When President Barack Obama signed the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act in June 2009, many thought the final nail had been hammered into the coffin of public smoking. No one suspected a group of crafty smokers would find a loop hole in the law, go native, and inadvertently revive the nearly extinct Native American practice of pipe making.
At the center of this story is 23DPED, a controversial provision in the bill stating “no person shall use tobacco products within three feet of any person, including themselves.” After a group of tobacco enthusiasts calling themselves Smokescreen was arrested in a park last June for smoking within three feet of themselves, they got to thinking.
“We got to thinking,” says Billy Blacklunge, a founding member of Smokescreen. “After about four meetings and five failed public protests, we decided to actually read the bill–that’s when we came across 23DPED.”
Smokescreen members and others believe the bill allows smokers to use devices that place the burning tobacco at least three feet away from the user and others. The group contacted the North American Native Indigenous Peoples Indian American Artisans or (NANIPIAA) and asks if they knew anyone who could design pipes for their members.
“We figured, hey these guys used to smoke long pipes, so maybe they know how to make them,” says Blacklunge. The NANIPIAA put them in contact with Giorgio Long-Stem, the last of the Lakota pipe makers.
“Our pipes, they’re very long,” says Long-Stem, who’s been crafting pipes for over 40 years. Due to the diminished role of smoking in Lakota ceremonies, public castigation, and legal restriction, Long-Stem has had a rough time finding an outlet for his skills.
“When Smokescreen got in touch with me, I was just literally about to hang myself,” says Long-Stem. “I figured my craft was dead and that I was as a grieving widow, a shadow left with no place in this new world.” But Smokescreen’s orders reinvigorated his business and gave him a reason to live.
“They breathed new life into me,” says Long-Stem. “Now that my people’s pipes are catching on, I’ve taken on three apprentices and still can’t keep up with orders.”
Long-Stem’s designs have spread all over North America and lead to numerous knockoffs and several high end designer models. In order to keep his own pipes distinct and instantly recognizable, he applied for a trademark and now engraves each model with the words “Freedom Pipe.”
“Chanunpa, the word my people use for this pipe, is too narrow a convention for this,” says Long-Stem. “We smokers are in this together now. We are the new tribe and the Freedom Pipe is the symbol of our solidarity.”
The government is none too happy and is set to fight back against smokers. Today President Obama issued a statement condemning Smokescreen and Long-Stem’s efforts and has threatened legal action.
“I have extreme reservations about these groups and their attempts to undermine the rule of the land,” he says. “I understand these new laws are vague, and Lord knows, everything I sign my name on doesn’t get into particulars, but the practices of these groups are a mockery of the law and in clear violation of it.”
The State has filed a multi-million dollar lawsuit against Smokescreen and Long-Stem and seeks to impound their assets.
But their lawyer has a different opinion.
“23DPED–it’s all there in black and white just waiting to be read,” says Sandra Shystern, who took on the case this afternoon. “The governments’s lawsuit against Smokescreen is nothing but a smokescreen. Their anti-smoker and anti-NANIPIAA agenda has been clear for quite some time.”