Quebec History Marianopolis College

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L’Encyclopédie de l’histoire du Québec / The Quebec History Encyclopedia


Calumet or "Peace-pipe" of the Indians



[This text was originally published in 1907 by the Bureau of American Ethnology as part of its Handbook of American Indians North of Mexico . It was later reproduced, in 1913, by the Geographic Board of Canada. The work done by the American Bureau was monumental, well informed and incorporated the most advanced scholarship available at the time. In many respects, the information is still useful today, although prudence should be exercised and the reader should consult some of the contemporary texts on the history and the anthropology of the North American Indians suggested in the bibliographic introduction to this section. The articles were not completely devoid of the paternalism and the prejudices prevalent at the time. While some of the terminology used would not pass the test of our "politically correct" era, most terms have been left unchanged by the editor. If a change in the original text has been effected it will be found between brackets [.] The original work contained long bibliographies that have not been reproduced for this web edition. For the full citation, see the end of the text.]


[For further information consult the pages on calumet and tobacco at the Encyclopedia of North American Indians]



Calumet, (Norman-French form of literary French chalumet , a parallel of chalumeau for chalemeau , Old French chalemel , Provençal caramel , a tube, pipe, reed, flute, especially a. shepherd's pipe; Spanish caramillo , a flute; English, shawm ; Low Latin, calamellus , diminutive of Latin calamus , reed). Either one of 2 highly symbolic shafts of reed or wood about 2 in. broad, ¼ in. thick, and 18 in. to 4 ft. long, the one representing the male, the other the female shaft, usually perforated for a pathway for the breath or spirit, painted with diverse symbolic colours and adorned with various symbolic objects, and which may, or may not, have a pipe bowl to contain tobacco, for making a sacred offering of its benevolent smoke to the gods. In modern usage the term usually includes the pipe. Its colouring and degree of adornment varied somewhat from tribe to tribe and were largely governed by the occasion for which the calumet was used. From the meagre descriptions of the calumet and its uses it would seem that it has a ceremonially symbolic history independent of that of the pipe; and that when the pipe became an altar, by its employment for burning sacrificial tobacco to the gods, convenience and convention united the already highly symbolic calumet shafts and the sacrificial tobacco altar, the pipe-bowl; hence it became one of the most profoundly sacred objects known to the Indians of northern America. As the colours and the other adornments on the shaft represent symbolically various dominant gods of the Indian polytheon, it follows that the symbolism of the calumet and pipe represented a veritable executive council of the gods. Moreover, in some of the elaborate ceremonies in which it was necessary to portray this symbolism the employment of the two shafts became necessary, because the one with its colours and accessory adornments represented the procreative male power and his aids, and was denominated the male, the fatherhood of nature; and the other with its colours and necessary adornments represented the reproductive female power and her aids, and was denominated the female, the motherhood of nature.


The calumet was employed by ambassadors and travellers as a passport; it was used in ceremonies designed to conciliate foreign and hostile nations and to conclude lasting peace; to ratify the alliance of friendly tribes; to secure favourable weather for journeys; to bring needed rain; and to attest contracts and treaties which could not be violated without incurring the wrath of the gods. The use of the calumet was inculcated by religious precept and example. A chant and a dance have become known as the chant and the dance of the calumet; together they were employed as an invocation to one or more of the gods. By naming in the chant the souls of those against whom war must be waged, such persons were doomed to die at the hands of the person so naming them. The dance and the chant were rather in honour of the calumet than with the calumet. To smoke it was prohibited to a man whose wife was with child, lest he perish and she die in childbirth. The calumet was employed also in banishing evil and for obtaining good. Some, in order to obtain favour of the gods, sacrificed some animals in spirit to them, and, as the visible food was not consumed visibly by the gods, they ate the food and chanted and danced for the calumet.


