The Sacred Pipe is probably the most powerful of all the sacred objects as it has the power to establish a direct link to the Creator. Pipes are used during both private and group ceremonies, the prayer itself being wafted through the smoke of the burning plant material. Pipes are of no set length. Some stems may or may not be decorated with beads or leather. Others may be elaborately carved with bowls inlaid with silver. Bowls may be of wood, soapstone, inlaid or carved in the form of various totemic power animals (an eagle with folded wings) or another sacred animal.
The pipe is disassembled into its component parts while being carried from one place to another. The pipe is never a “personal possession”. It belongs to the community. The holder of the pipe is generally considered its custodian. While every native has the right to hold the pipe, in practice, the privilege must be earned in some religious way. The pipe is usually passed on to another custodian under specific fasting and cleansing rite regulations. There are pipes exclusively used by either men or women.
A pipe can be a grandmother or a grandfather. Usually when women carry it, it is referred to as a grandmother; when men carry it, it is called a grandfather.
The pipe itself represents both the male and female aspects of Creation. The bowl represents the female, the stem the male. When the female and male elements are combined by joining the stem to the bowl, the result is Creation. The pipe was given to Native people as a way of communicating with the Creator, a direct link was formed. When the pipe is smoked or touched, people are putting their thoughts and prayers into it.
Pipe ceremonies constitute the primary group gatherings over which Elders preside. Participants gather in a circle. A braid of sweetgrass (one of the sacred plants) is lit and burnt as an incense to purify worshippers, before the pipe is lit. Burning sweetgrass also symbolizes unity, the coming together of many hearts and minds as one.
The Elder strikes a match, puts it to the end of the sweetgrass braid and fans the smouldering grass with an eagle’s feather, to encourage smoke production. The Elder then goes from person to person in the circle where the smoke is drawn toward the heart, up over the head and down the body. The Elder must fan the glowing end to keep it burning properly or the material loses its spark.
The Elder or Spiritual Leader then places tobacco in the pipe and offers it in the four sacred directions of the medicine wheel. We start with the East from whence comes the light of the sun at daybreak, who also gives guidance, direction and enlightenment. Then the Elder faces South where the guardian spirit of growth presides after winter is over. Next is the West and the North.
Spirits will be asked for assistance in the main prayer, which may be specifically for one individual, a participant in the circle or for someone far away or someone who has passed over. The pipe, passed from person to person in the circle, might be offered to all creation, to those invisible spirit helpers who are always there to guide humanity. The last of the tobacco is offered to the Great Creator.
Another version of the Pipe Ceremony is the Sacred Circle which essentially follows the same procedures, but also allows a time period for individual participants to address the assembly.