Accepted Paper:

Pipestone Materiality and Meaning in the work of George Catlin  


Annika Johnson (University of Pittsburgh)

Paper short abstract:

Using George Catlin's manuscript on Native North American tobacco pipes as a case study (British Museum), this paper examines the artist's diverse representational approaches to documenting the primary medium of pipe carving — pipestone — and the blood-red stone's complex Indigenous associations.

Paper long abstract:

For centuries, Native North Americans have carved figures from the living and spiritual worlds onto tobacco pipes made of pipestone, a soft red stone quarried in present-day Minnesota. For many, this vital material represents ancestral blood, an aspect that fascinated the artist-explorer George Catlin who claimed to "discover" pipestone in the 1830s. Catlin subsequently popularized pipestone internationally. Focusing on the artist's manuscript on Native North American tobacco pipes, this paper examines the diverse representational approaches Catlin took to documenting pipestone and tobacco pipes in his ethnographic drawings, paintings, and displays of Native pipes. His pioneering ethno-geological approach evidences his struggle to reconcile the materiality of pipestone across cultures: its use and Indigenous associations as well as its mineralogical properties.

Elaborately carved pipestone tobacco pipes prominently feature in Catlin's pipe manuscript located at the British Museum. In schematized arrangements of pipes and embellished depictions of carved figures, Catlin made the first argument for Native pipe carving's status as an art form, and he attempted to establish its historical and formal development. Yet, ethnographic accounts of the stone's Indigenous associations complicate the artist's and more recent iconographic interpretations of pipestone carving. To discuss how Catlin configured knowledge of pipestone's materials and artistic properties, this paper will also consider a little known manuscript draft located at the New York Public Library. The inclusion of the artist's extant pipe collections (National Museum of Natural History and the University of Pennsylvania) will illuminate how his encounter with pipestone in the field informed his ethnographic representations.

Panel P002
Art as Ethnography/Ethnography as Art