The following description of the calumet by Hennepin may be given:

"The quill, which is commonly two foot and a half long, is made of a pretty strong reed or cane, adorned with feathers of all colours, interlaced with locks of women's hair. They tie to it two wings of the most curious birds they find, which makes their calumet not much unlike Mercury's wand, or that staff ambassadors did formerly carry when they went to treat of peace. They sheath that reed into the neck of birds they call huars [loons], which are as big as our geese and spotted with black and white; or else of a sort of ducks who make their nests upon trees, though water be their natural element, and whose feathers are of many different colours. However, every nation adorns the calumet as they think fit, according to their own genius and the birds they have in their own country."


From Charlevoix (1721) it is learned that the calumet is strictly the stem or shaft of what is commonly called the calumet pipe; that in those designed for public ceremonial purposes this shaft is very long, and "is of light wood, painted with different colours, and adorned with the heads, tails, wings, and feathers of the most beautiful birds," which he believed were "only for ornament" rather than for symbolic expression; that among those nations among which the calumet is in use it is as sacred as are the wampum belts and strands among the nations among whom these things are in use; that Pawnee tradition asserts that the calumet is a gift from the sun; that the calumet is in use more among the southern and western nations than among the eastern and northern, and it is more frequently employed for peace than for war. He says that if the calumet is offered and accepted it is the custom to smoke in the calumet, and the engagements contracted are held sacred and inviolable, in just so far as such human things are inviolable. Parrot also says that the Indians believe that the sun gave the calumet to the Pawnee. The Indiana profess that the violation of such an engagement never escapes just punishment. In the heat of battle, if an adversary offer the calumet to his opponent and he accept it, the weapons on both aides are at once laid down; but to accept or to refuse the offer of the calumet is optional. There are calumets for various kinds of public engagements, and when such bargains are made an exchange of calumets is usual, in this manner rendering the contract or bargain sacred.


When war is contemplated, not only the shaft but the feathers with which it is dressed are coloured red, but the feathers only on one side may be red, and it is claimed that from the disposition of the feathers in some instances it is possible to know to what nation the calumet is to be presented. By smoking together in the calumet the contracting parties intend to invoke the sun and the other gods as witnesses to the mutual obligations assumed by the parties, and as a guarantee the one to the other that they shall be fulfilled. This is accomplished by blowing the smoke toward the sky, the four world-quarters, and the earth, with a suitable invocation. The size and ornaments of the calumets which are presented to persons of distinction on occasions of moment are suited to the requirements of the case. When the calumet is designed to be employed in a treaty of alliance against a third tribe, a serpent may be painted on the shaft, and perhaps some other device indicating the motive of the alliance.


There were calumets for commerce and trade and for other social and political purposes; but the most important were those designed for war and those for peace and brotherhood. It was vitally necessary, however, that they should be distinguishable at once, lest through ignorance and inattention one should become the victim of treachery. The Indians in general chose not or dared not to violate openly the faith attested by the calumet, and sought to deceive an intended victim by the use of a false calumet of peace in an endeavor to make the victim in some measure responsible for the consequences. On one occasion a band of Sioux, seeking to destroy some Indians and their protectors, a French officer and his men, presented, in the guise of friendship, 12 calumets, apparently of peace; but the officer, who was versed in such matters and whose suspicion was aroused by the number offered, consulted an astute Indian attached to his force, who caused him to see that among the 12 one of the calumet shafts was not matted with hair like the others, and that on the shaft was graven the figure of a viper, coiled around it. The officer was made to understand that this was the sign of covert treachery, thus frustrating the intended Sioux plot.


The use of the calumet, sometimes called "peace-pipe" and "war pipe," was widespread in the Mississippi valley generally. It has been found among the Potawatomi, Cheyenne , Shoshoni, Pawnee Loups, Piegan, Santee , Yanktonais, Sihasapa, Kansa, Siksika, Crows, Cree, Skitswish, Nez Percés , Illinois , Chickasaw, Choctaw, Chitimacha, Chippewa, Winnebago, and Natchez . In the Ohio and St. Lawrence valleys and southward its use is not so definitely shown.


Source: James WHITE, ed., Handbook of Indians of Canada , Published as an Appendix to the Tenth Report of the Geographic Board of Canada , Ottawa , 1913, 632p., pp. 73-75. Consult the entry under calumet at the Encyclopedia of North American Indians.

© 2004 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College