Iñupiaq Pipe

April 30, 2015

Searching for Stories:
Patiently Listening to an Iñupiaq Pipe

Object Analysis and Report for Anthropology of Museums
by Sarah Parkinson

As a student intern in the American Section of the Penn Museum, part of my job involves inventorying accessioned objects. When I first started, I was curious about every object I handled. During the first few days, I turned the key to each cabinet with intense anticipation of what might be uncovered in each dark corner of the Museum. I read every accession card, hoping to uncover each object’s story. However, I was often disappointed by the lack of a satisfying plotline. With only a general location and a short description on each card, even the most spectacular objects failed to tell a coherent story. My excitement for museum objects began to diminish, but it was reawakened by a recent class exercise that provided insights on letting objects speak for themselves.

Before going into the Collections Study Room, my professor advised us to be extraordinarily patient with our analyses of objects. Although I did not realize the importance of this advice at the time, I now recognize the value of “listening” to objects. During this class, each student spent nearly an hour silently analyzing each object, before any discussion, and we all discovered more information than we believed was possible.

Eskimo (Inuit) ivory pipe. Photo courtesy of the Penn Museum.
Eskimo (Inuit) ivory pipe. Photo courtesy of the Penn Museum. Museum Object Number: 39-10-1.

Examining an Iñupiaq (Eskimo) Pipe

After glancing over several objects on the table in the Collections Study Room, I chose a large ivory pipe with black etchings covering the stem (39-10-1). The professor instructed the class to delve into the objects first, before reading accession cards, but I had already noticed that the object was labeled “Tobacco Pipe” from an Eskimo tribe in Alaska. I began by focusing on the black etchings on the stem.

Sarah Parkinson in the Penn Museum Collections Study Lab with an Inuit pipe from the Arctic collections. Photo by Margaret Bruchac with permission of the Penn Museum.
Sarah Parkinson in the Penn Museum Collections Study Room. Photo by Margaret Bruchac.

On the top portion, each side features what appear to be shamanic dancers; some have animal masks on, and some are bent into various semi-contorted shapes. The bottom portion of the stem depicts a hunting scene with several people holding bows and arrows aimed at a bird, a deer, a rabbit, a fox, and other animals. One hunter hides behind a mound, concealed from his prey. The bottom half of the other side features etchings of a sled and rider. On the end nearest the mouthpiece, two people busy themselves making something, possibly a sled. To the right of this scene, closer to the bowl, there is a house with a drying rack to the side. Read as a story, from mouthpiece to bowl, the stem speaks of a person riding away from a house on a sled carrying a spear. The rider falls off of the sled and lays down beside it. In the last etching, the sled changes direction so that it is pointed back towards the house.

Close-up view of pictographs on the Eskimo (Iñupiaq) Tobacco pipe. Photo by Margaret Bruchac with permission of the Penn Museum.
Close-up view of pictographs on the Eskimo (Iñupiaq) Tobacco pipe. Photo by Margaret Bruchac with permission of the Penn Museum.
Examining the Eskimo (Iñupiaq) pipe. Photo by Margaret Bruchac with permission of the Penn Museum.
Examining the pipe. Photo by Margaret Bruchac.

I then examined the physical structure of the bowl itself. I noted that the bowl is loose in its connection to the stem, and likely detachable, given the way it is connected to the rest of the pipe. The black etchings are lighter on the bowl than they are on the stem and mouthpiece, suggesting that it was exposed to more wear than the rest of the pipe, or that it was a replacement piece. After looking at the bowl for a few moments, the validity of the accession card came into question. I questioned how this pipe could be used to smoke tobacco—the opening of the bowl is so small that ash would collect quickly and the pipe would be clogged after only a short period of use.

Close-up view of the end and bowl of Eskimo (Iñupiaq) Tobacco pipe.
Close-up view of the end and bowl. Photo by Margaret Bruchac.

