The Native American Peace Pipe Is Misunderstood

Although many people associate Native American pipes with the term "peace pipe," this is inaccurate. Early American settlers and soldiers took note of the pipe being smoked at treaty signings, resulting in their misunderstanding of the pipe as something done only to symbolize peace. One story that illustrates this is from the life of the famous Hunkpapa Lakota leader, Sitting Bull. In 1872, the Lakota warriors attempted to block construction of a railroad near the Yellowstone River. The U.S. Army was there to provide protection for the railroad, and a battle ensued. As the battle turned into a standoff, the Oglala Lakota warrior Crazy Horse displayed his bravery by riding in front of the soldiers armed only with a spear. Then Sitting Bull stepped forward. He put his rifle on the ground and walked towards the line of soldiers with his pipe. The soldiers began firing. With bullets kicking up the dirt around him, Sitting Bull sat down and shouted back to his fellow warriors, "Whoever wishes to smoke with me, come." Only four men, including Sitting Bull's nephew, White Bull, sat with him as bullets buzzed past their heads and hit the ground at their feet and legs. The four men anxiously smoked as fast as they could, but noted that Sitting Bull just sat and looked around and smoked peacefully. After smoking the pipe, Sitting Bull calmly picked up a stick and cleaned out the pipe bowl before standing up. He then turned, and at a leisurely pace, walked back towards home as the bullets hit the dirt behind him. The Lakota warriors were in awe that not one bullet struck him during the entire episode and he had shown no fear. Smoking the pipe in the midst of battle restored Sitting Bull's reputation among the other warriors. The appearance of smoking the pipe was a peaceful one, but in the context of battle, it required courage, confidence, and defiance. The oversimplification of the sacred pipe as simply a "peace pipe" misses the many roles and contexts in which it has supported the lives of countless Native Americans for centuries.


Sitting Bull