Grandfather’s Pipe

by Elena:

William_Commanda_On May 17th, 2011, Grandfather William Commanda smoked his last pipe. Four people were present: Larry McDermott of Plenty Canada, me and my daughter, Veronica, and Romola Trebilcock, Grandfather’s close friend and assistant.

Grandfather’s years and kidney disease were catching up with him. He still didn’t look his ninety seven, but he was visibly in pain and, at times, as if in another dimension. After lighting the sage and spreading his sacred items for the ceremony, Grandfather began to assemble his pipe.

This pipe was a wonder in itself. The bowl was made of red pipestone, carved by a gifted artisan into an eagle’s head. “You see”, Grandfather told me once, pointing at his pipe bowl, “the male eagle may think he is the boss and all, but he is nothing without a female eagle. She is a true boss”. I never asked which eagle’s head was on Grandfather’s pipe, male or female, but I wonder now.

For the last seven years, whenever Grandfather was in Ottawa, my children and I were faithfully present for his full moon pipe ceremonies. Sometimes, we were the only ones to share it with him and Romola, and sometimes, there were others to join us.

Grandfather loved it when people gathered around, especially to share his pipe. His own stories were exchanged with others; Grandfather’s face would light up when he heard of other people’s journeys and their honest search for the sacred. All faiths were welcome. Grandfather’s sincere interest and respect for other people’s beliefs were remarkable. He, himself, having been through the Catholic Church in his early years, would occasionally sing to us in Latin.

It was a presence I always felt when Grandfather smoked his pipe. I could almost see the long line of Grandfather’s ancestors, smoking their pipes on this ancient land before him. The unbroken line of prayers, moving through Grandfather’s pipe to all of us and into the future. “You have to be careful when you smoke the pipe”, Grandfather told us at his last pipe ceremony, “You can never use the pipe to do harm or wish anything bad. Your heart has to be pure, when you smoke it”, he touched his own heart, “or the pipe will come back to destroy you”.

With these words, I believe, Grandfather warned us against focused malicious intent, but not against the usual pitfalls of our human nature, which we cannot help but have.

Grandfather was always very tolerant of our human condition. He often said that Creator is very forgiving of us too. Sometimes a visitor would come, whom we thought disrespectful or even hostile towards Grandfather, but Grandfather still listened patiently, maybe, with a bit of humour but always with love. I asked him once, after one particularly difficult visitor, how can he still love someone like that, and Grandfather told me, “If I could change, and I was the worst drunk on my reserve, then he can change too”. “So”, I asked, “you see potential in everyone then, right?” “Yes”, Grandfather said, “that’s right, in everyone.”

Grandfather spoke to us often of his years of drinking. “Sometimes, I would wake up in the ditch with the rain water flowing through me. I taught my little brother to drink. We used to come home to our parents passed out with the bottle between them. I tried the bottle first when I was eight.”

Cancer followed his hard years of drinking and in his forties Grandfather was left by the doctors to die, as nothing they could do to save his life. “The pain was so great that I prayed to the Creator either to save me or to take me. If Creator was to save me, I promised to serve Him to the end of my days. I was on my knees and cried so hard that the floor under me was all wet. And the little bird came, sat on my window and sang such loud and beautiful song. I knew then that Creator heard me…”

Grandfather was healed of his cancer by his wife and other medicine women and by a skilful healer, of whom Grandfather always spoke with greatest respect. “This healer told me, I would never have cancer again”, said Grandfather and to the end of his days he had been, indeed, cancer-free.

Grandfather kept his promise to the Creator and on the first weekend of August, 1969, he held his first sacred gathering at his home grounds in Maniwaki. He hosted it every year since and towards the end of his life, this event brought together thousands of people from all over the world. The spirit of Grandfather’s pipe traveled back to every corner of the globe.

Grandfather believed that the greatest power is the power of prayer. We lost count how many people were helped when Grandfather smoked his pipe for them. Seemingly hopeless situations resolved and life-threatening illnesses reversed.

Grandfather started every pipe ceremony with prayers to the four Elements and all Directions. “The Elements: Fire, Earth, Water and Air, don’t want to be worshiped, they want to be respected”, he taught me. After Elements and Directions, Mother Earth was honoured by his pipe. “Our Earth is our mother, we don’t own our mother, she owns us. In spite of what we do to her, she is still taking good care of us.” Grandfather was deeply connected to everything living around him.

Grandfather often spoke of the act of creation being reflected through the pipe. “The bowl is female and the stem is male, we join them together when we smoke the pipe.” Sacred union of male and female energies creates most profound magical mystery. According to Grandfather, that is what makes the pipe prayers so powerful.

And so on that day in May, after saying his prayers to the Elements, all Directions, Mother Earth and Grandmother Moon, Grandfather suddenly began to speak to us with such urgency of the pipe, how to do the prayers, to honour everything living and how to do the ceremony itself, and I was flooded by the feeling that it was Grandfather’s last pipe that he smoked in his lifetime. I don’t know how he knew it. He passed on August 3rd, 2011, almost three months since our last pipe ceremony.

And after he told us all he wanted about the pipe, he was silent for a long time and when I looked at him, I saw tears streaming, like a river, down his face. I never saw Grandfather cry before, and I remembered how during one of his gatherings a great rain suddenly broke, out of nowhere, right from the bright blue sky and Grandfather said to us then: “These are tears of the Ancestors, flowing down on us”.

This article was also published in Tone Magazine.


November 11, 2013 marks 100 years since Grandfather William Commanda’s birth. Part of the legacy he left with us is the vision for the National Indigenous Centre / Peace Centre/ Healing Centre at the Asinabka site, Chaudière Falls / Victoria Island on the Ottawa River (Kitchissippi) in between Ottawa and Gatineau. You can find out more about this vision at the Asinabka website, or watch this 3minute video. You can also find the Circle of All Nations website, or on Facebook the William Commanda Legacy page.


UPDATE: This video below was also published on November 11, 2013, by the Ironwood Log Project on Youtube as a tribute…

Grandfather William Commanda, Tribute to the legacy of a legendary Peacemaker (4min)

“November 11, 2013. In remembrance of a legendary Anishnabe Elder and Peacemaker, who was born 100 years ago today.

His mother called him Ojikgwanong, meaning: ”He brings out the morning star”. He became known worldwide as Grandfather William Commanda, Founder of A Circle of All Nations, A Culture of Peace. He has been an inspiring example, a precious teacher and guide for me, as for many others around the world.

This is a short tribute to honour his immense legacy.

Migwetch Mishomis…”


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