Mitchell Museum
of the American Indian

3001 Central Street
Evanston, IL 60201

Pipes of the American Indian

Exhibit open until August 8, 2010


INTRODUCTION: Tobacco has been used by Native American people throughout history. Used principally for ceremonial use, European contact introduced the practice of smoking tobacco for pleasure. Tobacco has been used ceremonially in either dry application (sprinkling dried, crushed tobacco on killed prey to appease the spirit, or into a body of water to calm a storm) or smoked in order to send the smoke upwards to connect with great spirits. The act of smoking has been used to foster community spirit and to solidify a group’s intensions. Uses include: marriage negotiations, recruiting warriors, war rallies and declarations, peace negotiations, ritual dances, and healing ceremonies. The innovation of smoking tobacco in pipes in North America differed from the Central, South American, and Caribbean practice of smoking tobacco wrapped in leaves in cigar form. This may be due to the shorter growing season in the north in which leaves were unavailable for part of the year. While the shape and materials used to fashion pipes and pipe stems varies among regional and tribal lines, the practice of using tobacco is the most prominent common unifying element among the tribes of North America.

Pipes and tobacco were widely traded among tribal and geographic regions of North America. Additionally, innovations and design elements characteristic of a particular group may have been shared as members of groups combined forces or when individuals were adopted into new communities. Therefore, attributing certain stylistic innovations to specific groups can be difficult. Pipes may be adorned with additional materials such as human or horse hair, feathers or bird wings, beads, quillwork, fur, ribbons, carvings. These items would have special significance to either the individual owner or the group. Leather pipe bags were used to hold tobacco and pipe bowls and stems when not in use. Decorative elements vary over time and according to tribal styles.

This exhibit displays the artifacts on red felt cloth in order to honor and respect the pipe bowls, stems and bags with this symbolically significant color.

Human and Animal Form Effigy Pipes

The human and animal effigy pipes shown come from the Mississippian tradition of the Southeastern U.S. (700 – 1700 A.D.) and the Sioux of the Great Plains region. The two Mississippian human effigy pipes which feature a kneeling woman and a man’s head are made of clay. The bird and frog effigy pipes are made of stone. The Sioux pipes feature a fish and two bird claw motifs holding the pipe bowl. These pipes are made of carved Catlinite, a reddish colored stone which is considered sacred and whose mines were jealously guarded. Animal motifs found in the pipes may signify important animals to either the individual owner or the group. This may relate to animals which were economically important, or may pay tribute to an animal spirit helper, whose presence may have become manifest in a dream. The spirit helper would become the individual’s protector for his entire lifetime, and this protection could extend to the individual’s family or clan.

Hopewell Monitor Pipes

The Monitor pipe is a product of the Hopewell tradition (100 BC – AD 200) which extended throughout the Northeastern and Midwestern United States. Named after warships of a similar shape, Monitor pipes often feature human or animal effigy forms atop a flat or convex base. The examples shown are of a plain form of a tube upon base style and demonstrate the variety of materials used, including pottery and Catlinite and serpentine stone.

Tube-Form Pipes

The tube shape represents the most primitive pipe form used by Native Americans. Distributed across many areas of the U.S. and Canada, this form was especially popular along the Pacific Coast. In addition to general smoking purposes, these pipes were used as medicine tubes. When used in medicinal application, a shaman would use the pipe to suck aches and pains out of the patient’s body or blow smoke upon the patient’s body to heal injuries.

Micmac Vase-Shaped Pipes

The Micmac pipes feature a vase shape set on a constricted stem with a bar-shaped base. Named for the Micmac tribe of the northeast U.S. and Canada who were observed with the pipes at the time of European contact, this popular style was found distributed via trade from the northeast to the Northern Plains region of the U.S. Frequently the pipes feature perforations in the base which may have been used to tie the stem to the pipe bowl or for attaching decorative elements such as pendants.

Calumet Pipes

The name Calumet is derived from the Norman word for reed, chalumeau. This name describes the highly decorated pipe stems, which are considered to be more spiritually powerful than the pipe bowls. However, the term is now often used to describe the entire assembled pipe bowl and stem. Also knows as “Peace Pipes,” the Calumet was afforded great symbolic significance. Used to declare war or to seal a peace accord, the pipes also afforded their bearer safe passage among hostile tribes. Their use in Calumet rituals, which disseminated from the Plains to the Woodland tribes, was invoked to seal peace among warring groups. Within these rituals the principle of harmony was made manifest through a carved stone bowl vessel representing the powers of regeneration associated with the female principle, while a Calumet pipe stem represents the energetic male principle. During certain Calumet rituals, sky and underwater spirits were honored. In ceremonial dances, Calumet stems adorned with feathers could be used to simulate birds in flight.

The stems are often highly decorated with pigment, beads and quillwork and may be adorned with additional materials significant to the group or individual owner. The three examples shown feature a contemporary Sioux beaded stem, a late 1800s Sioux stem adorned with feathers, ribbon and horse hair, and a Plains stem featuring mallard feathers, horse hair, and quillwork.

Pipe Bags

Leather pipe bags were used to hold pipe bowls, stems, and tobacco when not in use. Decorative elements vary over time and according to tribal styles. Decorated by women, the bags were often worn into battle by men. Common features include an elongated rectangular shape with an opening at one end and a fringe at the bottom. Heavily decorated, the opening end is left relatively plain to be tucked under the belt of the wearer. Quillwork is more commonly featured on bags pre-dating the late 18th and early 19th-century. Made from porcupine quills soaked and dyed various colors, the quills were wrapped and stitched onto the leather. With the post-contact introduction of beads, the use of quillwork declined in favor of the bright color and ease of application beads afforded.

Decorative motifs vary from the abstract to the realistic. Geometric designs seen in many bags may draw upon particular symbolism: a geometric form may symbolize a particular military society, a triangle may represent clouds, a cross may represent the four cardinal directions and a rectangle may depict a bag. Colors used may have particular meaning such as: red = blood or life, black or blue = enemies killed, and white = winter (an honorable time for battle). However, exact meanings of particular imagery may be unique to the artist who created the design.

In representational design, the Blackfoot Pipe Bag features a floral motif which was introduced and adopted from European design conventions. This shows the adaptable, innovative, and evolving spirit of the culture in which outside influences could be interpreted with a fresh viewpoint. Therefore, we see an example of how Native American cultures adapt and innovate upon outside influences while they in turn assert their own influence upon outside groups.


The use of tobacco, particular to the Americas, was quickly adopted by the rest of the world. Opening up a point of contact between New World settlers and native people, tobacco was traded and used as currency. Tobacco was then exported and quickly disseminated throughout Europe and Asia. In these new environments, tobacco was removed from its spiritual application as new groups first used tobacco for presumed medicinal benefits, and later for its social and pleasurable aspects.

By Brett Garry, Northeastern University

Tuesday – Saturday:
10am – 5pm
Thursday: 10am – 8pm
Sunday: 12pm – 4pm

Adults: $5.00
Children, students, teachers, seniors: $3.00
Mitchell Members: FREE
Tribal Members: FREE



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