descriptions of the calumet and its uses it would seem that it has a ceremonially symbolic history independent of that of the pipe; and that when the pipe became an altar, by its employment for burning sacrificial tobacco to the gods, convenience and convention united the already highly symbolic calumet shafts and the sacrificial tobacco altar, the pipe-bowl; hence it became one of the most profoundly sacred objects known to the Indians of northern America.

As the colors and the other adornments on the shaft represent symbolically various dominant gods of the Indian polytheon, it follows that the symbolism of the calumet and pipe represented a veritable executive council of the gods.  Moreover, in some of the elaborate ceremonies in which it was necessary to portray this symbolism the employment of the two shafts became necessary, because the one with its colors and accessory adornments represented the procreative male power and his aids, and was denominated the male, the fatherhood of nature; and the other with its colors and necessary adornments represented the reproductive female power and her aids, and was denominated the female, the motherhood of nature.

The calumet was employed by ambassadors and travelers as a passport; it was used in ceremonies designed to conciliate foreign and hostile nations and to conclude lasting peace; to ratify the alliance of friendly tribes; to secure favorable weather for journeys; to bring needed rain; and to attest contracts and treaties which could not be violated without incurring the wrath of the gods.  The use of the calumet was inculcated by religious precept and example.  A chant and a dance have become known as the chant and the dance of the calumet; together they were employed as an invocation to one or more of the gods.  By naming in the chant the souls of those against whom war must be waged, such persons were doomed to die at the hands of the person so naming them.  The dance and the chant were rather in honor of the calumet than with the calumet.  To smoke it was prohibited to a man whose wife was with child, lest he perish and she die in childbirth.  The calumet was employed also in banishing evil and for obtaining good.  Some, in order to obtain favor of the gods, sacrificed some animals in spirit to them, and, as the visible food was not consumed visibly by the gods, they ate the food and chanted and danced for the calumet.

The following description of the calumet by Hennepin may be given:

“The quill, which is commonly two foot and a half long, is made of a pretty strong reed or cane, adorned with feathers of all colors, interlaced with locks of women’s hair.  They tie to it two wings of the most curious birds they find, which makes their calumet not much unlike Mercury’s wand, or that staff ambassadors did formerly carry when they went to treat of peace.  They sheath that reed into the neck of birds they call huars [loons], which are as big as our geese and spotted with black and white; or else of a sort of ducks who make their nests upon trees, though water be their natural element, and whose feathers are of many different colors.  However, every nation adorns the calumet as they think fit, according to their own genius and the birds they have in their own country.”


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