Tuesday, May 26, 2015


This undecorated calumet appears jointed, like bamboo.
It might have been adapted from a walking stick.

“Calumets” are far from exclusive to the Blackfeet, but the Amskapi Pikuni had their own versions, as did many of the Plains Indian tribes.

“Calumet is a Norman word (pronounced: [kalyme]), first recorded in David Ferrand's La Muse normande around 1625–1655.  Its first meaning was "sort of reeds used to make pipes", with a suffix substitution for calumel. It corresponds to the French word chalumeau, meaning 'reeds' (Modern French also means 'straw', 'blowlamp').The term was used by Norman-French settlers in Canada to describe the ceremonial pipes they saw used among the First Nations people of the region.”

This bare calumet has been smoked.  
Ours had the same cross-section shape.

“Peace pipe” is another misnomer that emerged from movies and novels.  But certainly peace or a truce is one of the uses of a tobacco pipe (around here normally smoking kinnikinnick but sometimes “twist” tobacco if it can be found).  Esp. for older folks, it’s a soother and an energizer at once, a function of nicotine.  Also, it is a ceremonial implement on first meetings to give people a chance to settle and adjust to each other.  Some cultures use cups of tea or coffee or alcohol.  

This sort of information is just facts.  More interesting is the accumulation of the “Bundle” that was wrapped up with  a Thunder Pipe Bundle along with the felt meanings of the people on the prairies in the spring when the thunderstorms raked the land, just as they are doing today, May 26.  North American Indian Days is a formal modern festival pow-wow with all the giveaways and family business that need to be done, but it is late, AFTER the thunderstorms in July.  This is because Agent Campbell persuaded them to cut hay first, THEN have the ceremonies. 

In those days it was clear that the people couldn’t come together until there was enough grass and water for their horses.  Some agents tried to suppress any such gathering, even the ones by the recent post-Civil War Indian school grads who wanted to convene scholarly discussion.  The white agents were afraid that any gathering would be a plot. If you really want an authentic version of a Bundle Opening, go to "The Old North Trail", which includes photos and instructions of the event around 1900, all by Walter McClintock, who came as a friend every summer. 

I want to talk about the experience, but it’s necessary to give a little background.  The calumet itself is studded with brass tacks.  Smooth and straight, it seems to have been drilled on a rifling lathe.  Our “Thunder Pipe Bundle” and it has a proper pedigree, which was oral when we got it and then was written down and notarized by Wilber Werner, a staunch Catholic who -- I suspect -- thought the ceremony was a naive version of the Mass.  

The Green Parrot

Many of the pipes have a whole bird affixed to the top and ours had a green parrot with taxidermy eyes.  Another rather famous pipe had a colorful rooster on it.  These are not ancient sinew and bone artifacts -- they are mixes of European metal and methods with whatever might come to hand for a tribal person on the high prairie.  Knowing that, it seems likely that the association went from lightning strike danger (which was very real on the prairie) to the danger of battles on horseback and dwindling of the buffalo to a kind of reconciliation of material cultures in hope of finding a way forward.

The Scriver Thunder Pipe Bundle -- the decorated calumet

Unlike the ordinary pipes used for real smoking, the heart of the Pipe Bundle was a yard long and the stone bowl was in the Bundle but not attached.  Fanned and hanging under the calumet was the entire suite of an eagle’s tail feathers, each with its shaft decorated with beads or quills.  Mixed with them are white ermine skins and bright satin ribbons.  On top, at the end for drawing smoke, was the bright plumage of a colorful bird. Ours had a parrot with taxidermy eyes and another had a Harlequin duck with glass eyes.  We were told there was one called “The White Man Thunder Bundle” that sported an impressive rooster.  They were not perched or even stuffed as was fashionable in the 19th century, but more like “study skins” that are kept in drawers for comparisons.  “Study skins” do not have eyes.

Near the “head” end of the calument is a handful of bells, sometimes “jinglebells” and sometimes falconry bells.  They are said to be the Pleiades or whatever the local mythologists made of the cluster of bells.  They show up as a pattern of circles on the smoke flap ears of lodges.   Another tube, the sawed off section of a rifle, decorated with ribbons and so on, is the “woman’s pipe.”  Another historical sign: this was added when the shooter had access to the gun and a hacksaw, but too early to just discard something so powerful as a section of gun barrel, so it was saved. 

This book was published by Bob Scriver through a "vanity publisher."

The rest is animal skins, preserved with handsful of tobacco.  Sometimes there will be iniskim, the little fossil stones that look like buffalo.  Bob documented our Bundle contents in “The Blackfeet: Artists of the Northern Plains.”  The illustrations of this post are from his book for which Marshall Noice, an artist, took the photos.  The implications of that will be the subject of a future post.

