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A Calumet is a ceremonial smoking pipe used by some Native American Nations. Traditionally it has been smoked to seal a covenant or treaty, or to offer prayers in a religious ceremony.

"Calumet" is a Norman word, first used by Norman-French settlers in Canadamarker to describe the ceremonial pipes they saw in use among the First Nations people of the region. The name came into English-language usage as a general term for a ceremonial pipe, though in the cultures in question it is more common for a culturally-specific term to be used.


A common material for calumet pipe bowls is red pipestone or catlinite, a fine-grained easily-worked stone of a rich red color of the Coteau des Prairies, west of the Big Stone Lakemarker in South Dakotamarker. The pipestone quarriesmarker have traditionally been neutral ground among warring tribes, as people from multiple nations journeyed to the quarry to obtain the sacred pipestone.

A type of herbal tobacco or mixture of herbs was usually reserved for special smoking occasions, with each region's people using the plants that were locally considered to have special qualities or a culturally condoned basis for ceremonial use.

Some northern Sioux people used long, stemmed pipes for ceremonies while others such as the Catawbas in the southeast used ceremonial pipes formed as round, footed bowls with a tubular smoke tip projecting from each cardinal direction on the bowl.

Ceremonial use

Calumets and other Native American ceremonial pipes have often been given the misnomer, "peace pipe"; this is a European construct based on only one type of pipe and one way it was used. Various types of ceremonial pipes have been used by multiple Native American cultures, with the style of pipe, herbs smoked, and ceremonies being unique to the distinct religions of those Nations.

In ceremonial usage, the smoke is believed to carry prayers to the attention of the Creator or other powerful spirits. Lakota tradition has it that White Buffalo Calf Woman, brought the Chanunpa to the people, and instructed them in its symbolism and ceremonies.

According to oral traditions, and amply illustrated by pre-contact pipes in museums and tribal and private holdings, some ceremonial pipes are adorned with feathers, fur, human or animal hair, beadwork, quills, carvings or other items having significance for the owner. Other pipes are very simple. Many are not kept by an individual, but are instead held collectively by a medicine society or similar ceremonial organization.

Pipestone varieties

Uncompahgre Ute Salmon Alabaster Ceremonial Pipe.
Ute pipe styles are similar to those of the Plains Indians, with notable differences.
Ute pipes are thicker and use shorter pipestems than the plains style and more closely resemble the pipe styles of their Northern neighbors, the Shoshone.

Several Native tribes make ceremonial pipes. The types of stones used vary by tribe and locality. Some of the known types of pipe stone and pipe materials are:

Clay - The Cherokee and Chickasaw both fashioned pipes made from fired clay that also employed small reed cane pipestems made from river cane. These pipes were made from aged river clay hardened in a hot fire.

Red Pipestone - Catlinite is an iron-rich, reddish, soft quartzite slate typically excavated from below groundwater level, as the stone erodes rapidly when exposed to the weather and outside air. Red pipestone was used by the Eastern Tribes, Western and Great Basin Tribes, and the Plains Tribes, with sources of the stone in Tennesseemarker (South Central), Minnesota (Pipestone), and Utahmarker (Delta, Uinta). Sacred pipestone comes from Pipestone, Minnesotamarker. The quarry itself is located just north of the town at the Pipestone National Monumentmarker. Today only people of Native American ancestry are allowed to quarry the pipestone from this quarry. The pipestone or catlinite from this quarry is softer than any other catlinite.

Mississippian and Eastern Woodlands style "acorn" pipe.
These pipes have been found in Mississippian mounds in the Eastern United States.
This acorn pipe is made from South Dakota red pipestone.
Blue Pipestone - Also a form of catlinite, blue pipestone was used almost predominantly by the Plains Tribes for ceremonial pipes. Deposits of the stone are also found in South Dakota. The use of blue pipestone coincided with the arrival of the horse among the Plains Tribes.

Bluestone - a hard, greenish-blue quartzite stone from the southern Appalachian Mountainsmarker. After being worked, it takes on a decidedly greenish cast. This stone was used by several Eastern Woodlands tribes for pipemaking. Cherokee, Creek, and Chickasaw made pipes from bluestone. Several ancient Mississippianmarker bluestone pipes have been discovered.

Salmon Alabaster - the Uncompahgre Ute made beautiful ceremonial pipes from salmon alabaster mined in central Coloradomarker.

Uncompahgre Ute Salmon Alabaster Ceremonial Pipe with Pipestem.
Green Pipestone - A white on green marbled cupric pipestone found in Wyomingmarker and South Dakota and used by the Shoshone, Ute, and Plains Tribes for personal and ceremonial pipes. This stone was also used to carve sacred effigies and religious items.

Black Pipestone (South Dakota) - a soft, brittle, white on black marbled pipestone found in South Dakota and used by the Plains Tribes for ceremonial pipes.

Black Pipestone (Uinta) - an extremely hard black quartzite slate which has undergone metamorphic compression and is found in the southeastern drainage of the Uinta Mountains in Utah and Colorado. This stone was used by the Great Basin Tribes for war club and beautiful pipes that are jet black with a high gloss when polished. Stones which had tumbled down creeks and drainages were always selected, since these stones typically contained no cracks or defects.

Traditional pipemaking tools

Both raw and cut and slabbed high grade Red Pipestone from Delta, Utah.

Historically, Native Americans who used the bow and arrow also employed bow drills that used hard white quartz points which, when combined with water, could bore out even the hardest of pipestones.

Early Native Americans employed moistened rawhide strips rolled in crushed white quartz and stretched with a bow handle to shape and rough the pipes. The efficiency of such bow stone saws in cutting and slabbing a large piece of red pipestone is quite surprising given their seeming simplicity. Pipes were also shaped and roughed with hard sandstones, afterward polished with water, then sanded with progressively finer and finer abrasive grit and animal hide, finally being rubbed with fat or facial oils to complete polishing.

See also


  1. Rowland, Dunbar (1907) Encyclopedia of Mississippi History. Madison, WI: Selwyn A, Brant. p. 347


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