The Calumet Ceremony in 17th Century America

During the 17th century, North America was viewed from two perspectives – through the eyes of natives and Europeans. The former were the lords of the land and they had their own unique beliefs on how to thrive and survive in this region; while the latter first tried to established trade with the native inhabitants and then later on they desired to settle in the New World. In the interaction between newcomers and the natives there is no other item that was considered of utmost significance than the calumet. For an outsider the calumet is nothing more than a device to smoke tobacco, similar to smoke pipes used by more sophisticated people in Europe but for the Native Americans it is more than that. This even prompted one missionary to describe it as the “god of peace and war” and the “arbiter of life and death” (Waselkov, Peter, & Hatley, p. 371). This paper will attempt to shed light on the calumet, an ancient instrument used by the natives of North America to forge relationships, to initiate ceasefire, and bind contracts that contributed greatly to the shaping of the American continent into what it is today.

The New World

In order to understand the calumet ceremony, it is important to first have an overview of North America in the 17th century. After Europeans discovered the continent on their westward journey to find an alternative route to the East, this continent became a beacon of hope for those who felt that Europe has become very oppressive and needed a place to start anew. At first the handful of Europeans who were brave enough to cross that Atlantic had one major incentive that kept them fired up for the long haul – it is the chance for a more comfortable life as they tried to establish trading centers in a huge land mass they called the New World.

It was new to them, never believing at first that such a major land area is available for occupation, for trade or for exploitation. But the inhabitants who came there thousands of years before Christopher Columbus, they could hardly call the region as new. For them North America is not just a refuge but a being that is with one with them. In this regard they developed elaborate rituals and ceremonies in keeping with the religious traditions of many ancient peoples. One of their traditions is the use of tobacco smoke to mark an important event and in order for that to happen they needed a device that will facilitate the whole procedure.

Before going any further, there is a need to explain the presence of different Indian tribes across North America. Many historians would attest that Native Americans originally came from Asia and migrated to the North American continent thousands of years ago via the Bering Strait (Calloway, p. 26). They also speculated that a long time ago, climate change allowed for water to freeze, that in turn enabled the first migrants to cross over. It did not take long before their numbers began to multiply and they covered major portions of the continent. After being cut-off from the rest of Asia and Europe for thousands of years – after climate change once again thawed the ice – they began to develop their own culture and customs, each group began to form distinct tribes.

They may share a similar heritage but the broad landscape of North America made it easy for many of them to be isolated from other tribes and in seclusion developed their own system of learning and how they interpret the outside world. This is the reason why blood feuds are frequent and many tribes are forced pay careful attention to their boundaries. But just like any other nation or people group they quickly learned that no tribal group can survive on their own. Out of necessity they were forced to form alliances and engage in trade or the exchange of goods. This is where the calumet ceremony comes in. They needed a way to facilitate the coming together of two tribes in mutual respect.

The ceremony must be lavish and show the people involve that they mean serious business. It is no wonder that the calumet ceremony uses some of the most important resources available to native inhabitants – domesticated plants, specifically tobacco (Winter, p. 4). Without a doubt hunter-gatherer tribes like the Native Americans find it no small feat to domesticate wild plants. In addition to the fact that they put in a lot of hard work to domesticate tobacco, this plant species also created a pleasurable feeling to the users, making it more special to use it during the ceremony. Furthermore, the smoking of tobacco also created a highly-spiritual ambience that added weight to the ceremony. The smoking of the calumet pipe can be compared to the use of incense by many religious groups.

The calumet ceremony became an important ritual for many Native American tribes because there are many elements of the ceremony that they can easily understand. This is because even if they have cultural differences, they share many things in common. The Native Americans pay particular attention to the spirit realm and at the same time they believe that their word is their bond – in this case what seals the friendship or the agreement is not a handshake but the smoking of the pipe (Winter, p. 4). Most of the time, the leaders and members of the tribe are assured that those who swore an oath during the calumet ceremony will do well to honor what they have spoken in the said event because the consequence of breaking covenant is something that is considered far worse than death.

