A French “missionary” stopping at an eastern Canadian Indian village was surprised to see a group of strangers approaching, the leader bearing a large beautiful pipe with a great stem decorated with duck heads and eagle feathers. His Indian friends were awed, as well they might be at this beautiful symbol, but above all by the stately serious mien of the visitors and their attitude of reverence for it—all indicating that here was something new and important. The good father recognized its aesthetic appeal and sensed the enthusiasm with which his flock, welcomed this new ceremony. But naturally he feared it as a pagan rival. The French called these grand pipes calumets: they were first observed among the Indians of the Upper Mississippi country. What the good father did not understand was that these strange Indians were Missionaries also, believing in the power of the grand pipe and its ritual to make their world a better place to live in. No one but an Indian could have grasped the full meaning of the message the bearer of the calumet brought to the good father’s village. Nor do we of this generation and time understand it either. Yet something seems definite: one of the underlying ideas seems to have been the bond of brotherhood. The bearers of such a pipe, representing their tribe, presented more than a pledge, approached in the true spirit of a friend, even as a brother, and expected that they be met in the same spirit. The belief in the purity and grandeur of this new relation among men gave faith that the grand pipe would of itself soften the hearts of all who came into its presence and thus unite them in friendship. Even the most ignorant Indian could understand this more practical quality.
In other words, the grand pipe was not only a symbol of peace and brotherly love but a charm to compel it, the symbol, of a fine idea. Thus it came about naturally that in time the calumet was called a pipe of peace. Approaching strangers, a calumet would be displayed not merely as a sign of friendship, not simply as a flag of-truce, but something which in itself had power to acceptance.
Perhaps the peace pipe is one of the first things that come into the popular mind when Indians are mentioned. Certain it is that the ordinary pipe and tobacco in any form have long been associated with the popular picture of an Indian. Not so many years ago every cigar store in the land was heralded by a wooden Indian holding some cigars in his left hand and threatening the passer-by with tomahawk upraised in his right. Too bad most of these large wooden carvings were discarded and split up into firewood. Even their history’ is obscure, except as revealed in a few private collections. It all began in England, as far back as 1600, when small wooden Indians began to appear as counter signs where tobacco was sold. Later, large carvings stood in front of tobacco shops and early in 1700 were seen in the colonies. We are told that once a tobacco shop in the nation’s capital exhibited a life-sized carving so realistic and so threatening that good citizens, were frightened. First the chagrined shopkeeper took the ‘Tomahawk out of the Indian’s hand, but this did not help matters much, so he reluctantly sacrificed the whole figure.
In wooden-Indian days there was no excuse for forgetting the source of tobacco and all that went with it, but now, in the days of machine-made cigarettes, we need to be reminded that all the world learned the use of tobacco from the Indian. The first time Columbus set foot upon the American shore Indians made him a good-will offering of tobacco leaves, and later he saw some of them smoking cigars. But, for the moment, we are interested in the coming of the, pipe to the Indians of the United States.
The picturesque calumet may have been a recent development in 1492, but the archaeologists can show us great pipe bowls of much earlier date, especially from the Ohio Valley and some of our southern states. Doubtless, what the good father saw in Canada long before happened over and over—a group of strangers carrying a grand pipe of some kind as a symbol of some fine new idea. However, all has perished except these stone bowls. That the same ideas were associated with these ancient pipes as with the calumet is unlikely,-but we can be reasonably certain that they were equally serious. The elbow’ pipe seems to appear in the eastern United States after the potters and the com raisers flourished there. So, following com, the pipe is the next most spectacular phase of Indian culture; again, it is the most unique and widespread contribution of the Indian to the world; everywhere, in every country, smokers are today paying silent and unconscious tribute to these ancient aboriginals.
