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The Steven Michaan Collection of North American Tribal Art : The Art of the Spirit World : Actic
Tobacco Container in the form of a Wolf
Wood, Pigment, Ivory Inlays & Animal Teeth, 4” Length, c.1850 - 1895
Inupiat Tobacco Container in the form of a Wolf
Inupiat Tobacco Container in the form of a Wolf
Inupiat Tobacco Container in the form of a Wolf

This fine example of a native Alaskan tobacco box was originally collected by Harry A. Parshall, a gold miner from Pennsylvania, who lived in St. Michael, Alaska during 1895-98. Parshall collected this and other pieces directly from the village population during his time there, returning with it to Pennsylvania at the beginning of the 20th century. St. Michael is located on the north-facing coastline of Norton Sound, opposite Seward Peninsula, tucked along a protected area very near the neighboring village of Stebbins. This beautiful inlet cove forms the southernmost point of a sweeping curve of coastline formed by Norton Sound, and all the villages along this coast were well-positioned for centuries of accessible trading throughout the Bering Straits, as well as with eastward inland villages.

St. Michael is largely Inupiat, but falls on a close border to Yup’ik territory, and its coastal position allowed for frequent interaction with Siberian Yupik, and later Russian, traders. It is thought that the tradition of smoking or chewing tobacco was imported into Inupiat villages through the trading and influence of Siberian-based people.

This particular tobacco box shows the artistic influence of southern Yup’ik sources, with its stylized animal form,which is probably representative of a wolf, but might also be interpreted as Bear or Caribou. Given the mixed composition of the village of St. Michael itself, its original carver might have been either Inupiat or Yup’ik, or perhaps might have been traded from another village, of Yup’ik population. In any case, the carver and original user of this container would probably have been a prominent village male, since smoking was predominantly a male activity and the rare and precious nature of imported tobacco lent to its storage in prized carved containers.

For a foreigner like Parshall to have been given such a box shows that he paid handsomely for it, and was also respected by the local community, since the owner would not have easily relinquished such a status symbol. It is imaginable too that after living in the village for three years, he must have established friendships among the men, and it is tempting to view this container as a parting gift.

The contacts between natives and foreigners in the 19th century provided rich narratives in human diplomacy, very rarely with happy endings. Perhaps this explains why there are so few examples of tobacco boxes to be found in foreign collections, like this one, rife as they are with connotations of peace offerings and camaraderie.