Don Waters Piper Cutter Experiences

Don Waters Shares Experiences of Becoming A Pipe Carrier with Ray Historical Society 

You can learn about the Oglala Lakota Sioux and their customs and rituals by searching the web or even at your local library and read about them. Or you can go to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation near Wounded Knee Creek, South Dakota, and spend 18 years immersing yourself in their culture. An internet search is the easiest way to go, but being adopted, as a member of the Lakota is far more interesting and life-changing. Don Waters of Orrick spoke about the direction his life took after he decided it would be neat to carve a stone pipe after seeing the pipe ceremony depicted in the movie “Dances with Wolves.” It intrigued him. 

“It’s been 18 years of pure unbelievable. It’s not reading a history book. You got there and you see this, and it’s unbelievable. Few people know how to carve a pipe from stone, but these sacred pipes are vital to the religion and worship of native Americans. Without the pipes, the native Americans would have no way to pray. They are not “peace pipes.” Mastering the skill opened doors to another world. 

Waters spoke to the Ray County Historical Society during their quarterly meeting last week. He explained how the pipe carving is all done by hand with files, sandpaper, and scraping, so as not to disturb the “spirit of the stone.” He will invest 180 to 200 hours in making a pipe. The pipestone comes from Pipe Stone, Minnesota, where it has been quarried for a thousand years. “Sitting Bulls pipe was made from this stone, Crazy Horse’s pipe was made from this stone. It is known state-wide by the native Americans. It is very sacred.” You have to dig through 50 feet of solid quartzite to reach the layer of pipestone and it has to be quarried by hand. 

The pipestone he carves is Katlanite and it is quarried from Pit #19. It is a reddish brick-colored stone. The red stone “carries the blood of the ancestors or the grandfathers.” The Ojibwe, a northern tribe, carves their pipes from Steotite, a white-colored stone. The pipe stems are carved from sumac or bloodwood and some stems have been known to be five feet long so it takes two people to work it. Sumac has a very soft pith that can be hollowed out with a wire. Bloodwood is a very hard word and when Don made a stem out of it, he split it down the middle, cut a v-groove down the center, and glued the two pieces back together. 

He said that was the way it was originally done, as native Americans used glue made out of buffalo. He has made pipes for the Otoe Missouria, Ojibwe, Cherokee, Lakota Sioux, Blackfoot, Shashone, and even for the Maoris in New Zealand.  “Working with each other is the whole deal of it (a pipe ceremony) so issues can be worked out within the tribe or with other nations.”

He also explained that the pipes are used to smoke tobacco, as that would gum them up. Tobacco was for their personal pipes. They smoke a mixture (kinukkinuk) of little bearberry root, Echinacea root, and lots of red willow bark (one of the main ingredients in aspirin), White Buffalo Calf Woman made the very first pipe and brought it to the native Americans. 

He was adopted last year by the Ogalala Sioux tribe after he finished his four-year commitment as a Sundancer. “The Sun Dance is one of the most amazing things I have seen in my life,” he said. “If I live to be a hundred, I will never see anything like that again. It just goes right through you. It is the most sacred dance there is,” he said. 

The Sun Dance is a religious ceremony and the ceremony he participated in lasted nine days. During the first four days, the participants went out and cut down a cottonwood tree in such a manner that the tree never fell to the ground. Using ropes, it was lowered to be carried on the shoulder of the 10–20 dancers so it never touches the ground. “The cottonwood is a sacred tree to them,” he said. 

Tee-pees were supposedly built in the same way that children took the cotton falling from the cottonwood trees and fashioned them into little houses. 

“Tee-pees are nice in the winter, actually, because it doesn’t take very much to heat them up.”

While the ceremony varies, it includes the smoking of the pipe, dancing, singing, drumming, visions, fasting, and piercing of the skin on the chest or back as a personal sacrifice. He said when he saw his first ceremony, which included piercing, he was so “bewildered, baffled, and stunned,” that he volunteered for the four-year commitment as a Sundancer and endured a chest piercing, similar to the one depicted in the movie, “A Man Called Horse.” 

“I was so proud to be allowed into this circle of people,” he said. “They are very good people. They take care of their own. The children take care of the parents and they have great respect for their parents and their grandparents.”

A Purification ritual precedes the ceremony and after the participant is purified; they cannot touch or be touched by another person until the ceremony is complete. 

He danced for three days… Sunrise to Sunset… in the sun with no food or drink. “Supporters will eat or drink for you.” He displayed the Sun Dance crow the anklets and the bracelets made of sage that he wore during the ceremony. The Sun Dance crown shaded his head from the prairie sun. The anklets and the bracelets were so he never touched anyone and no one touched him.  He had a whistle made from the shoulder bone of an eagle, which produces a two-tone sound. The dance keeps the whistle in his mouth all day and blows it with each step he takes. After the three days of dancing, Don was taken into a tee-pee and circles are drawn around the area where the piercings would go. He returned to the ceremonial area and was laid down on a buffalo hide. Wooden staves pierced his skin and a harness was hooded to the staves. The other end of the harness was tied to a 50-foot rope that was tied to a tree. Then, he had to keep backing up until the staves are pulled out. 

“If you can’t pull them out, your brothers will take you by the arms and they will assist you, somewhat.” He described the ceremony as “tithing in a big way.” “I’ve seen a lot of things happen that people won’t believe, but it does happen.”It’s an experience I will never forget.” He noted that the Sun Dance is the most spiritual of the Lakota’s seven major ceremonies. 

After the Sun Dance, he received his Lakota name – “Keeper of the Sage” or “Keeper of the Silver Medicine” and he is a pipe carrier for the tribe – a position of great responsibility. “Not many people will carry the pipe because they don’t want the responsibility.” Pipe Carriers carry a pipe on behalf of the people. If there is a need, the Pipe Carrier may be called to a home for healing, teaching or praying. The gentleman who adopted Waters was a medicine man and is teaching him some of the ways. 

“It’s taken me a number of years to learn this stuff, to be taken into their homes and treated as a brother. It’s totally awesome.”