There is a great deal in historical documents about the calumet sacred pipes and the offerings of smoke to the gods above and below, which may be summarized by saying that tobacco was a sacred plant, the burning of which found favor in their eyes, and that even the offering of a few leaves or a filled pipe to a guest carried with it the idea of friendship sanctioned by more than human rower. Here and there we find it recorded that even a member of an enemy tribe, entering a house and smoking with the host, was thereby guaranteed protection and safe – conduct upon his return. This of itself testifies to the high place tobacco held among the Indians of eastern North America.
There is reason to believe that the pipe was invented in’ the eastern United States. No pipes were found in the strata of Kentucky caves belonging to the first gardeners, nor was there evidence of tobacco until well near the top layer. After maize appears, pipes and tobacco are common. Again, though tobacco in some form was used over most of aboriginal North and South America, elbow pipes were restricted to the eastern and central United States, with scattering examples in outlying areas. Apparently older than the elbow pipe, and far more widely spread was the smoking tube. Such tubes, usually of stone, are found in all parts of the United States, in Mexico and to the south. Cane tubes were employed south of the United States, and in Mexico cigarettes for tobacco rolled in corn husk. As we have said, cigars were used in the West Indies and in South America.
Inspiring as all this is. Our interest turns back to the grand pipe, the calumet, which is no more. Its glory and romance belong to history. No one knows just where this interesting, intriguing notion of the calumet started. The Pawnee have traditions that they passed it on to the north, but some of the Siouan tribes think it was given them in a vision and so came directly from above. Such traditions and beliefs do not help us much because we feel sure that the originator of the idea, to whom it must have come as an inspiration, possibly in a burst of emotion, explained it as something handed down to him and when another tribe learned to venerate it, they, too, said it was handed down, soon forgetting that they had borrowed the idea. Nor have we reason to believe that the part of human nature which comes into the world with the nerves and brain of the infant was much different in the Stone Age from what it is now. So a tribesman who went to live and learn for a time among the originators of the calumet and returned a thorough convert might be expected to enhance his own prestige by claiming that he was the one to have the vision, to have met the gods and received from them directly this new idea and the ritual in which it is formulated. Even were he modest and unusually honest, his understudies might quite naturally attribute its origin to him. So we cannot take such traditions literally. Our own history tells us that when the French explorers went into the Mississippi country they were received ceremonially, the most conspicuous feature being the so-called “dance of the calumet” which involved the presentation of such a pipe to them. When a calumet was formally thus given to a Frenchman he became as one of its devotees, between whom and himself there were bonds of friendship. All were thereby made brothers. When he met strange Indians he needed only to show the calumet as evidence that he was a devotee; if members of that tribe had venerated the calumet they, too, were friends, bound by ties and obligations of friendship. This, at least, is what the writings of travelers convey to us.
Columbus was not met with a calumet, nor do any of the Europeans landing and settling upon the Atlantic coast mention it. For example, when Henry Hudson met Indians around Manhattan Island, they came with fresh green tobacco leaves in their hands. Something of the same notion, but less formalized, must have been associated with these tobacco leaves as with the calumet. Certainly tobacco itself was the symbol of something other than mere fear or hostility. The eastern Indians of Canada seem not to have known of the calumet when they first met the French, but we soon read that strange Indians appeared from the west bearing calumets which, with appropriate ceremonies, were presented to their hosts who, in turn, began to venerate them. They seem to have joined this fraternity, or whatever you choose to call it, which is still something of a mystery to the white man. What we really know about the inner cluster of ideas behind it all is found in a ceremony which survived until recent years among the Pawnee and a few of the Siouan tribes. Here, at this late day, after the enthusiasm and zeal of the converts to this new ceremony had run their courses, it seems to function in a different way though still as a bond of friendship between individuals. A symbolic pipe stem is now used, not perforated so it can be used with a pipe bowl, and decorated with feathers and tufts of horse hair. Further, a pair of these stems are used, one in each hand. There is nothing unusual in this use of a symbol for what was once a real pipe, since we use many symbolic objects in similar ways, such as the key to a city or a cross. Most large museums have on exhibition of these symbolic pipe stems.
