Lakota Pipe

By: Tatiana Takacs

Within many Native American tribes, the smoking pipe is seen as an object of great significance. Its purpose can be sacred, ceremonial, as well as secular. Pipe-smoking has been a part of the Native American belief system since long before the arrival of Europeans. This tradition is practiced in treaty councils, social gatherings, divination, the cure of diseases, and as a personal pastime. Although it is not exactly clear who used this specific pipe or whether it was used for ceremonial purposes, the symbolism which it contains is still evident.

AE2010.11.118 A&B_1
AE2010.11.118 A & B Lakota Pipe collected by Charles A. Philhower. Gift of Rutgers University, Special Collections.

This particular pipe is housed at the New Jersey State Museum. It was received, first as a loan, and later as a donation, from the Rutgers University Special Collections in the 1970s. It had once belonged to amateur archaeologist Charles A. Philhower (1878-1962). The New Jersey state resident had a fascination for Native American culture and was an avid collector of artifacts and Indian lore throughout the 1920s and 1930s. His vast collection consisted of objects from New Jersey to all across the United States and included similar pipes to the one pictured above. The pipe is attributed to the Lakota, a group of seven Native American tribes who, together, speak the Lakota language (sometimes referred to as the Teton Sioux). The Lakota are closely related by culture, language, and history to the Dakota, a language spoken by a group of six tribes, often divided into Eastern and Western groups. Together, these tribes make up what is often referred to as the Great Sioux Nation. The Lakota once occupied much of the Great Plains but due to ongoing conflict with neighboring tribes, the migration of large herds of buffalo, and the arrival of encroaching whites into the west, the tribal group was forced westward into the Dakotas. Today, the majority of them reside on four reservations situated in North Dakota, South Dakota, and Nebraska, but other large groups can be found in Minnesota, Montana and parts of Canada. Within the boundaries of the reservation, the Lakota people continue to be governed by their own sets of laws, practices, and beliefs.

Lakota Map
Map of Lakota Lands, 1868 – Present (Cankú Lúta).

This pipe consists of two prominent parts, the bowl and the stem. The bowl’s brownish-red appearance is a distinct characteristic of the claystone, catlinite (Lakota: čhaŋnúŋpa šá). This stone is found in quarries in Minnesota, near the border of South Dakota. It is prized by Native Americans because of its fine-grained texture that allows it to be easily carved. The term, catlinite, was first used after the American painter, George Catlin, came into contact with the stone when he visited the quarries of Minnesota in 1835. However, catlinite has been used by Native Americans for over 2,000 years. The Lakota use this stone for ceremonial purposes as it symbolizes the blood of their ancient ancestors, the blood of the buffalo, and the earth from which they walk upon:

“In one legend, the ground turned red from the blood of buffalo slaughtered by the Great Spirit, and man himself was formed from the red earth here. In another, all the American Indian tribes of the earth assembled and fought each other, and their blood stained the ground red. By all accounts, the pipes created from the quarries were sacred.” National Park Service

AE2010.11.118 A_2
AE2010.11.118 A Bowl of pipe collected by Charles A. Philhower. Gift of Rutgers University, Special Collections.
Pipestone Quarry
George Catlin’s painting, Pipestone Quarry on the Coteau des Prairies, 1836–37. Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Mrs. Joseph Harrison, Jr.

Another feature of this Lakota pipe is the wooden stem. The stem is intricately carved with the animal effigies of an elk, a turtle and a white tail deer on the top. A portion of it is also wrapped in bird skin, as well as dyed porcupine quills whose colors of red, purple, yellow, and white closely resemble the ones used by the Lakota for the four cardinal directions (red, yellow, white, and black) which represent the earth. The effigies are carved into the stem for their sacred power as each hold a different meaning within the Sioux culture. Plains tribes associate the elk with strength, endurance, and bravery while the deer is associated with gentleness, caring, and kindness. The turtle is a main figure not only to the Lakota, but too many other Native American tribes as well, because it plays a significant role in their creation story. North America is often referred to as Turtle Island by Native Americans because they believe that the Great Spirit created their homeland by placing earth on the back of a giant turtle. Turtles are associated with long life, protection, and fertility. Overall, these different aspects of the pipe stem and even the wood itself come together to represent all that grows upon the earth.