These beliefs strengthened the calumet ceremony as sacred and powerful enough to compel the participants to obey every part of the agreement. Thus, the devices used in the ceremony also became potent symbols that when displayed reminded everyone of what has transpired in the said ceremony and most importantly the promises made and the consequences of breaking covenant. This has prompted one missionary to the Native Americans to liken the said instrument to a god or perhaps an idol that can create a special emotion within the hearts of the natives. In time, the European settlers learned how to use the calumet ceremony and its implements to their advantage.

Calumet Ceremony

There is evidence to show that the calumet ceremony started as early as the 13th century due to the need to trade between different tribes (Wishart, p. 44). According to the same source the practice could have originated with the Wichita Indians (Wishart, p. 44). It was conjectured that the climate of the said region was perfect for the multiplication of bison and hence easy access to stable food supply for the inhabitants but later on climate change made it more difficult to acquire the needed amount of meat (Wishart, p. 44) As a result they needed to enter into trade with neighboring tribes.

The calumet ceremony therefore began as a way for two different tribes to come together in peace so that they can discuss issues that are mutually beneficial to them. In its earliest form, the ceremony was used to seal a business deal. In the modern world this could be compared to two business executives coming together and after finalizing their agreement over dinner will then meet one more time to sign the contracts. It can be said that when Native Americans ruled North America they had did not use paper and ink to bind themselves to an agreement, instead they use the calumet.

The word “calumet” is believed to have been derived from the medieval French word chalemel that is interpreted as reed, cane, stem, tube or pipe (Waselkov, Wood, & Hartley, p. 372). This is the reason why many believe that the calumet is the pipe and not the bowl. There are those who suggested that for many Plains Indian tribes the calumet is the highly decorated stem or pipe (Waselkov, Wood, & Hartley, p. 372). But it must be pointed out that irregardless which part is highly valued than the other, the calumet ceremony cannot commence without the pipe and bowl. This is because the ceremony does not only involve the waving of the pipe but also the smoking of the tobacco. For this exercise there is a need for both and therefore there is no point in arguing what is more important than the two.

A basic way of understanding the calumet ceremony is to see it as a greeting ceremony or as a way of saying hello in the 17th century (Lankford, p. 119). This is not a simple ceremony though. The Western mindset is used to think of a ceremony to start and end within a day, for instance, weddings, baptismal, birthday parties etc. But for the Plains Indian tribes they have time to spare but more importantly they view the greeting ceremony as a very important first step in the establishment of relationships between two different groups that can have totally divergent points of view that it will require very little for these two parties to start a quarrel due to misunderstandings. The calumet ceremony if done properly can prevent future bloodshed and thus the complexity of the said ritual is understandable.

The whole ceremony can stretch on for many days (Lankford, p. 119). One of the first Europeans to witness the rituals were the French. As expected many of them found the long ceremony as tiresome and so in many occasions the leaders take turns as symbolic visitors to escape boredom but at the same time very careful not to offend the natives because this greeting ritual can help reveal if the guest is hostile or plan to be hostile in the future (Lankford, p. 119). But there are other reasons why the members of the French contingent find it unpleasant to attend the calumet ceremony because depending on the tribe performing the said ritual, the process can involve disgusting behavior such as excessive rubbing of face and stomach to rubbing their guests using their own tears (Lankford, p. 119). If not only for a desperate need to establish friendly relations with the natives many would have opted out from this exercise.

The length of the ceremony is extended because of the many activities that were inserted into the said ritual. For instance there is sharing of food, giving of gifts, speeches made and of course the dances (Lankford, p. 120). The use of tobacco smoke played a major part in the said spiritual and political exercise. The connection between tobacco smoke, the sacred ritual, and the goodwill that was created in the aftermath of the ceremony was captured by one author who wrote the importance of tobacco in the lives of the Native Americans as well as its after-effects when inhaled and when used as incense and he wrote, “Tobacco smoke is blown on the body and into the air … tobacco is a recreational drug, a mood altering addictive substance … and a sacred, vision-producing force that links the user with the spirit world” (Winter, p. 3). This helps explains why the calumet ceremony is not merely a formality and why it was considered as binding for all those involved.