Farther north, among some of the Cree and the Black- foot, a more realistic ceremonial pipe is still venerated. The white people call it a medicine pipe. These pipe stems are kept in bundles, formerly of nicely tanned “skins but now of fine cloth, with a number of ceremonial objects to serve as accessories in the demonstration of the ritual associated with the pipe. Curiously enough, a pipe bowl is rarely found in the bundle, but when it is to be unwrapped a stone pipe bowl of suitable size is brought in for the occasion. This pipe is really smoked at the appropriate point in the ritual. Nevertheless, it is the stem that is symbolic and in that sense sacred. These stems are of wood, usually thirty or more inches long, decorated with – a fan of eagle-feathers, heads of ‘water birds and & sometimes a tuft of horsehair. These pipes are used neither in councils, feasts, nor in making peace; an ordinary large decorated pipe is considered sufficient for such occasions.
Again, the power symbolized in these medicine pipes is believed to guard the welfare of the people, particularly its keeper, his household and everyone who prays to it. In the few rituals concerning which we have information, the basic idea seems to be that the Thunder gave these pipes as a pledge that he would spare and otherwise protect those associated with them. In 1809 Alexander Henry obtained the following statement from a Blackfoot Indian:
“Thunder is a man who was very wicked and troublesome to the Indians, killing men and beasts in great numbers. But many years ago he made peace with the Blackfeet and gave, them a pipe stem in token of his friendship; since which period he has been harmless. This stem then still possess and it is taken great care of by one of their chiefs, called Three Bulls. Lightning is produced by the same man that makes thunder when he visits the earth in person and is angry; but they know not what causes his wrath.”1
Another account recorded about a century later among the Dakota Indians states that two symbolic pipe stems are used, often spoken of as “horsetails” because they bear tufts of horsehair, but otherwise remind one of the calumet stem. The related ceremony is called Hunka and seems to mean a bond of friendship and brotherhood between two persons. However, all who have entered into such bonds have obligations to each other. In the course of the ritual accompanying these decorated stems, the leader says:
“My friends, this man has done as a Hunka should do. He has given of all that he had. He took the food from his mouth and divided it with me. He gave me his moccasins, his shirt and his leggings, and now he is naked and has nothing. I will put the red stripe on his face, for he is Hunka. I put this stripe on his face so that the people may see it and know that he has given all his possessions away, and know that they should give to him. I will put the stripe on his face and on the face of his Hunka so that they will remember this day, and when they see one in want they will give to that one.”2
We have done nothing with tobacco that the Indian did not do. There are good reasons for believing that the use of tobacco originated in the West Indies or in South America and spread thence into the United States. Many species of wild tobacco grow here and in Canada, some of which were used by the Indians of later times, but the best tobaccos came from the West Indies and South America. The presence of wild tobacco in the United States means that the invention of smoking could have occurred before agriculture was known. So we cannot be sure as to the first smokers, but everything points to the elbow pipe, or the true pipe, as originating in the time of the corn farmers.
We are all interested in the origin of things. As children, we were always asking “why?” and as grownups we have merely changed the direction of the question. The “why?” of tobacco would be answered if we knew how its use began? So now, how? Here again we must guess, but there are some suggestions as to where the answer lies.
By this time we should be sufficiently warned not to expect so complicated a matter as the use of tobacco to come into existence full blown. Like other customs of its kind, it must have grown from very small beginnings. As we look about over the customs of the several tribes, we note how widespread is the burning of Incense as a purifying medium or as an acceptable offering to the unseen. It is natural to suspect that tobacco was once used in this way. Some of our eastern Indian tribes did not smoke a pipe in a sacred ceremony but burned the tobacco in a little fire, the acceptable smoke offering ascending to the powers to whom they prayed. Even as far west as the Missouri, historic Indians sometimes offered tobacco in this way. This really explains nothing; it merely suggests what seems probable. We suppose somehow and sometime, among a people making smoke offerings of tobacco, inhaling the smoke was looked upon with favor, but whether the simple rolling of a cigar or even a cigarette was the first step, we have no way of knowing. What does seem a good surmise is that the invention of the elbow pipe occurred long after the use of tobacco was widespread? There are geographical reasons for assuming that the tube preceded the invention of the true pipe.