AE2010.11.118 B_7
AE2010.11.118 B Stem of pipe, partial bird skin on mouthpiece & dyed porcupine quills (red, purple, yellow, white).
AE2010.11.118 B_5
AE2010.11.118 B Stem of pipe, carved animal effigies of a white tail deer a turtle, and an elk.

Tobacco smoking is a common and integral practice within Native American culture. It is viewed as a means of making a connection between our earthly world and the spirit one. Tobacco smoke carries one’s prayers to Wakan-Tanaka, the Great Spirit. In some tribes, the pipes themselves became highly sacred when being used to smoke. The plant is native to the Americas and is held in high honor and respect by Native Americans as they accept it to be a gift from the Great Spirit. It is associated with relaxation, healing, and peace and is used as an offering to other tribes or placed next to the graves of the dead. Tobacco plays a central role in many Native American stories. The origins of smoking among the Lakota people are associated with one of the most well-known figures, the White Buffalo Calf Woman.

The White Buffalo Calf Woman is a sacred woman of who is responsible for giving the Lakota their “Seven Sacred Rituals” and the Chunupa or sacred pipe (Lakota: čhaŋnúŋpa wakȟáŋ). In the tradition, White Buffalo Calf Woman first appeared to the Sans Arc Tribe (Itázipčho) of Lakota during a time of famine. Dressed in a buckskin dress with vertical red stripes painted across her face, she announced that she was carrying a message for the Lakota people from the buffalo nation. On her official arrival to the camp, White Buffalo Calf Woman was carrying a pipe with the stem in her right hand and the bowl in her left. She entered a lodge created just for her, seated herself in the place of honor opposite the door, and began to relay her important message:

“I represent the Buffalo tribe, who have sent you this pipe. You are to receive this pipe in the name of all the common people [Indians]. Take it and use it according to my directions. The bowl of the pipe is of red stone – a stone not very common and found only at a certain place. This pipe shall be used as a peacemaker. The time will come when you shall cease hostilities against other nations. Whenever peace is agreed upon between two tribes or parties this pipe shall be a binding instrument. By this pipe the medicine-men shall be called to administer help to the sick…Offer sacrifices through this pipe. When you are in need of buffalo meat, smoke this pipe and ask for what you need and it shall be granted you…By this pipe you shall live” (Hall 1997:78). 

She then lit the pipe and raised the stem to the sky, then to the earth, and then to the four cardinal directions. This addressed each of the six powers and offered them the smoke she then produced from the pipe. After drawing a puff, she then gave the pipe to the Sans Arc Chief, who accepted it on behalf of the entire Sioux nation. White Buffalo Calf Woman then stood, left the tent, and turned into a white buffalo calf.

The immense amount of detail that this pipe holds, from the type of stone to the animal effigies carved into the stem to even the remnants of tobacco still left within the bowl, gives us insight to its overall story. It is these elements that come together to represent more than just a regular material object. They come together in such a distinct and extraordinary way as a representation of the material culture of a group of people, their beliefs, and their way of life.


Hall, Robert L. An Archaeology of the Soul: North American Indian Belief and Ritual. Urbana: U of Illinois, 1997. Print.

Elk, Black, and Joseph Epes Brown. The Sacred Pipe: Black Elk’s Account of the Seven Rites of the Oglala Sioux. Norman: U of Oklahoma, 1953. Print.

Ulrich, Jan. New Lakota Dictionary. Bloomington: Lakota Language Consortium, Inc., 2008. Print.

Philhower, Charles A. Indian Pipes and the Use of Tobacco in New Jersey. New Jersey: Archaeological Society of New Jersey, 1934. Print. “Who Are The Lakota.” Who Are The Lakota. N.p., n.d. Web. 12 July 2016. “Akta Lakota Museum & Cultural Center.” Akta Lakota Museum & Cultural Center. N.p., n.d. Web. 12 July 2016. United States. National Park Service. “Pipestone: The Rock — National Register of Historic Places Pipestone, Minnesota Travel Itinerary.” National Parks Service. U.S. Department of the Interior, n.d. Web. 12 July 2016. “Native Languages of the Americas: Native American Cultures.” Native American People (First Nations and American Indian Cultures). N.p., n.d. Web. 12 July 2016


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