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Of all the plants known to ancient Indians, tobacco was among the most sacred. Considered one of the earliest forms of spiritual expression among North American Indians, the ritual use of tobacco was widespread throughout the continent. To Native peoples of the Plains the act of smoking tobacco through ceremonial pipes was a means of prayer used to give thanks, to establish new relationships and seal agreements, to mark significant passages of ceremonial life, and to begin important expeditions. Tobacco was believed to be a gift from the supernatural powers to men, and the act of smoking considered a message or prayer to the heavens.
Men made their own pipes, carving the stems from wood and the pipe bowls from soapstone, bone, steatite, shale, limestone and other materials. Women dressed the stems decorating them with porcupine quillwork and beadwork as well as feathers, ribbons and horsehair.
The most favored variety of soapstone used to make pipe bowls is called “catlinite” and was quarried from a site in southwestern Minnesota now known as the Pipestone National Monument. Members of tribal groups from throughout the plains and prairies were allowed to visit the site and quarry pipestone from it unmolested, even though it was in the traditional territory of the Eastern Sioux.
The sacred tobacco leaf was so important to the Crow Indians of Montana and Wyoming that tobacco societies sprang up within the tribe. Divided into chapters, these organizations devoted themselves to cultivating a special species of the plant for exclusive use in their own rituals. The Crows believed that it is the Crow Tobacco Society and their complex, ritualistic cycle of planting, initiating new members, and harvesting the crops that ensured the continuance and well-being of the Crow as a great people.
In addition to sending his prayers to heaven through the smoke of his pipe, this Crow man also beseeches the Creator through the use of feathers. Birds are seen by many native peoples as being from the Upper World, and symbolize the powers of the sky. Feathers are seen as potent medicine and are themselves able to carry messages to the spirit world.
Dressed in his best robe decorated with a beautiful beaded strip and ceremonial eagle feather bonnet, our Crow Indian also holds his most treasured feather fan made from an antique turkey feather duster festooned by extravagant peacock feathers received in trade with European-Americans. Out of a sense of honor and reverence, this man has made sure that he does not go empty handed when going before his Creator.