The picture that unfolds, then, is that smoking took on new patterns or styles when the com farmers adopted the elbow pipe. Smoking a pipe became more and more the symbol of hospitality. Offering a guest a smoke is thus an ancient custom, probably as old as the domestication of com. Yet the social use of the pipe did not necessarily lessen the place of tobacco smoke and its aroma in serious ceremonies; if anything, it enhanced tire symbolic quality of the pipe. And so evolved the ceremonial pipe and, eventually, the grand pipe or the calumet. Many of the old writers testified to the beauty and impressiveness of the calumet-ceremony. At the opening of the present century, the writer saw some fine pipes and the accompanying ceremonies. They were impressive, perhaps more so than any of the other surviving ceremonies. Today, when some of our western Indians entertain a distinguished person or a President of the United States, they usually present him with a new pipe, large in size, with a bowl of red stone, a stem of wood and decorated with a wild duck’s head, some dyed horsehair and wrapped with porcupine-quill braid. The newspapers call such a pipe “the pipe of peace,” but it has no such significance. It is a modern gift pipe, a symbol of friendship and esteem.
Tobacco spread over the world so fast that a great deal of research needed to prove that it was not known in the Old World before 1492. Within little more than a century it encircled the globe. Thus the historians of tobacco say it reached Portugal and Spain by 1558; France, 1559; Italy, 1561; England, 1565; Turkey, 1605; Russia, by 1634; Arabia, 1663. The Spaniards carried it to the Philippines, where it was soon grown and shipped to China; from China, tobacco smoking passed into Siberia, later into Alaska to the Eskimo, thus completing the circuit of the world, from southeastern America back again to northwestern America.
Apparently then, as now, whatever his race, the person who used it once became an enthusiastic devotee. An old English writer comments upon how the passion became so strong that men and women were willing to trade their last morsel of food for tobacco; whether smoked, chewed or snuffed, the desire is the same. In a short time after its introduction into England there were said to be seven thousand tobacco shops in London, dispensing over three hundred thousand pounds a year. Sailors, being human, quickly acquired the habit and so spread it to all parts of the world; but the trader, also, found it easy to transport tobacco and sell it at a handsome profit. In a short time even the Australian blacks, the Hottentots and the Andaman Islanders were trading what little they could produce for pipes and smoking tobacco. Even in parts of Canada and the United States, where tobacco was rarely used, the fur traders offered the Indian large chunks of it in compressed form, which they recognized as superior to their own. Many tribes in the eastern United States continued to raise their own tobacco for ceremonial occasions, but for regular smoking tobacco they came to depend upon the traders. Of course such tobacco was expensive and often hard to get, which led to adulteration and to substitutes. Some of these seem to have been pre-Columbian.
In the United States bearberry or sumac leaves were dried and mixed with tobacco, to which mixture the Algonquin name kinni–kinnick, meaning “that which is mixed,” is usually given. This name is now generally used, covering all mixtures and substitutes, such as leaves of laurel, manzanita, squaw bush or maple bush, and the inner bark of red willow, dogwood, cherry-, arrow-wood, poplar or birch. A much longer list could be compiled, suggesting that when tobacco was not available or was too expensive, the Indians experimented with the plants available in their respective habitats. Perhaps tobacco was not the first plant smoked.
None is so unique and so original as the smoking of tobacco. The scientifically minded speak of the whole range of habits, customs and fancies associated with tobacco as a culture complex; indeed, we find ourselves in a maze of complexity when we try to state all the essential points about tobacco. It developed in Indian society and, step by step, became a great complex before the white man crossed the Atlantic Ocean. Scores of beautifully carved stone pipes have been found in Ohio mounds, revealing that certain cults of the pipe were in flower’ when mound building was the vogue. Much fine pottery is found in the Lower Mississippi Valley, and this also seems to have been the work of the tobacco users.