Inuit Pipe

Catalogue No. Na1104



Carving or sculpting is one of the most traditional forms of Inuit art, and also one of the most lasting. Historically the Inuit were a nomadic people, and their work needed to be easy to move from place to place during the different seasons, which is why it is uncommon for a piece of Inuit art to be larger than the size of a hand.  This small tobacco pipe was hand carved circa 1900 and reflects the Inuit’s traditional way of life. In 1949 the Inuit began to settle into communities and the Canadian government began to encourage the carving industry as a source of income. As a result, new forms of traditional and conventional art developed rapidly in those communities.

Between 1818 and 1918 there were roughly two hundred exploratory expeditions by various explorers hoping to discover a Northwest Passage. This had a definite effect on the lifestyle of the Inuit people. The natives of the Arctic began to trade with the new explorers or those who ventured out to find valuable whale oil. The trading between the Inuit and the Europeans had little impact on the traditional lifestyle at first, as they mainly traded small items such as needles and playing cards.

Soon, however, knives made out of steel and rifles replaced the traditional Inuit hunting weapons made out of stone or wood, and everyday articles such as soapstone pots and kettles were replaced with ones made of metal. During this period (often referred to as Late Historic Inuit Art) there was what some may call a stagnation of art, as conventional European methods overtook the traditional. There was a greater demand for souvenir art from Europeans, and ivory sculptures with their great detail were admired.

This small, delicate pipe (measuring no larger than 8 cm) is adorned with intricate designs all over the body. At the tip of the pipe is a small carving of a beaver that appears to be gnawing on a log. The pipe was designed with nature in mind and the small bumps carved in the side resemble those that are naturally found on a log or fallen tree. Inuit art often depicts scenes of nature, animals, and hunting, which were held in high regard within their culture.

Inuit works of art were made exclusively out of natural products such as bone, soapstone, and wood. This piece would have been carved from a single piece of ivory. Before 1945, their works of art were either practical, such as tobacco pipes or needle cases, or toys, such as dolls. A common problem many art historians encounter with this general period of Inuit art is that there is little to no documentation of the artist or where the piece was made. Furthermore, pieces were often not seen as valuable and broken or simply discarded, resulting in much of the art being lost to us today.

After 1945 art became more common among Arctic residents, and while traditional aesthetics were not lost, art was made for different reasons. This small pipe was crafted with care and great detail and perhaps used to trade with Europeans. It was a piece of value due to its practical nature and fine detail.