Pipe Information Pipeline

Though I still don’t have all the answers concerning that little Inuit pipe at the BMA (Baltimore Museum of Art), I’ve learned a lot more and can now make a prediction of the outcome: I think the placard is mostly correct, and the pipe may actually have been a leisure item rather than sacred artifact.

My prediction is based on information I’ve gleaned from reliable sources available through the Internet (since I’m still waiting for the three books I’ve ordered through inter-library loan), as well as my own powers of deductive reasoning. Since I can’t find any references to sacred tobacco use by the Inuit, and since all of the sacred pipes I found at various museums, galleries and auction houses all date to the late 19th century, I think it is likely that the reference to smoking as a leisure activity on the BMA placard is correct. If that turns out to be the case, then it would also not be a mistake for the pipe to be assembled.

I did get an email back from the NMAI (National Museum of the American Indian) saying they were referring my question on to a curator who is an expert on Inuit collections. I’m looking forward to hear what she has to say.

While I’ve been waiting, I got an email from a NAS (Native American Studies) colleague who was intrigued by the problem, and she did a little research on her own. Here’s what she had to say:

“I found tons of photos on the Internet with Inuit smoking pipes, including women and children. Almost all were smoking much simpler, non-carved pipes. I finally found a blurb in a book I have suggesting that tobacco was introduced by Europeans and it became a valuable and somewhat rare trade commodity. They draw on the work of Edward W. Nelson, the Bureau of Indian Affairs ethnologist in the late 1800s, to suggest that Inuit people prized tobacco for the euphoric, altered state it produced. This book, Inua: Spirit World of the Bering Sea Eskimo by Fitzhugh and Kaplan, suggests that carving pipes (and drill bows whose pictographs look similar) happened after European contact but admits there is some archaeological evidence to the contrary. For the drill bows, they contend that the scenes depict hunts and sometimes a tally of what the hunter has captured. No mention of spiritual function. One thing these authors raise (something I agree with entirely) is how hard it is to obtain accurate information. Most of the collectors who first obtained these items were not really interested in their significance or social function. I think your idea to make this an assignment would be fascinating, partly because it shows students conflicting accounts and should lead to the conclusion of the limitations on knowledge through evidence at hand.”

So, just like on “History Detectives,” we still need more information. Another cliff hanger! While you’re waiting, check out these other beautiful Inuit pipes that I found on the web:

I have to warn you about something, in case you catch the Inuit pipe bug and go Googling for them. I wasn’t finding enough images using the search terms “inuit pipe,” “inupiaq pipe,” inuit tobacco pipe,” “sacred pipe,” “sacred tobacco pipe,” etc. I’m such a purist about using the correct terms/names to refer to Native American peoples and artifacts that it took me a long to time to realize there are probably a lot of results under “eskimo.” Of course I tried it and found out that I was right.

Here’s the warning: one of my first searches gave me way too much information, and yielded a kind of “eskimo pipe” that I’d never heard of before, and could have lived the rest of my life without knowing about! (Just one more reason to call the Inuit by their proper name, and not “Eskimo.”) So, if there are kids interested in this, you parents are going to have a lot of explaining to do if you let them search on their own.

On that note, enjoy the “Inuit pipe” images, you find; or better yet…just click on my links–it’s way safer. ;-)

Previous post:

Next post: