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The Steven Michaan Collection of North American Tribal Art : The Art of the Spirit World : Northwest Coast
Pipe Bowl
Hardwood, Copper or Brass, Abalone Shell & Paint 5” Height, c.1820-1840
Heiltsuk (Bella Bella) Headress Frontlet
Heiltsuk (Bella Bella) Headress Frontlet

This stout and seemingly serious-minded fellow sits on his haunches with his chin on his hands, gazing ever-forward through iridescent shell eyes. Exquisitely carved, it’s a large handful of a pipe, though not as large as some of its kind. The hole at the center back was for the pipe stem, of which many were temporary things, mere branches of shrubs with the pith burned out. Others were carved and refined lengths of wood or bone. Few Tlingit pipes feature inlaid abalone shell, and its presence here indicates that this was the pipe of a high-ranking clan leader, shown wearing a decorated robe or tunic that features a crest image on his back. The owner may also have been a shaman, or a descendent of one, as the lobed or segmented hat rim shown here suggests the idea of a shaman’s crown of goat horns, carved in a minimalist representation. The robe may represent the type of hide tunic often owned and worn by shamans with images of their spirit helpers painted on the front and back.

The carver was a master of clean sculptural lines and refined definition, which appear in all aspects of this small but monumental work. The sides of the nose include small cuts that represent wrinkles in the skin, and the attention to detail in the eyes, eyesockets, hands and feet is similarly remarkable.

The tobacco smoked in such pipes came to the Tlingit by way of English and Spanish explorers and later fur traders, and was the nicotiana rustica common to those sources, which originally had been introduced to them by Native peoples of the eastern seaboard in centuries past.

Tobacco was smoked in grand sculptured pipes like this at community rituals such as house-raisings and funerals, and was employed to carry the prayers of the living into the spirit world, calling for assistance from the ancestors and great people of the past.