Sunday, July 16, 2017


When I was working on a three-part “book” about worship (which is on hold at the moment), I was still reacting to the Unitarian Universalist idea of the flame in the chalice.  You’ll remember that the central rite of the Christians, the New Testament people, was commemoration of Jesus, who was believed to be the Christ Savior everyone was hoping for.  Whether or not he planned it or just spontaneously thought of it in the moment, he held up the bread he was holding in one hand and the wine in his other hand and said, “This bread is my flesh; this wine is my blood.  Take them and eat them in memory of me.”  

There have been periods in the history of the church when people felt that the transubstantiation of bread and wine (the basic foods of Jesus’ time) was magic and the common substances actually became real flesh and blood.  Once in a while in the past I served as pulpit supply in more Christian-influenced congregations and was asked to serve Communion.  In fact, I was asked to say, “This is my body and this is my blood.”  I have a vivid imagination and sometimes it was easy to imagine magic.  But I didn’t object.  Nor did I take the bread and wine myself.  I can handle magic — I don’t have to accept it.

The “book” — currently three incomplete books — was premised on the idea of the container and the contained, and the relationship between the two.  The chalice and the wine volatile within it.  This is so basic a Lakoff-type metaphor that it can refer to a toast with champagne or a nation with borders or a skull for drinking melted snow as the desperate cannibal soccer team did in the Andes.  Since I spent years in a foundry pouring bronze, the container most vivid to me is the crucible holding molten bronze.  

The UU’s developed the “flaming chalice”, they say, to echo John Huss and others with stubborn minds (Michael Servetus) who were burned at the stake.  It’s a little unclear what the chalice was at that point.  Uncontained fire.  But in UU congregations the flaming chalice is the community holding living souls.  Or so I say.

So I called my worship theory books, “The Bone Chalice,” meaning the skull with the fire of thought within it.  My first cover was a photo of a skull, cut out and laid over a photo of the Andromeda galaxy because even though I took a formal class in Photoshop, it’s too much trouble for me to figure out.  I have limits.  Like any container.

Then I googled around (I can handle Google) and found a photo of a skull made into a chalice.  This one:

Somehow the communion chalice has become a stemmed vessel, often ornate.  Some say what Jesus drank “blood” from was probably a plain earthenware cup -- no stem, no handle.  Two tendencies in the sacred, like everything human, are the holiness of the ascetic minimum and the equally celebratory qualities of the extravagant, the precious, the ornate.

So here’s the seque I’ve been sneaking up on.  And here’s a link to a sneak-up dance as done on the prairie where it’s an art form.  A basic skill for hunters and warriors.  Among these people there was no vessel of wine, plain or fancy.  No ceramics, no fermentation.  But there was the stone pipe bowl.  Their drug was nicotine.  The stone pipe bowl was their chalice that held the fire and, true to form, some are plain and some are fancy.  They may or may not come with a long stem.  The longest is called a calumet about a yard long.

The red stone is called "Catlinite"

What counted was the ceremony, which was a ceremony of community, usually while sitting in a circle.  The idea was to sit quietly, like a Quaker meeting, getting centered and — literally since they were sitting on bison robes — grounded.  An orderly had a wooden board and a little fire inside the circle.  He chopped the tobacco, which was usually in the form of twisted dried leaves of the plant, filled the pipe bowl and lit it.  Then the individuals each took a few hits.  

Marijuana would work or any other vegetable substance that when burned releases volatiles with psychic action.  In fact, this is the same men’s ritual as the “Three Cups of Tea” that somehow is portrayed as three little girls having an Anglo-type teaparty.  In the high mountain country, hot water is restorative.  No fire.  The drug is caffeine.

But back to the calumet, the pipe bowl, and the ceremonies that developed around them.  This is a photo of the Long Time Thunder Pipe that was transferred to Bob Scriver and I in the Sixties.  Some will try to say this should be secret, but the equivalent objects are on display in museums and the ceremony is well described in books.  I recommend “The Hako: Song, Pipe, and Unity in a Pawnee Calumet Ceremony,” which is a Pawnee version complete with the songs recorded by Alice C. Fletcher.

When you look at the pipe, which is the central element of the Pipe Bundle, you realize that it is post-contact: metal falconry bells, silk ribbons, glass beads, machine-bored stem or shaft; but mixed with the elegance of the land: ermine skins, golden eagle tail feathers, quills.  Bob was also a mixed person: born and raised in Browning, educated to be a concert band master, psychologically mixed-identity regardless of genetics.  As a taxidermist and hunter, he knew the animals.  He dreamt his entitlement, literally, while I slept beside him.

These are the actual people of the Pipe Bundle ceremony.

At that time the circle who persisted in the ceremony was small and ancient.  Bob (b. 1914) was the age of the youngest, George Kicking Woman.  I was so much younger that I counted as a child though one can’t have a Bundle without a wife.  When Bob died, this Pipe Bundle disappeared.  The old people say that such objects have lives of their own and it might come back if it pleases to.  

One element of the transfer ceremony was an exchange of clothing and I still have the dress and moccasins Margaret Many Guns made for me as the wife of Tom Many Guns, the technical Keeper of the Bundle.  She was not pleased with the whole situation and did the minimum: a plain peach-colored Mother Hubbard and sparely beaded high top moccs.  

Now that I’m old and dispersing my things, what do I do with this plain but technically ceremonial garb?  I do not participate in the Neo-Ceremonialist circles of Blackfeet Pipe Bundle Keepers but I know the people and wish them well.  Should I send the dress and moccs back to the land by burying them or burning them or putting them up in a tree?  Or as Darnell Doore, a transitional person who interprets these things, suggests, make an offering of them at a Sun Lodge by tying them up in the top convergence to weather apart in sun and hail?

In the meantime, I decided to add embellishment so that the costume would be respected, even worn to ceremonies if the Bundle resurfaced.  So I made this cape to be worn over the dress.

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