The Kicking Woman family opened their Bundle on Mother’s Day.  Molly, who was Canadian and from an observant family, was the one who really understood the preparations, including sarvisberry soup with its bitterroot inclusion, carrying on the theme of plenty in the face of want.  Like Lent, a ceremony in the thunderstorm season would be late for whatever food had been preserved in the winter, but early for summer’s plenty.  All the families who still had saved dried sarvisberries donated them for the one big pot of soup.  

George Kicking Woman, all dressed up.

Molly was the force behind George and, as the woman always was, the true Keeper in terms of managing it,  but George didn’t mind seeming a powerful patriarch as white visitors usually assumed.  He was a mild and earnest man, unlikely to kick anyone, but white people got a lot of mileage out of the name.  Bob and George were the same age.  George was the youngest of the Keepers at the ceremonies we attended.

What I’m describing happened fifty years ago.  Most people at an Opening were related, but many of them were likely to be from Canada where the old ways have persisted longer.  People were actually speaking their own language.  The smudge is lit in a dishpan of dirt.  Drummers were a “rawhide orchestra,” an assortment of men who knew the songs or can pick them up quickly, since they are a pattern based on a phrase that is meant to describe the particular animal with which it is associated.  Joe Old Chief was one of them and one of the last to "cross the horizon."  They used hand drums.  In the Beaver Bundle openings the drummers pounded on a dry rawhide with rattles.  The smudge was different as well.

Harlequin duck, augmented with pow-wow feathers.
This is from a Last Star bundle.

The Bundle is about the lives of the animals and their powers to help.  The man who is inspired to dance with one of them, takes it up in its funny swaddling of calico or headscarf, meant to keep it intact without shedding bits, and endeavors to dance in imitation of the living animal, moving it in front of him like a little boy making a toy car “go.”  The best dancers evoke the animal with uncanny imitation of its rhythms and wiggles, as though it were a puppet, but also “beconme the animal” with all the skill of dancing or acting.  The collection of animals is like a hymnal, a mnemonic device to act as a reminder of both animal and song.  

For those of us who had handled these animals and watched them out on the prairie or mountainsides they brought back moments and, as humans are “wired” to do, the mood of that memory, which made a kind of trance.   Bob and I had watched the animals as well as bringing them into the shop and skinning them for mounting, giving them glass eyes.  The “permission” to acquire a Bundle comes in a dream, and Bob had the dream.  It also requires a LOT of money, and Bob paid it.  Even if he weren’t paying for a transfer, he would slip hundreds of dollars to Molly a week or so ahead of time to help with the preparations.

The ceremony was a spiritual way to reconcile an individual with the community that had practical benefits for the community itself.  As each man chose an animal and danced with it briefly, his family and friends would stand in place to ululate in support.  Then they would “gift” money to someone in the circle to honor the dancer.  Most went to someone who had lost a family member or someone who was suffering.  The “orderly,” who kept the smudge going and passed the money to the designated recipient, was Young Jim Whitecalf, son of the Old Jim Whitecalf who so captured the imaginations of white outsiders that he's featured in two books.

Double-page spread in "The Blackfeet: Artists of the Northern Plains

In the portrait, which some call a diorama, of the Thunder Pipe Bundle, are the principals in the first ceremony Bob and I attended.  They posed and are recognizable, real people, except for Charlie Reevis, who was deceased.  George Kicking Woman was the youngest Bundle Keeper, the same age as Bob.  The man with the black face is Louis Plenty Treaty, the most spiritual man I ever met.  I used to say you could seat him in a Buddhist ceremony and he would be perfectly fitting.  The next is Tom Many Guns, who had been the Keeper of this Bundle just previously, but had been drinking a lot and selling bits of it to finance his addiction.  

In fact, we were startled to realize we’d been buying them, but pleased to put them back in.  Next, in a red wool jacket is Richard Little Dog who was the ceremonialist and technically the real owner -- that is, it had been transferred to him properly.  Nearest the camera in a Hudson’s Bay blanket capote is Joe Gambler, who was armed for posing and made the most of pantomiming attacks when posing got boring.

I don’t remember the names of all the four drummers.  I think Joe Old Chief and Joe Young Eagle were there.   The woman in blue, closest to the camera was Margaret Many Guns, who was originally Canadian.  She made my ceremonial clothes, including moccasins, which were very simple but meant to be exchanged with her clothes so that the “power” would recognize me and go with me after the exchange.  Next in pink is Mrs. Young Eagle and then Molly Kicking Woman.  I think the gray-haired woman was Mary Blackman.

These people are all gone now, but the ceremony has been reinstituted.  Like all memories, it is re-constituted, and as in all communities, it has somehow drifted from the hands of the most old-timey and observant people into the practices of the educated and relatively prosperous.  I’m smelling sweetgrass smudge (I grow a little), but you buy sweetgrass on the Internet now.  It’s hard to find on the prairie, poisoned out like most of the birds and animals in the Bundle.  The People are there, but they are changed.

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