Native road trip journal III

            I can say this about traveling with River: the Ritalin stays in within arm's reach of the steering wheel at all times.             Today we visited the sacred site of Pipestone, Minnesota. This is the one and only quarry on earth where the red stone used to carve ceremonial pipes can be gathered, and it has been used for about 4000 years. The site is known as a place of peace, and even enemy tribes gathered here to collect pipestone without any animosity. In older times, Indians would symbolically bury weapons beneath the trees to represent their covenant of peace (the Iroquois Confederacy is still represented by a great Tree of Peace, with weapons buried beneath it).             Ceremonial pipes are misnamed "peace pipes" by Whites, but ought to be called "prayer pipes" instead. The red stone represents the collected blood of all wounded people, which the Creator gathered in his hands to mold into a pipe for demonstration to gathered Indians countless years ago. This is one of the few anthropomorphic depictions of God in any Indian legend, because God is not seen as a person but as a spirit in and through all things. God called the people to council and rebuked them for acts of violence and showed them how the blood we have shed has formed a vein of red stone at this sacred site. The teaching given to the people is that making a covenant to use the pipe as a ceremonial object requires a pledge of nonviolence and special care for wounded people; pipe keepers are known as helpers and healers. While warriors would also keep pipes as part of daily life, it was regarded as a tool only to be used between persons who pledged peace with on another. Once a pipe had been smoked with any other person, both people were entering into an oath to rebuke all animosity between them, past or future.             River and I walked through the fields to the ancient quarry, a trench-like gash in the earth into which people still gather the stone in the old way: by chiseling it out through slow labor, with no mechanical tools. We left our prayer cloths in the cottonwood trees, took a small shard of the stone, and left.             I took River to meet Chuck Derby, a traditional full-blood elder who is widely regarded as "the guardian of the pipe." Chuck lives a simple life, but is widely respected as one of the most knowledgeable faithkeepers of sacred pipe lore and history. I presented chuck with a gift of traditional tobacco (called Kinnickinnick) and asked him if I could question him about a few things. He smiled and gestured me to sit down. I told him that River was nervous to meet him, and hoped Chuck would be "a funny man," which made Church and his wife both laugh.             During our conversation, Chuck taught me the answers to many of my questions. He clarified, for example, that most families will keep two pipes, not just one; one pipe is used for social smoking, and another for ceremonies. The red pipestone can be used for either purpose, and it is not sacrilegious to use a pipestone pipe in casual settings with friends. Furthermore, there is no formal exalted position of "pipe keeper," which is a modern invention to grant ascribed status to persons promoted as spiritual leaders. Any person who has been taught the teachings of the sacred pipe can choose to incorporate that into their spiritual life. A "pipe keeper", then is not meant to designate someone as a spiritual leader, and any ordinary person can choose to be a pipe keeper. A spiritual leader, by contrast, is someone who has learned all the songs, ceremonies, and customs of their people and is recognized as a helper or healer for their people.             Chuck said that the Ojibway had originally used pipes made of black and white stone, but adopted the red stone from the Sioux and now regard the red pipestone as the more sacred. But the Ojibway did not adopt the Sioux legends about the pipe's origins, and Chuck is unaware of a particular pipe origin story among the Ojibway.             I asked whether a pipe's consecration (blessing) is bestowed upon the pipe itself, or upon the person who keeps it, and Chuck said "both." I explained that I had come into possession of a very old Ojibway ceremonial pipe, and wanted to care-take it appropriately, and was confused whether the pipe carries its original blessing or whether it should be re-blessed as it comes to me. Chuck suggested that the pipe should be re-blessed, and was pleased to hear that I had chosen to do that, brining the pipe into the sweat lodge and kept on the west side while James Black gave us a blessing. Chuck said this was sufficient, and was happy to know it had been cleansed. I offered to show him this pipe, and he said "I would be honored!"             I brought in the cedar case, and Chuck rubbed his hands with cedar to clease himself. I opened the case, and Chuck's eyes dazzled! He lifted the heavy black bowl, inlaid with lead designs, and marveled. He told me that the lead inlay was made from molten bullets, and marked the age of the pipe as mid-1800s. He was thrilled with the coiled sumac wood stem, which still bears traces of ochre paint and brass tacks, and said that the design showed that this was not a cheap commercial pipe, or souvenir, but something that bore great power and had been skillfully made by someone with immaculate traditional knowledge. He noticed the carved birds head and nearly jumped back with astonishment: "This is a Midewiwin pipe!"             The Midewiwin is the secret group of Ojibway shamans, or medicine men and women, who cautiously guard ancient knowledge from any exposure to outsiders (the last Midewiwin who shared Ojibway ceremonial knowledge with outsiders was banished in the 1920s, and became mute afterward, which the people regarded as divine punishment). This secrecy is one reason why Ojibways have never become the target of American imagination like the Sioux have; there are no "Dances with Wolves" made about Ojibways because our elders have been tight-lipped with shamanic knowledge. The Midewiwin is so private that their ceremonies are never observed. Chuck said that this pipe had been used in very old and very powerful ceremonies, and was nothing like the typical "peace pipes" that most people see; this pipe was of a rare type that Chuck himself has hardly ever seen. He said it was an honor to even touch it!             He advised me to pack the pipe with sage and to seek a Midewiwin man's help for guidance. I said that I wanted to be very appropriate and not blasphemous with this sacred object, and Chuck said "You are doing everything right. You gave me a gift, you asked me for help, and you are taking good care of this. Make sure it is never put on display, and never sold." I asked chuck whether Midewiwin people would be upset with my having this pipe, and he said "no, because you are being respectful toward it. They would be upset if this object was being treated carelessly, but they will be pleased to know that something this strong has been cared for and that you want to learn its proper use." I told him that I wanted to be very respectful toward it, and that I was aware that my knowledge was not complete because I am not a participant in Midewiwin ceremonies. Chuck said that it was not necessary for me to do so, but that I should at least keep his in my family and pass I down. He asked how I received it, and I said that I am adamantly opposed to buying and selling pipes, but I saw that a collector had offered this item for sale and was ashamed to see such a sacred object from the 1800s turned into a commodity for display. I told him that I had held my nose, paid money, and purchased the pipe. I told him that I had only done it because I wanted to revoke the pipe from a commodity status, exchanged among dealers and set on display, because I could perceive that this pipe was something magnificent. I was worried Chuck would be upset with this, but he wasn't. Instead, he smiled and said "thank you!" He explained that he was very pleased that I had, in his words, "rescued" this Midewiwin pipe from commercialization, and returned it to a home with an Oibway family where it could resume its life. To Chuck, pipes are living things. They die in captivity. But they thrive and throb with power in their "natural habitat", which is in an Ojibway family where it will be used, kept clean, and passed down to future generations. A pipe with a family future is a living pipe. By "kept clean", Chuck did not mean polished and washed, but kept in a traditional manner: packed with sage and cedar, cleansed in a sweat lodge, plugged with cleansing herbs, and joined only when used for ceremonies by an Ojibway custodian. Chuck assured me that the pipe had "come home", that buying it was irrelevant and that the pipe was meant to continue its lineage with me and my descendents. He also took an interest in River, calling him aside and stooping to say to him that River needed to begin to prepare to learn these things too, and should start creating a medicine pipe of his own. Chuck took down a small L-shaped piece of raw pipestone and handed it to River and advised him to begin practicing carving a pipe. By comparison, I was 20 when I began learning these things! This has not kept River from using all of this as an angle for his advantage. At dinner he pleaded, "Today I impressed an elder enough that he gave me a piece of pipestone. Sure that means I deserve a piece of pie for dessert right?" Nope, not even close. But nice try.    

