The Peace Pipeline

The drawing referred to in this essay has been lost, and research has so far not turned up a photo of this particular peace pipe. One day I will try to go back to the museum and draw the object again - until then, you'll have to use your imagination!

The Peace Pipeline

When you wander the exhibition halls of any museum, you will likely notice people sitting on the floor or standing discreetly in a corner, studying a particular work of art and making their own sketch of it. Even if you are not an artist, this is fantastic way to become intimately familiar with a work of art - as you draw it, your eyes and mind are drawn deeper into the work, and you notice many things you might have otherwise missed.

On a recent visit to the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, one object I chose to examine was an impressive wooden pipe, about 3 feet long, and 3 inches wide, comprised mostly of a flat stem covered with distinctive designs carved all the way through the thin wood. This stem was divided into three even segments (though my poorly-rendered drawing misrepresents the size of each segment), with the bowl forming a fourth segment.

This pipe caught my attention initially because of its depiction of hands reaching toward each other. Upon seeing this, I immediately recalled that the Sioux medicine man Lame Deer had said this is a symbol for peace. It strikes me as almost too obvious to have a symbol for peace on what would likely be called a “Peace Pipe,” though it also makes perfect sense, as it suggests the passing of the pipe from one person to another – the very activity that celebrates the making of peace between warring factions.

But the series of hands (reaching out, making connections) is just one important feature in the design, which is laid out in a linear fashion as if telling a story. In one section of the stem, the hands are separated from each other by a series of jagged shapes, possibly representing a range of mountains (or some other obstacle or place of transition) that must be traversed in order to make contact.

Additionally, there are square shapes, unmistakable representations of the four directions, the four elements that comprise all matter (earth, air, fire, water), and the four virtues of man (bravery, generosity, endurance, wisdom) as described by Lame Deer. This leitmotif of “four” appears everywhere in the pipe’s design, not just in the square shapes. Groupings of four circles reiterate the wakan (holy) meaning of “four,” but also evoke a group of people gathered together, perhaps to smoke a pipe very much like this one. The entire pipe is divided into four segments (three parts to the stem, with the bowl as the fourth). And though there are only three pairings of hands visually represented on the stem, a fourth pair is suggested in the passing of the pipe from one person to another – demonstrating that the symbology must be realized and completed by the living.

This particular pipe is unique in that the passageway for the smoke does not run straight through the pipe, but curves its way like a river through the segments (which may themselves signify stages of progress between realms). All of this implies a kind of story unfolding naturally, as the smoke wends its way around the hands and the symbolic clusters of people and mountains, to its destination.

Now the question becomes one of direction. The smoke itself can be understood as a holy intermingling of the earthly and divine. When the pipe is initially lit, the mouthpiece is turned toward the four directions, and the spirits are invited to partake of the smoke. This process is believed to also draw the spirits into the tobacco, so that their essence is shared with everyone who smokes – a concept which on the surface indicates that the complete cycle of power begins with the spirits, flows into the pipe, through the stem to the mouthpiece, and ends with the smoker. But Lame Deer makes it clear that this process “is a two-way thing” (12). By inhaling the smoke, a man draws in a bit of the world around him, including the spirits. But in exhaling that same smoke, a bit of the man’s essence is mingled with it, and returned to the world, offered back to the spirits. As the pipe is passed from man to woman, all their essences are shared with each other, bringing them together as one cohesive family. They also connect with their ancestors, who engaged in this same ritual since time immemorial.

As the images on this remarkable object demonstrate, the smoking of the peace pipe is a reminder of the connection running like a river from man to man, from men to nature, from the physical realm to the spiritual world. The participants “smoke” the universe, and it “smokes” them – and in the process, all sense of separation melts away. As Lame Deer observes, “Now we are one with the universe, with all the living things, a link in the circle which has no end” (118).

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