North American otter pipe

Contributed by British Museum

Click on the image to zoom in. Copyright Trustees of the British Museum

Image 1 of 4

The bowl for the tobacco in this pipe is in the top of the otter's head, and there is a small hole at one end to breathe in the smoke. The pipe was made by Native Americans living in what is today the US state of Ohio. These Native Americans were small-scale farmers who built large burial and ceremonial mounds. This pipe was buried with 200 other pipes in a collection of mounds known as the 'Mound City Group'.

What was the pipe used for?

This pipe was not simply smoked for pleasure but probably had a religious function. A shaman may have smoked it to evoke the otter as a representative of his clan, or as a spirit guide who would then accompany the shaman on a spiritual journey. Tobacco has been smoked in North America for at least 2300 years and pipe smoking still remains an integral part of modern Native American culture. Tobacco was first brought to Europe in the early 1500s, where it quickly spread across Europe, Africa and Asia.

In historical accounts, the raw materials for pipes even included lobster claws and parts of gunstocks and gun barrels

Rising smoke

This otter pipe has many stories to tell.

The two archaeologists who excavated it, Ephriam George Squire and Edwin Hamilton Davis, were the first to publish the scientific results of excavations in the US, in the Smithsonian Institution’s first volume in 1848, and the pipe and its excavation therefore can tell part of the story of early Americanist archaeology.

The pipe, also tells the story of the development of anthropology and contributed to the nineteenth century anthropological debate – it was said to represent a manatee, the design or pipe must have been imported from the Gulf of Mexico - an erroneous ‘fact’ used to question whether the sophisticated mounds from which this pipe comes could have been built by peoples related to present day Native Americans!

Most obviously this pipe tells the story of the mound building pre-European contact Americans, as traders and peoples who built elaborate tombs and ossuaries where these pipes were buried. Probably the pipe represented what today we might regard as a clan or familiar spirit, a helper in good times and bad.

The story I like best from this pipe, however, is the story of smoke. Smoke, for indigenous Americans, has the power to heal, is an offering, and consecrates. It is also thought today by some that just as smoke carries a message, thought or prayer to the skies or cosmos, conversely, the pipe bowl is a microcosm of the universe itself; and if one’s prayers are lifted to the skies, it is also so that one can hold smoke in the mouth to bring wisdom into the mouth before speaking.

This pipe, as a material manifestation of past practice conjures the ephemeral smoke that bound the smoker to his or her clan lineage spirits and, when the smoking was communal, bound people to one another, just as I feel bound to this pipe, through the intimacy of the form and the imaginings of smoke it invokes.

Devorah Romanek, curator, British Museum

A form of prayer

It is a beautiful, beautiful pipe, and it makes you wonder who had it? Was it buried with somebody? Should we even be looking at it?

Understanding the concept that whoever it was who earned this pipe earned the right to carry that pipe and maybe it was buried with them and maybe it was something that was supposed to be with them in the other world, and maybe it’s not something for us. There are rituals and initiations that go along with it, tremendous responsibilities that go with being a pipe carrier. I hesitate to even call them objects.

Native people still use tobacco, it’s a very sacred item and it’s a form of prayer. The use of tobacco smoke is a way of transforming prayer and thought and community expression and putting it into a pipe.

When people were smoking what was called the “peace pipe��? at a treaty negotiation – that is even more meaningful than to sign a document. It’s a way of sealing a deal not just legally but by giving a vow and confirming that to the wider universe. It’s really important to understand this idea of connection and relationship, it’s not just an individual act it’s a very collective act and a way of confirming and encoding and validating their prayers as being very serious.

Gabrielle Tayac, National Museum of the American Indian

Comments are closed for this object


  • 1. At 01:10 on 26 May 2010, Tony wrote:

    The practice of using smoke in ceremonies of one kind or another is very old; there are some old incense burners in the British Museum. Could the peoples that originally went to the Americas have taken this practice with them?

    If so could the enhanced effects of the tobacco leaf been discovered by initially using it as part of the ingredients of their incense? And could this be why smoking was always associated by the Native Americans with the sacred?

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  • 2. At 10:26 on 26 May 2010, daniella wrote:

    Thanks to the beautifully informative website I know that the pipe was buried in a mound with 200 other pipes. Has nobody thought of telling Ms Tayac that it did not accompany an owner?

