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By William C. Meadows, Missouri State University, Department of Sociology-Anthropology-Criminology

Native Americans have a long tradition of smoking tobacco and other natural substances. Tobacco was one of the most widely gathered and cultivated plants in North America. The genus Nicotinia contains more than 60 species, most from tropical America. In North America at least six species of tobacco and more than 60 other plant species were used by indigenous groups for smoking. The inner bark of the slippery or red elm was one of the most common materials that was scrapped and dried for use in pipes. While tobacco is generally believed to have diffused from the south—most scholars believe via Mexico, although others suggest Gulf and Caribbean routes—the Missouri and Mississippi rivers were important in its transmission throughout North America. Thus the presence of pipes does not always indicate the use of tobacco since many others plants were used (Wagner 1998). The earliest known tobacco seeds in the world (probably N. attenuata) come from a Late Archaic village site near Tucson, Arizona, with a calibrated date of 387 to 205 B.C. (Winter 2000:114). In the Midwest, the earliest known tobacco dates to the Middle Woodland period from four sites near the confluence of the Mississippi and Illinois rivers in Illinois. The earliest well-dated site in Illinois is a Middle Woodland site dating to 80 to 240 A.D. Because tobacco seeds typically require flotation for recovery from archaeological sites, and flotation was not a standard procedure until the 1970s, gaps in the archaeological record concerning tobacco probably exist. Furthermore, because tobacco seeds are around 1 mm in maximum length, they are so small that they are often even missed by flotation (Wagner 1998; Winter 2000:115, 310).


Although early historical sources describe native pipes made out of pottery, stone, bone, wood, reeds, and even lobster claws, some of these forms rarely survive and thus the temporal and spatial extents of certain pipe forms are probably not fully represented in the archaeological record. Pipes have been made out of Catlinite, steatite, flint clay, slate, shale, granite, hematite, limestone, greenstone, sandstone, limonite, fired clay (ceramic or pottery), and other materials. The earliest surviving smoking implements in eastern North America date to the Late Archaic period and are tubularin form. Often referred to as tubes or so-called “cloud blowers”, some contain tapered entries from both ends, while others exhibit overall straight internal channels. Without residue analysis it is difficult to determine which were used as pipes and which may have served as shamans’ doctoring or ‘sucking’ tubes (von Gernet 2000:73). Some tube pipes have been recovered with a small stone in one end of the tube suggesting a sphere to allow the smoke but not the tobacco to pass to the other end of the tube. As von Gernet (2000:73) notes, some forms have been used as both:

I have suggested that the two were once symbolically and functionally equivalent. It is not difficult to imagine an ideational homology between sucking and blowing “medicine” and the inhaling and exhaling of smoke, since both practices involved the transfer of spiritual powers.

Heavily influenced by the Early Woodland Adena culture, pipe styles quickly began to evolve around 200 B.C., resulting in a wide variety of animal effigy tube forms as well as the larger and well-known human effigy Adena pipe. Many effigy pipe styles evolved into forms situated atop simple platforms. Platform pipes and a variety of effigy pipes with centrally or near-centrally positioned bowls reached their apogee in the Middle Woodland Hopewell culture. Many of the more elaborate Woodland pipes were placed in the burials of high ranking individuals in earthen mounds at major mound centers, which suggest their use in important religious and political ceremonies. This artistry and cultural importance would continue to increase in the Mississippian period from around 900 to 1400 A.D.


During Mississippian times, pipes were made for smoking in both private and public settings. While some Mississippian pipes appear utilitarian in look and function, others were both functional and great works of Mississippian art. As in historical times, smaller pipes were likely for private use while larger and more elaborate pipes were designed for tribal and ceremonial purposes. Most surviving Mississippian pipes are made of two materials, clay and stone.

The largest and often most ornate Mississippian pipes are made of stone. Flint clay from Arkansas, Catlinite from Minnesota, steatite (soapstone), and other stones were exchanged through trade networks across much of the continent. Hematite, limestone, sandstone, limonite, slate, and shale were also used from a variety of locales.

These stones tend to be soft when first quarried, later hardening with exposure to air, use, and heat—important qualities for making pipes. Some of these stones change color with exposure such as steatite (green to black) and Catlinite (pink to darker red). From his travels in the 1830s Loop pipe made of clay.

George Catlin (1973:1:234-235, II:160-173) recorded several traditions, beliefs, and observations about the famous pipestone quarry in Minnesota. Catlin (1973:1:234) observed Indians in the 1830s shaping out the bowls of Catlinite pipes with a knife and using a stick drill with sand and water for an abrasive to drill the holes.

The Indians shape out the bowls of these pipes from the solid stone, which is not quite as hard as marble, with nothing but a knife. The stone is of a cherry red, admits a beautiful polish, and the Indian makes the hole in the bowl of the pipe, by drilling into it a hard stick, shaped to the desired size, with a quantity of sharp sand and water kept constantly in the hole, subjecting him therefore to a great labour [labor] and the necessity of much patience.


Several forms of Mississippian pipes exist, particularly elbow, disc, and effigy forms. Widely distributed throughout the Mississippian region but most frequently encountered in Missouri and Arkansas, clay elbow pipes are the most common form. They are usually made of grayware pottery with little or no ornamentation. Ornamental clay pipes tend to exhibit incised decorations such as engraving, edging of the bowl, or other simple designs. Some elbow pipes were made of stone, such as those of the Dallas phase Mississippians in northern Georgia and eastern Tennessee.

