Smoking Ceremony from the Songs of the Wa-Xo'-Be (Osage)
[Note: The Songs of the Wa-Xo’-Be represent a very complex set of rituals, performed over several days, through which initiates are formally inducted into membership of the Osage priesthood. The smoking ceremony, described below, is one of the preparatory ceremonies for the main ritual.]
About sunrise the next morning the members summoned prepare themselves to go to the house of the candidate, the place of meeting, by putting upon themselves the signs of the earth and sky. For the sign of the earth they blacken the upper portion of the face with moistened black soil, and for the sign of the sky they spread the white down of the eagle upon the crown of the head. At the outer corner of one eye a figure is drawn resembling an ovate leaf, from the pointed end of which a short line is drawn running slantwise toward the ear. No satisfactory explanation could be obtained as to the signification of this figure, but it is said to belong to the Men of Mystery. From the inner corner of the eye a line is drawn toward the corner of the mouth. The meaning of this line is explained as representing the tears shed during the rite of vigil. These figures are made by removing from the skin, with the nail of the index finger, the moistened black soil. The men belonging to the Earth People put these figures on the right side of the face and those belonging to the Sky People on the left side. The men of both divisions paint upon the middle of the forehead a round red spot to represent the sun which travels over the earth and across the sky. Each member wears his buffalo robe with the hair outside, and that, with the symbolic painting and decoration, completes his sacerdotal attire.
When the priests have finished painting and dressing, they form a procession and solemnly march to the house of the candidate.
While the house in which the ceremony is to take place may not have been built with reference to the cardinal points, it was, for ceremonial purposes, treated as though it had been so oriented. The end of the long house at the left of its entrance is regarded as the east and the opposite end as the west. The initiating clan enters the house first, the members taking their places at the east end of the lodge. The candidate, his teacher, the Assisting Teacher, and the chosen singers occupy the middle space, and all sit facing the west. Then follow the other priests, those of the Earth People taking their prescribed places at the south side of the lodge, and those of the Sky People, the north side. Thus the house, together with the priests, seated in groups according to divisions, becomes symbolic of the visible universe, for the ceremony to be performed is largely a dramatization of the movements of the great life giving power, the Sun, through the heavens and over the earth. The initiating clan represents the sun, the Sky People, and the sky with its celestial bodies; the Earth People clans represent the earth, with its water and all terrestrial life.
When the priests have taken their places in the order described above, and ordinary conversation among the members has ceased, the candidate rises in response to a signal given by the Assisting Teacher, who now conducts the ceremonies, and receives from him a little pipe. This marks the beginning of the initiatory ceremonies.
The first act is in three parts, which are performed simultaneously. This act is called "Carrying a Pipe and Wailing." The candidate carries in his right hand the pipe he received from the Assisting Teacher, his left hand is outspread, and in this attitude he passes along the lines of priests sitting on either side of the lodge, places his hands upon the heads of two men at a time, and wails. The pipe carried by the candidate is a symbol of supplication to Wa kon da [the creative force of the invisible spirit world], and the wailing is an appeal to the priests to recite the sacred song in full and not to hold any of it back. The second part is the reciting of the sacred song by the priests. As the candidate passes along, carrying the emblem of supplication, and as he touches each couple, the priests who have memorized the song at once begin its recitation, simultaneously but not in concert. This recital is an expression of the wish that the candidate shall succeed in all his enterprises as a warrior, and in all his other acts that pertain to the maintenance of life. The third part is performed by the women, who wail in sympathy with the candidate as an appeal to the priests that they will perform their part without reserve or prejudice. Widows of deceased members of the degree take their husbands' places at the ceremony and are honorary members.
When the candidate begins this act, "Carrying the Pipe and Wailing," he observes the courtesy due from an initiating division (in this instance the Sky) to the opposite division. The candidate therefore approaches the two men sitting at the east end of the line of priests of the Earth People and places his hands upon their heads. The moment the candidate touches the heads of these two men, he and the women begin to wail and all the priests begin to recite the Smoking Song. The candidate passes from couple to couple until he has reached the west end of the lodge. He then crosses over to the Sky side and continues wailing and touching the heads of the priests until he comes to the east end of the lodge. If the reciting of the song goes on when he reaches the east, he stands waiting until the recitation ceases, when he and the women stop wailing …
At the close of the recitation of the song by the priest, and when the wailing has ceased, the candidate returns to his seat by the side of his teacher. The Assisting Teacher then gives to the Master of Ceremonies the skin of the little lynx, the animal first mentioned in the song, and also a little pipe which he has filled with tobacco. As the Master of Ceremonies takes the pipe, he wraps around the stem the head of the lynx skin, letting the body hang down loosely, and having thus arranged the two sacred articles he carries them to the man sitting at the east end of the line of priests of the Earth People. He spreads the lynx skin upon the ground before the man and then presents to him the little pipe and touches the tobacco within the bowl with a small firebrand. The priest draws at the stem of the pipe, and when the smoke passes freely he blows four whiffs upon the skin of the animal chosen to be a symbol of courage. In this way the Master of Ceremonies passes the pipe and the lynx skin from man to man until all the priests of the Earth People have blown tobacco smoke upon the sacred emblem. When the Master of Ceremonies reaches the west end of the lodge and all the members of the Earth People have blown smoke upon the bobcat skin, he crosses over to the Sky People and moves eastward, presenting each member of that division with the pipe and lynx skin until he reaches the east end of the lodge. All the priests of both divisions having performed the ceremony of smoking upon the little lynx, the other animal skins, the symbols of courage, are smoked in the same manner and in the order in which they are mentioned in the song.
This ceremony belongs to the Earth division. It was performed when a war party composed of men belonging to both the Earth and the Sky peoples was preparing to go against the enemy. Such a war party was called …War Party in Great Numbers. The animals mentioned in the song were those ceremonially appealed to by the warriors.
Adapted from The Osage Tribe: Rite of the Wa-xo'-be by Francis La Flesche (1930, Bureau of American Ethnology Annual Report, No. 45).