A Tlingit pipe
Lot 2073
A Tlingit pipe
US$ 60,000 - 90,000
£36,000 - 54,000
Auction Details
A Tlingit pipe A Tlingit pipe
Lot Details
Property of various owners
A Tlingit pipe
Conceived as a man fending off a bear with an oar, both seated on a rectangular platform, a passage hollowed as the smoke chamber, a second lower parallel aperture and incut fipple on the underside suggesting possible use as a whistle as well, the brass pipe bowl likely a recycled spout cut from a powder flask, red and black pigments used for highlights.
length 6 3/4in

Footnotes

  • Tobacco Pipe/Man and Bear Image
    Tlingit, c.1830-1860, collected at Wrangell 1868-1870.
    Walnut, brass
    6 3/4" Long

    Northwest Coast pipes make up an interesting object group, in part because almost every one is a unique creation. Most types of objects, such as bowls, rattles, etc, follow one or another of several different traditional precedents of form and decoration. Raven rattles, seal bowls, horn spoons, and other such objects have specific design individuality, but as a group they have a great deal in common. Few are ever truly alike, and yet in basic shape and composition they share many similarities. Pipes, however, have no such traditional precedents, and each one, unless made as a set, has its own composition and individual appearance.

    This pipe is a great example of the distinctiveness of these kinds of objects. Created to represent a unique situation, in which a man fends off a bear with an oar or paddle, the artist has created a truly one-of-a-kind composition. The story itself is singular, possibly commemorating a passage by boat or canoe in which a bear encounter produced this remarkable situation and image. The composition of the pipe is singular as well, longer and more complex than the great majority of wooden pipe sculptures. Among the argillite pipes produced by the Haida, images of such intricacy, if not of the same level of drama, were common. But the catalog of wooden pipes contains few that come to this level of design and image complexity.

    Tobacco pipes were employed in rituals of creation and dedication. Tobacco was smoked at house raisings, memorials, and similar events as a means of carrying prayers to the spirit world, to propitiate the spirits of ancestors for their help and blessing in difficult undertakings. Trade tobacco was used for smoking in pipes, while the native-cultivated species of tobacco, nicotiana quadrivalvis, which had been grown in small garden plots for generations, was used only as a kind of snuff.

    The masklike forms of the bear and human heads in this pipe are rendered in the classic Tlingit sculptural style. The two-dimensional formline work that delineates the body features of the bear exhibits many early characteristics. Broad formlines and small carved-out areas within the designs illustrate the style of the first half of the nineteenth century, as does the overall composition of the image in this pipe.

    Several unusual features of this pipe indicate its extended history. It has been repaired over the years of its traditional life when the wood cracked and separated, as is seen on the man's right arm. The man's rump is made of a separate piece of wood nailed in place. It replaces an older piece that was probably attached to the rest of the pipe by the small dovetail that remains on the bottom of the pipe. Why that small gap existed in the original wood from which the pipe was carved is unknown, but it could have been due to a limiting feature of the original wood source (which was probably cut from a musket stock), or it may have been due to a change of plans on the part of the carver, who wished to relocate the stem hole of the pipe.

    The walnut wood of a gunstock and the brass stem of a probable powder flask provided the materials for the pipe. It has been hypothesized that gun parts and associated materials were selected for smoking pipes due to their association with instruments that embodied the power over life and death, an apt metaphor for these kinds of objects that were used to contact the spirits of ancestors past.

    The provenance that has come down with this pipe and the accompanying rattle gives the date range of 1868-1870 for its initial acquisition. The carving and design styles of the pipe suggest that it was made between 10 and perhaps as many as 40 years before it came into the hands of soldiers stationed at the newly established post of Fort Wrangell. The US purchased the Alaska Territory from Russia in 1867, and soon after that established Army posts at Tongass Island and Wrangell. Tongass village was just inside the boundary between British Columbia and Alaska, and Wrangell village was situated near the mouth of the Stikine River, which had been an important route through the Coast Mountains to the interior of British Columbia for millennia. Recent gold discoveries on the Stikine River brought droves of miners to the region, and it was thought that the presence of the Army was needed to keep the peace between the miners, the native population, and the settlers and missionaries that were moving into the area. Melville Loucks, whose name appears inside the rattle, was a First Lieutenant of the 2nd Artillery, and was stationed at Fort Wrangell during this unpredictable and sometimes tumultuous period of history in the area.

    Steven C. Brown
    October, 2010
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