Disc pipes are named for the round disc carved and extended horizontally above the body of the pipe housing the stem hole and prow. This form was made during

late Mississippian times and range from just over 2″ to around 9″ in length. Disc pipes are commonly made of limestone and, reflecting the widespread trade in exotic materials, Catlinite.


Stone effigy pipes contain or are made in the shape .of humans, a wide variety of animals including many varieties of birds, and in some cases combinations of both humans and animals such as the Raptor and Man pipe from Mississippi.

In the Mississippi River drainage a “Cahokia style” of pipe-bowl making developed. Frequently made of red flint clay this style of pipe is characterized by large human figures accompanied by elaborate ceremonial regalia and ritual symbolism. Examples of Mississippian effigy pipes include the Chunkey Player pipe from Muscogee County, Oklahoma, the Conquering Warrior and Resting Warrior or Big Boy pipes from Spiro Mounds in Oklahoma, and the Frog Effigy pipe from St. Clair County, Illinois. This form represents some of the best in Mississippian artistry and are found through the Mississippian cultural region.

One of the most important aspects of Mississippian pipes are the glimpses they provide into various aspects of  Mississippian culture including: men and women; dress; activities such as horticulture, games, and warfare; and religion. Like stone and pottery effigies and figurines, several Mississippian pipes provide images of hairstyles, clothing, Frog pipe from Spiro Mounds tools, weapons, and  made from fine flint clay. Jewelry such as earspools, necklaces, and headdresses. The Piasa Creek pipe from Illinois depicts a kneeling male (presumably a shaman), with a gourd rattle in one hand and a snake or snakeskin around his neck. The cosmology of many historic southeastern tribes was filled with rituals related to warfare, horticulture, fertility, and recognition of the three worlds (upper world, this world, lower world). The presence of domesticated plants, gardening hoes, serpents, raptors, warfare, half human-half animal, half bird-half serpent, and other Mississippian themes are depicted in effigy pipes. For a sample of these forms divided into the upper world, this world, and the lower world see Galloway (1989:325-363) and Townsend (2004). One of the largest assemblages of effigy pipes has come from Moundville, including four of the “Bellaire” style, which depict the Piasa, the supernatural creature comprised of elements of all three worlds (cat, snake, bird, and sometimes human or deer).


Beyond common Mississippian era symbols, some pipes resemble known entities in the history and mythology of historic tribes. The Resting Warrior pipe from Spiro is believed to represent Morning Star or Red Horn, also known as He-Who-Wears-Human-Heads-In-His- Ears, a central character in the mythology of several tribes in the eastern plains-prairie region such as the Ho-Chunk and Iowa. Other pipes are believed to represent the culture hero Morning Star in other activities including the Conquering Warrior pipe, depicting an armed warrior taking a head as a war trophy, and the Chunkey Player pipe, depicting a man with chunkey equipment (Reilly 2004:132-134). The McGehee pipe, from near the mouth of the Arkansas River in Desha County, Arkansas, depicts a kneeling female with stalks of corn growing from her outstretched hands and sunflowers laying upon her back. From the same body of tribal mythology, this figure appears to be Corn Mother, the provider of plants and horticultural knowledge. Corn Mother, Our Grandmother, and other related feminine deities were wives of Red Horn or Morning Star (Reilly 2004:125).


Closely related to the large effigy pipes of the Mississippian Period are effigy figurines commonly 

recovered from temple mounds (Angel Mounds) and mortuary contexts (Cahokia, Spiro) at larger Mississippian towns. Many of these have been interpreted as effigies of religious deities or former high ranking political leaders. The Figure At Mortar pipe from Spiro, which is interpreted as a kneeling woman (due to a lack of earplugs and the task of grinding corn) with an ear of corn in her left hand and her right hand on the side of a mortar. This image appears to have been a figurine that had a second hole added into the side of the mortar to make it a pipe (Galloway 1989:54-58).

One style of early Caddoan clay pipe is the Coles Creek style pipe. These pipes are typically long, thin, delicately made, up to 10″ in length, and tan in color. Often their stems are broken, usually in more than one place. The small size of the pipe bowl, which often shows signs of smoking use, suggests they were used as personal pipes. This style of pipe is mostly found in southwestern Arkansas. Later Caddo era clay pipes typically have shorter stems and larger pipe bowls. Still another form of Mississippian pipe is the “Coffee Bean” style pipe, named for the rounded projections on the pipe bowl that resemble coffee beans. This style is most commonly found in southeastern Tennessee and northern Georgia and is associated with the Dallas culture. This form tends to have small personal pipe bowls that could have been used with a stem. Although the longest bean pipes exceed 4″, the majority range from 11/2″ to 3″ in length.

Following their Mississippian forebears, the use of beautifully carved pipes (elbow, T-shaped, and other forms) from Catlinite, steatite, and other valued stones continued to be made and were used in religious and political spheres throughout the historic period. Today tobacco and pipes continue to be widely used in the religious bundles and ceremonies of many contemporary Native American and First Nations (Canadian) tribes.