STONE PIPES

AND THE HISTORY OF TOBACCO IN THE AMERICAS

 

These steatite pipes are probably among the oldest in North America.  The broken pipe on the right illustrates the drilling pattern for these pipes.  A reed would have been inserted as a stem for smoking.

 

Huron Indian myth has it that in ancient times, when the land was barren and the people were starving, the Great Spirit sent forth a woman to save humanity. As she traveled over the world, everywhere her right hand touched the soil, there grew potatoes. And everywhere her left hand touched the soil, there grew corn. And when the world was rich and fertile, she sat down and rested. When she arose, there grew tobacco.

 

 

In 2010, tobacco was found that dates to the Pleistocene Era 2.5 million years ago. Paleontologists from the Meyer-Honninger Paleontology Museum discovered the small block of fossilised tobacco in the Maranon river basin in northeastern Peru.

 

 

As far as human use of tobacco, although small amounts of nicotine may be found in some Old World plants, including belladonna and Nicotiana africana, and nicotine metabolites have been found in human remains and pipes in the Near East and Africa, there is no indication of habitual tobacco use in the Ancient world, on any continent save the Americas.

 

 

Experts believe the tobacco plant, as we know it today, began growing in the Americas by 6000 BCE and quickly spread to nearly every part of the Americas. By 1 BCE American inhabitants began finding ways to use tobacco, including smoking in a number of variations, chewing and in probably hallucinogenic enemas.

 

 

Between 470 and 630 A.D. the Mayas began to scatter, some moving as far as the Mississippi Valley. The Toltecs, who created the mighty Aztec Empire, borrowed the smoking custom from the Mayas who remained behind. Two castes of smokers emerged among them. Those in the Court of Montezuma, who mingled tobacco with the resin of other leaves and smoked pipes with great ceremony after their evening meal; and the lesser Indians, who rolled tobacco leaves together to form a crude cigar. The Mayas who settled in the Mississippi Valley spread their custom to the neighboring tribes.

The American Indians later adapted tobacco smoking to their own religion, believing that their god revealed himself in the rising smoke. And, as in Central America, a complex system of religious and political rites was developed that incorporated the use of  tobacco during the Mississippian period.

 

Many of the pipes used in the ceremonial life of Mississippian cultures were also made of steatite.  This pipe measures nearly 2 feet long and is made of steatite.  It was exposed after a flood in Decatur County, Georgia.

 


Many of Georgia's ceremonial centers were symbolized by birds of pray.  This steatite ceremonial pipe from Georgia's Ocmulgee National Monument near Macon, Georgia dates to the Middle Mississippian period.  The floor of the site's counsel house is shaped into this same figure.

This canine effigy pipe was recovered while digging a building foundation in Floyd, Georgia in 1911.  It is probably Early to Middle Mississippian dating between 1000 and 1250 A.D.  The eye sockets suggest that pearls may have been cemented into the eyes.

 

In the western slope of the Coteau des Prairie in southwestern Minnesota are quarries of a unique soft stone, ranging in color from mottled pink to brick red, that is considered sacred to the Plains Indians. This is the site of Pipestone National Monument.


©National Park Service
At Pipestone National Monument, Plains Indians once quarried stone for carving.

According to Indian legend, the people of the Plains were made from the stone. Sioux, Crow, Blackfoot, and Pawnee people carved ceremonial pipes from the substance to communicate with the spiritual world. But they also used the pipes to connect with other tribes -- and whites -- through trade.

 

Plains Indians probably began digging at this quarry in the seventeenth century, when they acquired metal tools from European traders. The durable yet soft stone was perfect for carving, and this location was apparently the best source for pipestone. The quarries were used by tribes across the prairie, though by about 1700 the Dakota Sioux controlled the quarries, and other tribes had to trade for the pipestone. Archaeologists have discovered pipestone pipes thousands of miles from this area.

 

Pipestone pipes like this one are still being made by American Indian craftsmen.

 

Plains Indians smoked tobacco in these red clay pipes to mark important activities, such as preparing for war, trading goods and hostages, and ritual dancing. The pipes and tobacco were stored in animal-skin pouches with other sacred objects, and even the ashes were disposed of in special places. Pipes were valued possessions and were often buried with the dead.

 

Pipestone pipes were carved in a variety of shapes, and their evolution parallels the Plains Indian culture in transition. The simple tube shape of earlier carvers developed into elbow and disk forms and more elaborate animal and human effigies. The T-shaped calumets, a popular form, were widely known as "peace pipes" because they were the pipes white Americans usually saw at peace ceremonies. Effigies in the shape of white politicians and explorers, some far from flattering, attest to the Plains Indians' increasing contact with whites.

 

The Sioux lost control of the pipestone quarries in 1928. Pipestone National Monument was created in 1937 and opened to the public, though only Indians are allowed to mine the sacred stone. Fall is the best time to see this ancient tradition taking place.

 

"At an ancient time, the Great Spirit, in the form of a large bird, stood upon the wall of rock and called all the tribes around him, and breaking out a piece of the red stone formed it into a pipe and smoked it, the smoke rolling over the whole multitude. He then told his red children that this red stone was their flesh, that they were made from it, that they must all smoke to him through it, that they must use it for nothing but pipes: and as it belonged alike to all the tribes, the ground was sacred, and no weapons must be used or brought upon it."

-- Sioux account of the origin of the pipestone, as recorded by George Catlin, 1836