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  • 3. At 18:53 on 26 May 2010, Devorah Romanek wrote:

    Hi, this is Devorah, curator of North American objects at the British Museum, regarding the questions from Tony, which I appreciate, a few thoughts. The practice of smoking and incense burning in the Americas has its origins in the Americas proper, which is to say they likely emerged in situ in the Americas. The burning of incense has been practiced in various parts of the world since ancient times, though I believe that the burning of incense arrived in Asia later than the general dates of the Land-Bridge migration which the person below alludes to in their query. Burning herbs or grasses is still a common practice amongst many Native North Americans, where often sage, sweet grass or cedar is burned in order to purify, as an offering, etc. Some of the things that would have been burned in early incense would have also perhaps been burned along with tobacco in pipes, as some archaeological samples of residue in pipes indicate (this includes plant leaves, oils or resin, as well as animal matter). Archaeological evidence also indicates that the practice of tobacco smoking in the Americas originated in South America, typically being smoked in rolled leaves, and as the practice of smoking moved north, the pipe came into the picture, because smoking tobacco in leaves was not always possible all year round in the colder climes of the north. As regards the sacred aspect of smoking in Native North America, of course, the peoples of North America do have and have had notions of the sacred and practices related to the sacred centrally and firmly imbedded in their cultures throughout their own histories, as is communicated through the oral histories of these cultures and is found in the archaeological record.

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  • 4. At 23:07 on 31 May 2010, p thirkell wrote:

    We are one species, even the pure British Royal Family has Indian blood via Pocahontas and John Rolfe, and African from the Borgias and Charles 1, all human history is ours together, without superstition, my history is as much yours as yours is mine, share.

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  • 5. At 00:09 on 1 June 2010, Tony wrote:

    Dear Devorah Romanek, thank you for your most interesting reply.

    Over 20 years ago the British Museum hosted an exhibition from China highlighting a civilisation in Southern China about 5,000 years ago and it planted the thought that perhaps at some time it the past there was a global ?Planetary Religion? on the go. Not by missionary expansion but by the fact that they all had a strong sentiment about the fact that we live on a planet that supports us and that we share this planet with other lives both physical and spiritual. And because they shared these self evident views many similar customs developed like the breaking of goods (Ancient Middle East Room 51, cabinet 3 .1) and the North West Native Indian?s Potlatch, like a mini totem pole from China (Room 33 cabinet 9.4) and the wearing of feathers as a head dress (Room 33 cabinet 12.2 ) and when I put a blog together about Zigzags, Waves and Spirals (comment 20 on Paul Sargeant?s ?End of part one? blog) I needed to drawn on examples from the North American gallery as well as the Middle Eastern, Greek and Chinese galleries.

    This does make putting the appearance of things in chronologic order awkward so perhaps when looking at various objects it might be more useful to try and identify the sentiment that was with the person whist they fashioned or used the artefact. Neil Macgregor did this very well with the Otter pipe.

    It does seem that the North American Indians have stayed closer to what might be called a Planetary Religion and there is much we can learn from them. Not to become Indians but to find the line of Planetary Religion and use that as a spring board into ways of going on that can help us meet the future.

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  • 6. At 10:05 on 1 June 2010, Vasilis Kardasis wrote:

    Thank you for this illuminating program.
    It is all that one can wish for. True nourishment.
    I work in North American.
    At present we are discussing the otter and its importance in the region.
    I would like to ask you if there is an image of the North American otter pipe that I may be able to use during a research project presentation.
    This would be a fine beginning to stimulate my group.
    I would be grateful for your assistance. Thank you.

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  • 7. At 11:50 on 3 June 2010, Devorah Romanek wrote:

    Hi, this is Devorah, curator for North America again. For Vasilis, if you are interested in images for the pipe for academic purposes, our Collections On Line can provide that for you to download, here is a link:
    For Tony, or anybody with an interest in anthropological approaches to the study of human cultures, thanks for your comments, and I agree, that to study and appreciate human cultures looking at them in a strictly chronological way cannot possibly begin to grasp or appreciate them; and at the same time, cultures are neither without context nor are they a-historical. Here I propose trying to endeavour to negate the dichotomy between universalism and relativism. In holding with Tony?s point that people may be compelled, and towards good purpose, to look for universal connection, when considering various cultures, I do propose at the same time that anthropological or historical inquiries into human cultures would also do well to be localised and contingent.

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  • 8. At 21:45 on 3 June 2010, Tony wrote:

    Dear Devorah
    Having looked up the word contingent in the dictionary, point taken.

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  • 9. At 13:40 on 9 June 2010, Traveller wrote:

    I have many friends who practise a shamamistic path and the connection they have with the various spirit and power animals that accompany them on hteir journeys, so the idea of this pipe in its many animal forms would seem to fit perfectly with even modern pagans. I wondered if there were any other evidence of this type of pipe smoking in any other shamaistic cultures i.e. northern europe or asian, or is it isolated to North america, assuming the spread of tobacco or if some other substance was smoked

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  • 10. At 17:29 on 15 June 2010, Devorah Romanek wrote:

    A reply to Traveller, since I am the curator for North American ethnographic collections, I am not best placed to answer your question, but of course around the world tobacco smoking generally and pipe smoking specifically can take on various religious, ritualistic and/or ceremonial aspects. Regarding the carving of the otter and the notion of a spirit guide, I can't say specifically whether a practice like this happens in other cultures, but various zoomorphic and anthropomorphic carved figures are to be found on pipes throughout the world, though I believe often the figure is facing away from the smoker.

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