What is a Peace Pipe?

Jessica Ellis
Jessica Ellis

A peace pipe, or calumet, is a traditional Native American tool used for ceremonies and tribal rituals. Typically, they are highly decorated and only used for special occasions. The peace pipe has spiritual and legendary significance to many Native American tribes, and is associated with the White Buffalo Calf Woman.

Antlers may be used to make a peace pipe.
Antlers may be used to make a peace pipe.

Most peace pipes consist of a long wooden stem decorated with feathers and beads, and a stone pipe bowl. The materials used for the pipe bowl vary from tribe to tribe, but common materials include catlinite or red pipestone, clay, antlers, and salmon alabaster. The bowl is often decoratively carved and polished using oils. Catlinite was particularly valued, and mined from extensive deposits in Minnesota.

Peace pipes have legendary significant for many Native American tribes.
Peace pipes have legendary significant for many Native American tribes.

Although the wood and stone combination described above is the most common form of peace pipe, the term can be used to describe any ceremonial pipe used by any tribes. Some may be short and carved entirely from stone, others may have a bone stem and bowl carved from antlers. The Lakota legends correspond to the wooden and stone construction, so it is most often used as an example of the ceremonial device.

Peace pipes are common throughout the tribes of the Central United States, including the Lakota Sioux, native to North and South Dakota. According to Lakota legends, the first peace pipe was brought to the tribe by a mysterious woman who turned out to be the legendary White Buffalo Calf Woman, a great spiritual figure in traditional history. According to one story of the pipe’s origin, the White Buffalo Calf Woman told tribal leaders to smoke the pipe before treaties and ceremonies as it will bring the mind to thoughts of peace.

The construction of peace pipes is important to their symbolism to the Native American tribes. The wooden stem is meant to represent female power and the plant world. The stone bowl, which is sometimes wrapped in fur or carved with buffalo, is a symbol of male power and the animal world. When joined, the two halves of the peace pipe represent all of creation in harmony.

“Peace pipe” is actually a European term for the ceremonial pipe, based on its use in preparations for treaties. Films and television have long promoted a false impression of the use of the pipe, showing it as a tool of the chief and even forced on foreigners as a way of making them cough and look silly. In truth, the ceremonial pipe is of great spiritual importance to traditional tribal practices, and used in many forms of prayer and tribal rites.

Jessica Ellis
Jessica Ellis

With a B.A. in theater from UCLA and a graduate degree in screenwriting from the American Film Institute, Jessica is passionate about drama and film. She has many other interests, and enjoys learning and writing about a wide range of topics in her role as a wiseGEEK writer.

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Discussion Comments


@pleonasm - I won't defend what smoking does to your health, but I do think the spirit of the peace pipe exists in some ways when people are smoking.

The thing I love about smoking is that it can be such a communal activity. Whenever I go somewhere new, it gives you a chance to talk to people you might not otherwise talk to. It gives you something to do with your hands and something to spark up a conversation.

I know the Indian peace pipe is a tradition with a lot of spiritual significance and I'm not trying to say it's the same thing. But I've met some great people through smoking.

If there was something else which could provide the same opportunity I'd take that up instead.

@umbra21 - Those same people claim that because the Native Americans used to smoke tobacco that it is actually natural and therefore it's fine to smoke it.

But, of course that tobacco was weaker than the stuff that gets used in cigarettes today. Tobacco has been bred to have a stronger nicotine content now. And not only that, it's dried and preserved with all kinds of different chemicals. Often those chemicals are even more dangerous than nicotine and they are just as likely to cause cancer.

Smoking might have a lovely tradition behind it, but the native peace pipe is a long way from modern cigarettes. One was used to prevent death through promoting community and peace. The other only causes death.


Back when I was a smoker I've often heard other smokers claim that it's "OK" to smoke because they were emulating the cultural practice of the peace pipe.

But, as it says in the article, that's actually quite a culturally insensitive thing to say. Comparing the act of smoking cigarettes to the tradition of the Native American peace pipe is really disrespectful.

It would be like comparing eating cheese and crackers with taking a communion host in a Catholic mass.

It's just not the same thing at all.

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