After realizing this, I read the accompanying card to check if the accession number was correct. The card identified this pipe as: “Chinese type with tiny capacity.” At this point, I suspected that this was not a tobacco pipe; maybe it was made to smoke opium. Dr. Bruchac agreed this was possible, especially given the hole at the end of the stem, which could be used to draw air and concentrate heat. I shone a light into the bowl in hopes of seeing residue, but found no ash or discoloring. This could be due to conservation efforts, since this pipe was displayed in two exhibitions in the Museum. On shining a light into the hole in the stem, I found that instead of the flat gray ash expected in a tobacco pipe, there was a crystalline-like substance that sparkled under bright light. If possible, it would be interesting to conduct a chemical analysis of this residue to compare it to the chemical structure of opium and tobacco. Comparing this pipe with images of antique ivory opium pipes supports the possibility that this “tobacco” pipe might be an “opium” pipe. However, there are historical accounts of Inuit people smoking tobacco in pipes with very small openings very much like this one.[1]

Living Narratives in Archival Photographs

Inuit Man Bow-hunting. Photo by Suzanne R. Bernardi Jeffery 1905-7, 1916, Alaska Eskimos Hunting. Penn Museum Archives.
Inuit Man Bow-hunting. Photo by Suzanne R. Bernardi Jeffery 1905-7, 1916, Alaska Eskimos Hunting. Penn Museum Archives.

After conducting this object analysis, I searched the Museum Archives, hoping for more details, but the correspondence among the Museum Director, American Section Curator, and Assistant Curator made no mention of any “Eskimo pipes.” However, I was able to flesh out the story of the pipe in an unexpected manner. By patiently exploring boxes of Iñupiaq (Eskimo) photographs, I could see, with my own eyes, the people, dogs, and sleds traveling on hunting expeditions through the frozen landscape. The static etchings on the pipe began to come to life. Instead of seeing two-dimensional images, I saw a narrative of real, living people leaving their houses, preparing their dogs and sleds to depart, and taking off with bows and arrows and spears with hopes of bringing back meat for their families. When I had first encountered the pipe in collections, it was only a mute object, with an incomprehensible label. Now, a dynamic and far more satisfying story began to emerge.

Captain David H. Jarvis’s Rescue Expedition

Captain Henry R. Jarvis. Albumen print, catalogue # 2000.100.200.143. Photo Archives, New Bedford Whaling Museum, New Bedford, Massachusetts.
Captain David Henry Jarvis. New Bedford Whaling Museum.

More of the story unfolded when I researched the collector, Captain David H. Jarvis. Jarvis spent the majority of his career serving along the Pacific coast for the United States Revenue Cutter Service. During this time, he worked throughout the Northwest coast of Alaska and was involved with teaching animal husbandry to the Iñupiaq people in Unalaska in 1891. He gained fame from an overland rescue expedition in 1897-1898, during which he worked closely with Iñupiaq communities to procure provisions, sleds, and reindeer to bring to distressed whalers in Point Barrow.[2] Perhaps the surviving map of this expedition includes details about the location where he collected this pipe. The “Jarvis Collection” in the New Bedford Whaling Museum, which includes his photographs of the Iñupiaq, may provide even more detail that could expand the story[3].

(Left, Captain David Henry Jarvis. Albumen print, catalogue # 2000.100.200.143. Photo Archives, New Bedford Whaling Museum, New Bedford, Massachusetts.)

Through my investigations of this pipe, I gained insights that might help to recover and enrich its story as part of Iñupiaq history. I also learned something that should have been obvious from the beginning: object stories require listening. The classification and lack of any depth in the record suggested that there was no reason to search further. Yet, if we listen more patiently, if we treat objects with the respect we might give an elder who has a valuable story to tell, we can learn more detailed stories than what appears on a simple label. If museums hope to present richer narratives, they need to collect more complete information about individual objects in their collections, perhaps through patient listening exercises. This kind of study can spark or renew students’ affinity for museum objects and the stories they tell, while also enriching museum collections with additional data.


[1] Since opium was a major Chinese export during the late 1800s, and since pipes of this design are often described as “Oriental,” a new story of intercontinental trade might emerge from further study. The most likely possibility, however, points to shared material relations between Siberian and Iñupiaq peoples. See John Murdoch 1888. “On the Siberian Origin of Some Customs of the Western Eskimos.” American Anthropologist Vol. I, October 1888, pp. 325-336.
[2] Johnson, Paul H. 1972. “The Overland Expedition: A Coast Guard Triumph” in Coast Guard Academy Alumni Association, The Bulletin 34(5):63-71. Reprinted online on the website of the United States Coast Guard, U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
[3] Jarvis Collection. New Bedford Whaling Museum, New Bedford, Massachusetts.

NOTE: For more information about this pipe, see the related blog article—“Iñupiaq Smoking and Siberian Reindeer”—by Margaret Bruchac.