Nothing makes an archaeologist salivate more then finding a pre-contact First Nation pipe in a 600-year-old garbage dump. That's because the pipe ceremony is one of the most sacred and cherished of all native spiritual practices.
I've often heard Elder William Commanda, a Pipe Carrier from the Algonquin community of Kitigan Zibi in Quebec, say that he does not himself carry the pipe. The pipe carries him. It is, after all, considered to be in direct contact with the Creator.
But in this modern day, the passing around of the revered communal pipe could now be considered by some to be a health hazard. As one deeply spiritual native man told me recently, "I'm afraid of sharing the pipe. There are a lot more diseases out there now that our elders didn't know about.'
Indeed, a call to Trish Warner, a registered nurse, reveals that diseases such as mononucleosis, hepatitis, strep, meningitis, the common cold and possibly influenza can lurk in a person's saliva.
What are we to do? Pipe ceremonies are used all the time by aboriginal cultures across North America to open or close spiritual gatherings.
I ask Doug Williams, an elder from the Curve Lake First Nations in central Ontario and a member of the native studies faculty at Trent University, how he handles the problem. Williams tells me it is a sign of respect and honour to be invited to participate in a pipe ceremony. It means all who take part are of the same mind and spirit.
"The pipe is basically a helper that will take the smoke and transport your prayers to the Creator."
But he admits there have been discussions about some of the health issues. "I now am almost at a point of refusing to take the pipe at a big event or where there are many people. A lot of people refuse to take it because they don't want to have their lips on it."
Nevertheless, he says, it's important to protect the sacred practice. Besides limiting the number of people, he offers the option that when the pipe comes around participants could show proper respect by touching it with their hands and passing it on.
Not too long ago, I was asked to partake in a ceremony led by Commanda. One of about eight people, I watched the pipe being passed from person to person as each drew the tobacco smoke into his or her lungs. When it came to me, I couldn't help noticing that the mouthpiece was wet with saliva. I inhaled anyway.
I have great respect for traditional teachings, so I feel a certain amount of reluctance in writing about these matters. But I have to say that smoking the pipe is getting more difficult.
Aboriginal people certainly have had a deep experience with beneficial objects that turn out to have a more sinister viral nature. In the 19th century, it was common practice for governments to magnanimously give First Nations blankets purposefully infected with small pox and measles as gifts or in payment for treaty obligations, one of the first and most effective cases of viral and bacterial warfare. Small pox may be gone in today's society, but a host of new diseases from around the world have once again come calling at the aboriginal door.
I've been discussing my pipe observations over the past few years with other First Nations people. Several times it's been suggested that I drop the topic. One woman told me she believes that the pipe protects itself and is so strong that it will protect everybody who believes in it.
Some time later, a prominent native activist told me I shouldn't write about the subject. "There should never be any criticism of the pipe. It's too important to our people."
Williams disagrees. "I think these people are concerned about the fact that the pipe is a sacred thing, so one has to be careful. But nothing is above debating. I'm almost tempted to go to a paper cup company to come up with something to put over it."
I contacted Anishnawbe Health, an aboriginal health services organization on Queen East. I wanted to talk with their elder-in-residence and doctor to get their perspective. I was asked to submit a formal request by e-mail, which I did. I followed up with several calls over a two-month period. I never heard back from them.
I told you this was controversial.