Cannupa – the Basis of Lakota Spirituality

Excerpts from an article by Ben Black Bear, Jr.

Lakota Society based its entire religious philosophy on the revelation of the Creator acting through Nature. The “Wakan” or sacred things contained in nature were sought out by this society and through perceptions of these mysterious and sacred things a religious philosophy was developed.

Upon looking, what can be found as the as the most mysterious or sacred thing ever naturally happening in the universe? Is it the powerful thunder, wind, lightening, movement and sounds of living things, or something else? The thunder which brings rain, the wind which has the power to destroy many things, and all living things have movement and sound which allow them to be understood. All these things are sacred, but the most mysterious and sacred is the conception and birth of a living thing, especially a human.

The Sacred Pipe can be looked at in many ways. One view sees the pipe bowl (usually carved as an inverted “T” with the bowl facing up) as a “Winyan,” a woman, and the stem which connects into one end of the inverted “T” as “Wicasa,” or a man. Thus, the pipe ceremony can be looked at as a reenactment of the most sacred, mysterious, “Wakan” thing that happens in nature itself, but in a reverse process. This makes it an offering from us to the Great Mystery, the “Taku Wakan.”

Looking at it from the concept of how the Wakantanka intervenes in our lives, the closest thing is conception, where life is created. It can be said that “Wakantanka” communicates to people through the creation of life in a most profound and sacred manner and this happens at the conception in the union of a man and a woman. So, in order for humans to communicate back to Wakantanka the closest we can come is by imitating the action of Wakantanka in nature. This is the sacred Pipe Ceremony.

The Sacred Pipe is usually made from a red Pipestone and a wooden Stem. The Red Pipestone is usually carved into the shape of an inverted “T” with the bowl of the pipe going up, and the stem of the pipe is connected on one side of the inverted “T” of the pipe bowl. Stanley Looking Horse, the father of the keeper of the Sacred Calf Pipe one time gave a talk in Rosebud, South Dakota on the pipe and he made the statement that the pipe bowl was a “Winyan”, a woman, and the stem of the pipe was a “Wicasa”, a man.

This leads me to believe that the “pipe ceremony” is a reenactment of the most sacred, mysterious, “Wakan” thing that happens in nature itself, but in a reverse process, therefore it is an offering from us to the Great Mystery, the “Taku Wakan”. As you know life, which is a gift of the great Mystery, Wakantanka or Taku Wakan begins with the union of a man and a woman. This is very mysterious because it begins extremely small, almost invisible to the naked eye, and yet when it begins it doesn’t end until a human being is born and begins to grow further to maturity.

The place where that life begins is where Wakantanka, the Great Mystery, infuses into the union of what comes from the man and what comes from the woman life. It is the life which comes from the Great Mystery. Therefore, conception is the closest thing we have on earth in Nature itself where the Great Mystery intervenes in our lives, by creating life. We can further say, therefore, that “God”, “Wakantanka” communicates to us through the creation of life in a most profound and sacred manner and this happens at conception in the union of a man and a woman. So if we ordinary humans on earth want to communicate back to “God”, “Wakantanka” we try to find the best way that we can find to do that, and the closest that we can come to it when we only have nature to rely on is to imitate God’s, “Wakantanka’s”, action in nature, except that in this case we do the action ourselves.

This is the sacred Pipe Ceremony.

First of all there are two kinds of pipes in general. There is the sacred pipe and there is the ordinary pipe. The ordinary pipe is the one which everyone carries around who likes to smoke. In the old days Lakota really liked to smoke, especially the older men, therefore, they always carried a pipe around with them. In fact for convenience’ sake they used to make a pipe which was a hatchet on one side and a pipe on the other side. This was called the Nazunspe cannupa or “Axe pipe”. Since cigarettes of paper was not available in pre European contact period, the best way to smoke tobacco was by the use of a pipe. This was the ordinary pipe. Everyone who smoked and enjoyed tobacco had a pipe or maybe even more than one. These could also be decorated or ornamented according to ones desires. This ordinary pipe was different from the Sacred pipe mostly in use only.

The sacred pipe was usually made of Red Pipestone and a wooden stem. These were also decorated but usually in a sacred manner with sacred, symbolic designs. The Sacred Pipe is never joined together except in a ceremony. The Pipe bowl and the Pipe stem are always kept together, not joined, but separately in a pipe bag which is called the “Cantojuha” or “Container of the Heart”. The ceremony of the Sacred Pipe begins with ritually removing the pipe bowl and the pipe stem from the container and incensing each separately with sweetgrass to be purified and made holy. All other items to be used are also ritually incensed and prepared in that manner.

Once preparations are completed the “loading” of the pipe begins with the ritual joining of the pipe bowl to the pipe stem and the tobacco is prayed with, each pinch that is taken as it is placed in the pipe bowl. Each pinch of tobacco is offered to each of the four winds, to the sky and to grandmother earth. The directions begin with the west. After the sacred pipe is “loaded” then it is prayed with at that time. After the completion of the prayer, it is lit and everyone present smokes the pipe to create Spiritual Unity among all the people who are present. As each one prays with the pipe, makes offerings and smokes it and finishes, he or she prays the “Amen” which is “Mitakuye Oyas’in” or “All my Relatives”.

The smoke rises into the sky to the Great Mystery as an offering from all of us on earth who are praying. The Sacred Pipe and the Sacred Pipe Ceremony was the most basic of all the ceremonies of the Lakota People and it was the basis for all other ceremonies which came after that. It is a communication with the Great Mystery using the same method that the Great Mystery Himself uses to communicate through His action with nature and humanity, which is the creation of new life in conception. The Pipe Ceremony is the same act of conception but in this case one orchestrated by man and offered to God, the Great Mystery or “Wakantanka”, in this way “communicating” with Him.