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The Blackfoot Civilization
A Book Report by Morning Star

Page 4

Plants and Medicine

Many plants are still used today by Indians.  In the scientific field over 200 medical prescription drugs are made from a pant base.  Plants such as sage, sweet grass, and flat cedar are used for ceremonial purposes when smoke is necessary to bless pipes and a person's body.  The Sweat Lodge Ceremony uses such plants.

The sweet grass plant is used to make tea, and it is ingested when colds and fevers are upon the Indians.  The bark of a willow tree has an aspirin type effect because the tree bark contains salicylic acid.  It breaks fevers well.  Bear grass is made into a poultice and helps stop bleeding of cuts and the like.  There are all kinds of plants that are used for different medical needs.

It is important to kind in mind that it takes a lifetime of learning to recognize the different species of plants and what each plant can do medicinally.  This isn't something a person should take lightly.  So you do not know your plants and herbs, it can be dangerous to ingest them.

Plants have many other uses too.  Grasses weaved in certain patterns make beautiful baskets and other useful containers.  Chokecherry wood, or Ponderosa Pine is a good material for the pipe stem.  Plus, most plants and herbs have value as a food item as well.  When used properly in the Indian cooking, it makes food taste extra good.


Peyote is a button found on a cactus plant.  Cactus plants do not grow in the Plains area, but instead are found in the southwest.  It's not a plant used traditionally by the Northern Plains Indians, but people who use peyote in this part of the country need to travel to the places where cacti grow.  They also need a permit to pick them, not just anyone can go pick the button.  There is a ceremonial way to acquire them.

Spiritual leaders and members of the Native American Church use peyote.  The use of the plant came about as a result of a woman's vision.  This woman was give the plant to use as a medicine, so, more often than not, it's used today in this country in the Native American Church ceremony.  It's a prayer ceremony, and a counseling type situation that lasts many hours and vows are made.

The ceremony itself is made by men in honor of women.  Women must have a part in the ceremony or it cannot take place.  Women are a vital part of the Indian spiritual life, and there is the male and female of things.  Men do not dominate the women even to this day, and there are many ceremonies that cannot be held without the women sponsoring the ceremony.  This is a serious commitment, and it can take several years for preparation to become a sponsor.  They must make the necessary vows.

Peyote is misunderstood because people tend to think Indians ingest peyote until they are overcome with the effects of the drug.  This simply is NOT true.  It's used in the same way a priest would use and distribute wine.  Drinking too much wine, you see and hear things, thus causing it to be abuse of the wine.  But Peyote is not used this way and never will be.  This particular plant does have a hallucinogenic effect if abused, but everyone takes Peyote during a ceremony.  If one wants to take Peyote in the ceremony, that is acceptable, but it is not something where it's ingested until the group in the ceremony experiences hallucinations.  To accuse Indians of doing this is like accusing Christians of taking wine at a church ceremony until they are all stupid drunk.  Indian know this isn't true, and it's not true t hat Indians abuse Peyote either.

Peyote is not used on a vision quest.  Pipes are taken on vision quests.  Since Peyote is not smoked, there would be no reason to take it.  Peyote is made into a paste or tea.  Peyote is not smoked in any way, shape or form for any reason.  If someone is trying to smoke it, that is a non-Indian way and the person is abusing it.

The Ceremonial Pipe

The ceremonial pipe is made from pipe stone called Catlonite.  The pipe bowl can be red, black or green.  The red stone is named after a man named George Catlin, an artist who became fascinated with the pipes and put them in his art work back in the 1800's.

In the Blackfoot tribe's spiritual  life, as well as that of other tribes, that is always recognition of the female counterpart to everything male.  The pipe is both male and female, and when they join the pipe bowl, the female part, with the pipe's wooden stem; the male part, they symbolically join man and woman to help them spread our prayers throughout the universe and to the Creator.

Creating a pipe is easy, because the stone used is easy to carve, due to it being soft.  Bone or flint can easily cut the stone.  The stem of the pipe in this part of the country is made from ash, chokecherry wood and serviceberry wood.  A branch is split in half, the inside scraped away, and then the two halves are glued back together.  The pipe is then decorated with feathers or beads.

There are many ways to create a pipe, and certain designs on the old time pipes tell what tribe the pipe came from.  For example, the Blackfoot decorate differently from the Sioux or Cree.  Often, the designs are so intermixed these days, that it's difficult to say where the modern pipes are from.  In any case, the is a sacred object because it is used ceremonially, and is not used for social smoking.  The smoke carries the Indian's prayers symbolically throughout the universe.

Many years ago, smoking was confined to the use of pipes only in ceremony, and was not a common or social thing to do.  Tobacco as people know it today in cigarettes wasn't considered.  Pipe tobacco, the commercial stuff that one can purchase at the grocery stores, is not the same as pipe tobacco used centuries ago by the Indian people.  The pipe was used every morning and every evening.  Individual social smoking was unheard of as people know it today.  Cigarette tobacco was not known to the Indian people prior to the white man's coming to this country.  It was the white man who introduced the Indians to tobacco by trading it to them for their goods.

Eastern Indian tribes used a tobacco similar today's, as did some southern area tribes.  However, in the western part of the country, the Plains Indians used kinnikinik, which is bark from red willow, and a tobacco-like plant, and were blended into a mellow pipe tobacco.  Many tribes developed tobacco societies, and these societies consisted of men who were spiritual leaders.  They would plant and tend the crop and defend it from being destroyed by other people.

An example of the Ceremonial Pipe is below:

Ceremonial Pipe

The Four Directions

The pipe is offered to the four direction, east, south, west and north, in that order.  The offering of the pipe is done as follows:  above to the Creator and down to Mother Earth, and there are spirits in each of the directions who are guardians and watch over the things that are attributed to that direction.

In the direction to the east, some tribes believe the rising sun symbolized the Creator who begins the day.  The sun is not considered the Creator, but is symbolic of the power of the Creator.

The south is looked upon as the direction of youth and where things are made to grow.  As the sun goes across the sky then the plants turn in that direction.

The west is the direction from which the storms and water comes.  The water is sacred and a precious gift the Creator has given to all life.  We cannot live without water.

The north is the direction of our old age.  It is white and symbolizes the wisdom that is born by the elderly, the generations gone before us.  It's also looked upon as the direction the winter weather comes to put things to rest for a while to be born again in the spring.

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