Tobacco pipes were employed by the Tlingit and Haida people of the Northwest Coast for carrying thoughts and prayers to the spirit world through the medium of rising smoke. House raisings, funerals, and other ceremonial occasions were the usual context for tobacco smoking. The tobacco used was nicotiana rustica, the common smoking tobacco carried for shipboard use and trade by Euro-American sailors. Prior to European contact, native tobacco was cultivated for use as snuff, but was never smoked.
Many Northwest Coast tobacco pipes were carved from walnut cut from the stocks of trade muskets. This exceptionally fine and beautifully carved pipe appears not to be of walnut however, but some other very dense hard wood. The fine grain and density of the wood enabled the artist to create a superb carving with firm lines and clean definition in both the sculptural and relief-carved forms. This is most evident in the figure’s face and the two-dimensional design work on the back of the pipe.
Perhaps the most unusual aspect of this pipe is the unique portrayal of a human figure. Many examples of human imagery can be seen in argillite and wooden pipes made for the purpose of sale such as the panel-form ship pipes, and pipes carved to emulate European clay pipes. Human figures appear as subsidiary images in certain Tlingit pipes made for Native use, but were seldom the sole or even the primary figure of a pipe made for ceremonial use. Perhaps this is because most pipes were made to display the crest emblems of the owner rather than ancestors or hero figures from mythology.
This powerful pipe image appears to represent a shaman, and may have been owned by just such a high status seer of the community. Tlingit shamans of the 19th century often wore leather tunics painted with spirit images gleaned from dreams and visions of the shaman’s spirit helpers. The rounded outer edge of the raised and decorated area on the back of this pipe closely resembles the form of these painted tunics. No sign of the tunic appears on the front of the image, likely to accommodate the beautifully carved raised hands and knees of the figure. The relief-carved design on the back of the tunic depicts a formline style creature face, though there is little to indicate what animal is represented. It is apparent that the finely carved and composed design work seen on this pipe was executed by a highly skilled and masterful carver. The face of the figure is similarly refined and expertly carved, and is composed in a style that indicates a Tlingit origin for the work. The eyebrows and eyes are especially well defined, and the artist included small ridges on either side of the nose bridge to represent facial wrinkles, a rare detail for a sculpture as diminutive as this.
The rectangularly lobed headdress of the figure is unusual, and seems to relate to certain types of shaman’s headdresses which were constructed of either mountain goat horns or bear claws strung together with the tips curving inward. Such small fine tips carved in wood for this pipe would have been far too fragile, so perhaps the artist chose to sculpt a highly abstracted form of the classic shaman’s headdress. Another unusual feature of this pipe is the use of iridescent abalone shell inlaid in the figure’s eyes and the backs of the raised hands. Few carved pipes were embellished in this way as abalone was a rare and valuable commodity in the early 19th century.
The sculptural tension and bold form, together with its monumental presence, combine to place this extraordinary pipe bowl among the masterpieces of Northwest Coast art.