Thursday, July 09, 2009

Pipe Dreams and History Detectives

This week my life and energy are specifically focused on learning how to teach AP Studio Art in the next school year. But that's not the only thing I have going on this summer. I'm also preparing to teach American Indian Art Survey (NAS 551) for Montana State University this fall. I wrote the curriculum, taught as an undergraduate course by Dr. Kristin Ruppel, as part of my graduate work when I was working on my MA in Native American Studies at Montana State. I'm thrilled to be teaching this class, since it combines three of my great loves: Art, Native American Studies, and educational technology (specifically, distance learning).

On Wednesday those of us in the AP Studio Art seminar at Goucher went to the Baltimore Museum of Art (BMA). The purpose was to develop strategies for incorporating field trips into our AP Studio Art class. I've been to the BMA many times, and can go any time I want since I live here in Baltimore (many of the teachers in the class are from Virginia and Pennsylvania, and one is from New York), so I decided to combine purposes and get a jump on preparing for my American Indian Art Survey course in the fall. The BMA has a small but pretty good collection of Native North American Art.

It was delightful to discover that they have one piece of Maria Martinez black ware, and one piece by Blue Corn blackware also. But the real prize for me was a little Inupiaq pipe I found in the case containing the Alaskan Native artifacts, because it generated all kinds of questions that I wanted to find answers to (which is the singular thrill of the academic--we're ALL history detectives at heart!).

Here is a picture of the pipe, along with the accompanying placard:

Hmmm..... My eybrows went up. When I was working on teacher certification coursework as a post-bac at Montana State University, before I entered the masters program in Native American Studies, I took a course called American Indian Religions, taught by Dr. Nate St. Pierre, a member of the Ojibwe tribe (who went on to become the Dean of Students at the Stone Child Tribal College on the Rocky Boys reservation in Box Elder, MT, and is now the interim director of the Ojibwe Ne-i-yaw-h Initiative). We learned a lot about both the purposes and designs of sacred pipes in that class, and looked at many of them from a lot of different North American culture groups.

One of the things that was made clear about pipes in this class was that they were always built with two pieces (the bowl and the stem, or the body), and should never be assembled until they were being used. Being sacred objects, to have them assembled when not in use for sacred purposes would be disrespectful. Also, assembling them turns the power on, so to speak, which should only happen for purposes of ceremony. The pipe that I was looking at was fully assembled.

As I was looking at this pipe at the BMA, it suddenly occurred to me that we did not really discuss pipes in Alaskan Native culture groups. I was sorting through my mental files trying to place the design of this pipe and couldn't find anything. The design inscribed on the pipe at the BMA seemed to tell a story of hunting, which made sense. Sacred pipes and tobacco were used by Native Americans in what is now the contiguous US for sacred purposes. It would make sense that someone might smoke tobacco while praying for a successful hunt.

Then I looked at the placard, which said smoking tobacco was an affluent male's leisure activity. This did not sound right to me, though I had no evidence to the contrary since I couldn't pull up a single mental note card concerning pipes in Alaskan Native culture. But I wanted to know more about sacred v. leisure use because there are a number of campaigns to "keep tobacco sacred" in Native American communities. Smoking cigarettes, cigars and pipes of the non-sacred variety is not the same thing as smoking a ceremonial pipe in Native American cultures, and the health problems associated with smoking are a real problem in Native America. What I read on the placard at the BMA is the first reference I've ever seen to non-sacred use of tobacco, outside of the modern problem of nicotine addiction. So I became a history detective and started digging.

On a recent trip to the NMAI (National Museum of the American Indian) I discovered their SIRIS database which is accessible online. It contains a catalog of every artifact in the Smithsonian's collection (although I think they are still in the process of entering items, so the cataloging of items may still be in process). I searched for "pipe," "sacred pipe," "Eskimo pipe," "Alaska native pipe," and so on and came up completely empty.

Next I went directly to the NMAI website and clicked on the "Collections & Research" link, then on the "Research" link, and nothing--on both of those pages there is information about research for the museum, but nothing about how to do research online. So I typed "pipe" in the "Search" field that shows up on every page, expecting to come up empty again. I hit the jackpot--the first item in the search results yielded a list of every pipe in the NMAI collection, complete with thumbnail images.

I found a pipe nearly identical to the one that I had seen earlier in the day at the BMA website on page 3 of 4 in the search results. I clicked on the link and got additional photos of the pipe, as well as information about the pipe. Click here to see photos and the catalog entry on the NMAI pipe. Again, jackpot!

If you clicked on the link you can see for yourself how similar the two pipes are, the only major differences being the quality (the NMAI pipe is better) and the bowl. Though the catalog entry for the NMAI pipe did not tell me anything about the purpose of the pipe, it did provide me with additional information: the date range in which this type of pipe was created (circa 1885), and the culture group that it came from (Inupiaq). There is a "Contact" button in the catalog entry for the NMAI pipe, so I sent an email telling the story I've just told you, and requesting additional information.

While waiting to hear back from a curator at the NMAI, I posted my little find on facebook, hoping one of my NAS (Native American Studies) buddies might know something about these pipes and clue me in. One friend did a little digging of her own and found this video: "Canada Vignettes: Inuit Pipe." The pipe is nearly identical two the other two pipes, and on this one the bowl is more generic (like the BMA pipe), although much more carefully crafted and of better quality.

Nice video, but we still don't know anything about the pipe, so I'm still digging. I hate to make this blog entry a cliff hanger, but I'll post another entry when I have some answers about the pipe.

Meanwhile, it occurred to me that what I am doing now with this pipe could be a great assignment for my American Indian Art Survey course. I think it will be a great exercise for each student in the class to become an expert on a Native American artifact, and then teach the other students in the class what they have discovered. So this blog entry is will serve as an example of how to start investigating an interesting artifact.

That idea spurred me on further. I realized what I am really after has to do with social life in Inuit culture. So I did some more digging and found the following books on the topic:
I have already put in an order for these through my local library, using inter-library loan. They should make for interesting summer reading.

At this point I've done about all I can do while I'm waiting to hear from the NMAI curator. I'll be sure to let you know what I find out.

No comments: