Today was the day Chief Buffalo’s pipe was being honored

By Arne Vainio, M.D.

Right before the ceremony it started to rain. Fall was definitely in the air and this is the first day I had to wear a sweatshirt. The drum group was getting ready and people were starting to show up.
Today, September 8, 2012 was the day Chief Buffalo’s pipe was being honored.
La Pointe on Madeline Island in Wisconsin was the center of trade and spirituality for the Lake Superior Ojibwe. In 1837 and 1842, treaties were signed giving up lands in return for 25 years of annuity payments and the Ojibwe reserved the right to hunt, fish and gather on those lands. In 1850, Minnesota territorial governor Alexander Ramsey moved the site of annual annuity payments to Sandy Lake in central Minnesota from the previous location in La Pointe. This meant walking and traveling by canoe for hundreds of miles for many families. They arrived at the promised time in early fall, but the payments were delayed until December to try to force the Ojibwe to spend the winter there and lower their resistance to relocating west of the Mississippi. By that time, many had died due to being supplied spoiled meat and moldy flour, the supplies and annuity payments were smaller than promised and the weather turned bitterly cold. Four hundred people died in the camp and on the long journey back home. The Sandy Lake Tragedy was a low point in the history of Ojibwe people.
In 1850, then President Zachary Taylor planned to forcibly relocate the Lake Superior Ojibwe people far from their homelands under the pretense they had violated their treaties. When this news reached the Ojibwe people, they knew something needed to be done and a special pipe was made to be brought to Washington, D.C. In 1852, 92 year old Chief Buffalo and six others set out for Washington. They were stopped several times and told to turn around by government representatives. They refused to turn back and stopped in communities along the way with petitions. These were signed by people in towns along the way that did not want the Ojibwe people to be relocated.
From Detroit, they took a train and by the time they got to New York City, they were out of money and were barely able to make it to Washington. Once there, they were told by the agency in charge of Indian Affairs that they had no business there, would not be granted an audience with the President and would need to return home. Chief Buffalo’s son in law was Benjamin Armstrong and he was with them as an interpreter. Congressman Briggs saw them by chance in a restaurant and he was so impressed with Chief Buffalo he told them he would try to get them an audience with the President.
The President was Millard Fillmore and after a brief meeting translated by Armstrong, he set aside the entire next day to listen to Chief Buffalo and his delegation. The entire story was told to the President and they smoked the pipe together.  He conceded no treaty violations had occurred and agreed to rescind the order to relocate the Ojibwe people. Some concessions were made and these led to the treaty of 1854, which established reservations for many of the Ojibwe people in Wisconsin, Minnesota and Michigan and they again reserved the right to hunt, fish and gather on the ceded lands. The following year, the treaty of 1855 established reservations for other bands of Ojibwe.
As a gift to his son in law for translating, Chief Buffalo presented the pipe to Armstrong and as he did so, he broke the pipe off at the stem so it would never be smoked again. The pipe remained with the Armstrong family until three years ago, when it was returned to the Buffalo family.
Today Chief Buffalo’s great, great, great grandson Henry Buffalo brought the pipe to Duluth and a ceremony was held in the circle in front of City Hall. Henry is an attorney and has been working for legal issues in Indian Country for more than 25 years. Right before the drum group started, the rain stopped and a patch of blue sky remained for the rest of the ceremony. Henry told the story of the pipe and its significance to American Indian people. Ricky Defoe is one of our respected tribal members and he works for racial equity. Not just for American Indian people, but all people. He offered prayers and smoked for the pipe and there was a ceremony for the water. Women only are qualified to be caretakers of our water and everyone present was given some of the ceremonial water to drink.
Skip Sandman is one of our spiritual leaders and he spoke for the pipe. No one was allowed to touch it or to take pictures of it, but he told us how the pipe was made straight for the first half. This indicated times of stability for Ojibwe people. The second half of the pipe was cut in a spiral and this part of it represented turmoil and uncertainty. Red and black at times are the colors of death. Those colors were on that section of the pipe to signify the possibility they would die in the process of bringing the pipe to Washington, but they were prepared to do so to benefit their people.
The story of the pipe and the path and struggles it took to get to this ceremony reached deep inside me. Toward the end of the ceremony we all walked past the pipe so we could look at it. Normally I wear my glasses, but was told at another ceremony that when we smoke a ceremonial pipe or view the deceased at a funeral, we cannot be looking through glasses as the spiritual part of this will be blocked. I didn’t want anything between me and this pipe and what it represents.
And what does it represent? The story in and of itself is a powerful story, but to me it represents what all of us go through every single day. We all have times of stability and times of turmoil. The colors of red and black are always present and we need to be mindful to appreciate this day we have right now.
There were mostly American Indian people at the ceremony, but also non-Indian people. They were welcomed and will always be welcome. We need them and they need us. The journey of Chief Buffalo and this pipe represents faith and hope in times of overwhelming uncertainty. We have had difficult days in our past. We will have difficult days in our future.
At the end of the straight section of the pipe and just before the spiral part there is an eagle holding arrows in its talons. Skip says this means they were ready to go to war for their way of life if they were given no other option.
Instead, they were able to use mutual respect and negotiation. We all have the power and ability to use these things. This pipe was made and used to help all people, not just Ojibwe people.
I think it came back today to show us how to do that again.
Arne Vainio, M.D. is an enrolled member of the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe and is a family practice physician on the Fond du Lac reservation in Cloquet, Minnesota. He can be contacted at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. To learn more, go to