The sacred pipe, often referred to mistakenly as the 'peace pipe,' is one of the most powerful and sacred objects for Native Americans. By using the pipe, we may communicate with the spirits and make our needs known, asking for the things we need in our lives.
In its most basic form, a pipe is simply a bowl and a stem, which together can be used to smoke an herbal preparation. Generally the bowl is made of stone, while the stem is made of wood. There is no need for fancy decorations, as they are not what makes the pipe special or powerful.
It should also be made very clear that true followers of the Mi'kmaw spiritual ways NEVER smoke so-called 'recreational drugs' in the pipe. While some nations were given such drugs as part of their sacred medicines (for example, the use of peyote in the south-west) the Mi'kmaq were not given these medicines, and so for us to use them is an insult both to the Creator, who gave us what we need, and to the nations for whom these medicines are truly sacred.
THE ORIGIN OF THE PIPE
According to Lakota legend, the pipe was brought to earth 19 generations ago by White Buffalo Calf Woman, at a time when the seven tribes of the Lakota nation had gathered in council, and were starving because they were having no luck hunting. White Buffalo Calf Woman came to the people and instructed them about living in balance with nature, and about the sacred directions. She also taught them all the things they needed to know about making, handling and caring for the pipe, and about how it is to be used for praying. When the pipe was used properly to ask the buffalo to sacrifice himself so that the people could eat, the buffalo returned and the people were able to eat well.
There are two types of pipes. A personal pipe can be owned by anyone, and be used to pray on their own behalf. It should not, however, be shared. Pipe Carriers, on the other hand, carry a pipe on behalf of the people. If there is need, the Pipe Carrier will use the pipe to pray for the people, to call in the spirits for a gathering or ceremony, or perhaps for healing or teaching.
In the Mi'kmaw tradition, a Pipe Carrier is born to the task. There is no way to earn this privilege - it is something you were given before you arrived on this Earth. Unfortunately, there is a great deal of confusion today about the role of the Pipe Carrier, caused mostly by people who are learning about the traditions of other Nations and trying to apply them to ALL Nations. In addition, because First Nations traditions are now seen as 'cool', it seems that everyone wants to be a Pipe Carrier, but again, it is not a task you can assume simply because you want it. Acting as a Pipe Carrier when it is not your true calling is not only disrespectful, it is dangerous, both to you and to anyone who shares your pipe.
THE SYMBOLISM OF THE PIPE
The bowl of the pipe, with its hole for accepting the pipe stem, represents the woman; the stem, then, represents the man. Joining the pipe symbolizes a union and a balance between male and female aspects of the world. At the same time, the stone of the bowl represents the spirits of the inorganic things of our world, while the wooden stem represents the organic beings. While other symbols may be added through carvings or decorations, these are very powerful, and are present in all pipes.
THE PIPE CEREMONY
An entire ceremony surrounds the use of the personal pipe for praying, which allows you to adopt the correct frame of mind for the prayer.
Prior to handling the pipe, ensure that you have smudged. Also, when the pipe is removed from its container, it must be smudged as well. When you join the pipe, be aware that you are creating a sacred moment in time. As you handle the pipe, use your left hand to hold the bowl, and your right to hold the stem.
Loading the pipe is done in four steps, each honouring the four directions. During each step, offer a pinch of tobacco to that direction, and address the spirits of the direction, asking them to hear you when you pray. Place the tobacco into the pipe bowl and repeat for the next direction.
When the pipe is loaded, it should be lit from something besides your trusty Zippo. If you are near a sacred fire, use it to light a small twig, or better yet a sweetgrass braid, and use that to light your pipe.
As you smoke the pipe, again acknowledge each direction as you take a puff. Release the smoke deliberately; as it rises toward the sky, it takes your prayers with it. If you wish, smudge yourself by guiding the smoke over your head with your free hand. Between each direction, turn the pipe stem in a circle clockwise to honour the four cardinal directions.
Finally, when the tobacco has been consumed, separating the pipe is a way of telling the spirits that you are finished. Clean the ashes out of your pipe, and dispose of them in a thoughtful way: for example, in a sacred fire, or at the roots of a tree. Carefully wrap your pipe and put it away. As you do all this, be aware that your prayers have been heard, and offer your thanks for the attention of the spirits.
Should you be involved in a pipe ceremony conducted by a Pipe Carrier, the pipe may be passed around. If so, you accept the pipe stem with your right hand and the bowl with your left. Take a puff, and again release it thoughtfully as a prayer. Turn the pipe stem clockwise through a full circle, then pass the pipe to the next person stem first. If for some reason you do not wish to smoke the pipe, or if the tobacco has been exhausted, then you can simply touch your shoulders with the pipe stem and pass it along.