The temporary exhibition, From Land of the Great Spirit: Native American and First Nations material from the Derbyshire School Library Service, is currently on display at Buxton Museum and Art Gallery in the corridor leading from the foyer to Gallery 2.

Exhibition of Native American and First Nations material at Buxton Museum and Art Gallery. Portrait images courtesy of the Museum of the Native American Indian and the National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institute, Washington DC, USA

Among the many wonderful items on display is a strange looking object, whose function is not apparent from its size and shape. The flat object has two figures, one reclining slightly whilst holding the horns of a sea beast, the other with his back to a small building. The building has a small chimney with a hole running down and connecting to another hole that runs below from the seated figure. Highly sculptural, this elaborate object is in fact a tobacco pipe.

Display of Native American and First Nations material at Buxton Museum and Art Gallery

The pipe dates to the early 19th century and comes from Haida Gwaii island off the Pacific Northwest Coast of Canada. The indigenous Haida people have a wonderful art style that reflects the natural world around them and tells of their beliefs and creation stories. The pipe is made from argillite which is a type of slate that is only found on Haida Gwaii. It comes from a mountain known as Kaagan in the Haida language, and Slatechuck in English. The quarry is very difficult to get to and its exact location is a heavily guarded secret. Argillite is an important commodity for the Haida people and presently only the Haida have the right to use the variety found at Kaagan mountain, which occurs nowhere else in the world.

Argillite panel pipe, Haida Gwaii island, Canada. Early 19th century. Accession number NA0012

Argillite is carved into several types of item, some to be used solely by the Haida, such as the ritual feasting platter on display at Buxton Museum and Art Gallery. Other items, such as model canoes and totem poles, jewellery, masks, bowls, boxes, spoons and panel pipes, were, and still are, sold to tourists. The panel pipes are no longer carved, only being popular with Europeans from 1825 to 1870.

Argillite became a popular carving medium after the decline of the sea otter fur trade in the early 19th century. These carvings enabled the Haida to trade with visiting Europeans. Argillite carvings, therefore, are commonly seen as a tourist art because they were firstly designed to be exported from the Haida community and created solely as a means of economic prosperity. As a result, argillite carvings contain imagery that encompass both Haida and European cultures. Sometimes the imagery is mixed with traditional Haida forms melding with European styles. Often in argillite carvings, traditional Haida images are confused so that they lose their important cultural meanings. This ensured that culturally symbolic imagery was not being used as a means of economic prosperity for the community. These forms of argillite carvings also contained a lot of visual punning and joke making, particularly at European culture.

The earliest panel pipe styles show purely Haida motifs, but later Euro-American ship types become popular, and it is this later type of panel pipe that is at Buxton Museum.  As the market for the carving of pipes expanded, so did the concept of pipes as panels of sculpture; eventually the pipes became purely decorative. Although the argillite pipes have no functional use, and were not used by the Haida themselves, the Haida people do have a tradition of using pipes for ceremonial purposes. Wooden pipes assist in funeral observances by carrying the thoughts and prayers of the participants to the sky-bound spirits of those deceased, through the medium of rising tobacco smoke.

Today argillite carvings are sold in galleries and fine art stores and take on more traditional Haida forms.

From the Land of the Great Spirit is on display at Buxton Museum until the first week of August.