Replies

EmpoweredOKC
EmpoweredOKC

Follow-up: Chuck Derby is considered one of the guardians of the Pipe because he has devoted his life to simple living and teaching about the pipe. Chuck runs a small museum/education center, funded from his own pocket (he has refused to seek non-profit status because he doesn\'t want grants that tell him what he has to do; he wants to be totally free to help people out of his own heart and traditional beliefs...Hmmmm, that makes me think!). People from many tribes seek Chuck as a source of information, and he has been interviewed by many magazines and news documentaries.

Chuck\'s center, where he also lives, is in trouble! It turns out there is not a lot of money to be made running a free museum and giving help to all who ask while living a simple life. Chuck has asked for emergency support for his center--indeed, for his life--and his work depends on donations. His center is online at http://littlefeathercenter.50megs.com/index.html If traditional Native spirituality interest you, and you want REAL information and not this trendy new-age nonsense found in bookstores and most websites, please visit his site. If possible, send a little help his way. This is a kind, gentle man who deserves it.
deleted_user
deleted_user

i enjoy reading your journals about that scared lands and what you have been doing there. I am cherokee and don\'t know much about my tribe so this is very interesting stuff for me to read. My grandma is full blooded native american and we have the head dress and some of the jewelry
deleted_user
deleted_user

Reading these journals has been bringing tears to my eyes...I think it is completely amazing that even in these dark times for you you are still able to find the good and the comparison to your life in this beautiful land God has created for us! I find it so wonderful that despite all of the things that must be going through your mind about your family and your life, you are spending this irreplacable time with your oldest son and putting the focus on him not yourself. This trip is going to be life changing for River and he will no doubt return home feeling like he has changed into a young man, no longer a boy. You just may discover that this trip has in turn changed you and the way you think and feel about lifes circumstances. It will quite possibly bring you home with new found strength, knowing you were placed on this earth for a reason and you fulfill that mission for your life each and every day...for this you can be humbled and proud. You are truly one of Gods best!!!
deleted_user
deleted_user

Another beautiful entry. I could almost see your pipe as you described it. It is fitting that such an important piece of your tribe has made its way to you :)