Chopaka: Soapstone Pipes

Soapstone Pipe

“Chopaka” – Soapstone Pipe

In the Similkameen Valley, before the gold rush, soapstone was more valuable than gold.

According to the South Similkameen Museum:

Gold was not used by the Similkameen people as its properties were considered a bad omen. Historically all Similkameen people who used the gold either died or their families came upon harm or hurt in some way.

Soapstone, called “chopaka” by the Similkamix, was an important trade item.

The Similkamix were known for their pipes which were carved from either black soapstone or a light green soapstone from the Similkameen River.

It was very challenging to retrieve the soapstone which was under the water. Someone would have to scramble over a bluff (with the help of some hemp rope) and balance on a shelf and rocks before taking the stone from under the water.

The soapstone was immediately cut into shape while still wet and soft with a flint or obsidian knife. Afterwards, the bowl was smoothed and polished with horsetail. The short stems of stone pipes were sometimes lengthened by inserting a hollow willow stem.

The information below is from the Sinkaietk (southern Okanagon tribe) in Washington state who traded extensively with the Similkamix:

Women and men each smoked their own pipe. There was apparently a tribal pipe (i.e., group or band pipe) in the custody of the chief of the band. This pipe was passed around the council circle to the right, starting with the chief, before the discussion began, each man taking two or three puffs. The heads of winter houses were also said to have large pipes for formal gatherings like those of the chiefs. A shaman had a special ceremonial pipe decorated with his power animal, in addition to his ordinary pipe. No other person was permitted to smoke the shaman’s ceremonial pipe.

Leaves were gathered from mature tobacco plants which grew along creeks and in moist places. Each tribe had a different method for curing the leaves; some preferred to let them dry on rocks, whereas others dried the leaves over a fire. There were different ways of storing the leaves as well. Dry leaves were put into buckskin bags and pulverized by rubbing the sides of the bag together or simply stored in tight cedar-root baskets.

Kinnikinnick was mixed with tobacco just before being put into the pipe in the ratio of two parts of kinnikinnick to one of tobacco. Other plants were sometimes substituted for tobacco and mixed with kinnikinnick.