As mentioned earlier the calumet ceremony can take a very long time to finish. It is normal for a simple ceremony to take several days to be completed (Wishart, p. 45). This is because it involves ritual feasting, gift giving, singing, dancing and the presentation of the calumet pipe (Wishart, p. 45). Although the ceremony is taxing for many, the length of the ritual is justified considering the life-altering impact of the said activity. The calumet ceremony can make unrelated people groups become one family in an instant (Wishart, p. 45). This means that if a tribe feels threatened by other tribes they can immediately establish an alliance that will not only good look on paper but will be binding for all eternity.

Significance of the ceremony

One commentator was correct to say that importance of the calumet ceremony must not be underestimated (Volo, p. 174). The significance of the calumet ceremony was put succinctly by this statement, “Besides peace, the pipe was used to ratify alliances, exchanges, blood feuds, war, truces, and trading agreements … an analogy might be made between the Indian use of the calumet with the Christian use of the cross or holy water as consecrating device” (Volo, p. 174). In 17th century America, in a time when Indian tribes ruled the Plains and the most part of the continent there was no judicial courts that would settle differences between two individuals. There was no police force and any other government agencies that can enforce the law and punish the guilty.

What they had back then is their word and the spirit realm as their witness. They needed an instrument that will make it absolutely clear to the participants the sacredness of the ceremony and make them feel that if they violated the terms of the contract they will have to pay for it one way or the other. But for those who honor their part of the agreement the calumet ceremony is like a symbol of hope in a very unstable region of the planet in the 17th century. In a time and place when devious and desperate men abound, the calumet pipe is a symbol of truth and stability.

It was incorrectly labeled as the “smoking peace pipe” by overeager outsiders who marveled at the way the calumet was able to bring two opposing forces together (Volo, p. 174). But it was not objects that were the force behind the agreement in the same way that Roman Catholic swore that they do not worship idols but the veneration of the saints is just a way of honoring those they believe deserve honor. The pieces of wood and the tobacco are in the same way merely symbols. The most important thing is the ceremony behind the pipe and the tobacco; it was the thought that the violation of the compact is an unforgivable sin that made the ceremony very special (Volo, p. 174). In other words the native Americans can use all their cunning in battle and they can use trickery in gaining an advantage; the world around them can be treacherous and unpredictable but the calumet ceremony is their rock, something that they can hold on to and find reliable at all times.

This is the reason why Europeans can go through some of the most dangerous areas in the New World and yet not be harmed by warriors who had every reason to kill them. By merely raising the articles involved in the calumet they can have safe passage and this is one of the reason why European settlers were able to scout the land and then finally able to settle it. Without the calumet white-skinned missionaries and adventurers will always find themselves in hostile territory. Without this device that is attributed to peace, friendship, kinship, and covenants, they would have to continually negotiate with death, but with the calumet they were able to move freely and interact with a greater number of people, more than what could be expected if they simply went there without this instrument of connecting to strangers, turning potential foes to at least temporary friends.


The calumet ceremony may be unimportant to outsiders, especially those who live in the 21st century and merely looked back to a forgotten era. What is the significance of smoking pipe laden with locally grown tobacco? There is hardly none at first glance but when there is a clear understanding of the value of domesticated tobacco to traditional hunters and gatherers plus the fact that this substance allows them to link-up with the spiritual realm, will make one appreciate this ceremony. The calumet ceremony has prevented unnecessary bloodshed and has been used to save a weak family from unmerciful enemies or the ravages of famine. The type of relationships created by the ceremony has created stability in a very chaotic New World of the 17th century. But after some time of linking with native inhabitants of North America, European settlers quickly understood the importance of the calumet and no one really knows the real impact of the ceremony to the lives of many white settlers who wanted to live peacefully in a hostile land.

Works Cited

Calloway, Colin. One Vast Winter Count: The Native American West Before Lewis and Clark. Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press, 2003.

Lankford, George. Looking for Lost Lore: Studies in Folklore, Ethnology, and Iconography. Alabama: The University of Alabama Press, 2008.

Volo, James. Family Life in Native America. Westport CT: Greenwood Press, 2007.

Waselkov, Gregory, Peter Wood, & Thomas Hatley. Powhatan’s Mantle: Indians in the Colonial Southeast. Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press, 2009.

Winter, Joseph. Tobacco Use by Native North Americans: Sacred Smoke and Silent Killer. Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press, 2000.

Wishart, David. Encyclopedia of the Great Plains Indians. Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press, 2007.

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