Arctic Pipes: Smoking Among the First Nations of the Far North

Arctic Pipes: Smoking Among the First Nations of the Far North

Chukchi House person and dog, Siberia, 1901

Because the cultivation and use of tobacco originated among the indigenous peoples of the Americas, one could be forgiven for thinking that the practice of smoking was historically known across the entire hemisphere. While smoking was nearly ubiquitous among all native nations, some regions were never exposed to the practice until long after European contact. The Inuit peoples of the northernmost reaches of North America are a notable example of the later introduction of tobacco, creating a culture of smoking both unique and complex.

While trade networks in the pre-contact Americas were highly developed and extended across much of the Western Hemisphere, and potentially beyond, the Arctic regions were particularly isolated due to their extreme climate, and few traders ventured there. The Inupiaq peoples of Alaska would be the first to be introduced to tobacco by Chukchi traders from across the Bering Strait, in modern-day Russia, who in turn had acquired it from Mongol and Chinese caravans, who themselves purchased tobacco from European merchants.

East Asian Influence

Inuit man with pipe and suspenders, Pond Inlet. 26 August 1923

Inuit man with pipe and suspenders

The influence of East Asian tobacco culture was strong, with many early pipes of the Siberian and Alaskan nations bearing a striking resemblance to Chinese opium pipes. Alfred Dunhill's The Pipe Book, (1924) describes them in detail as being often made from the tusks of whales or walruses, which were cut in half lengthwise and hollowed out before being lashed together with leather or other cordage, then fitted with a raised bowl, usually of either stone or brass. Such pipes could be simply appointed or richly decorated with intricately carved patterns and figures running the length of the pipe. Later on, as the Russian empire expanded into the region, Chukchi and Inupiaq pipes incorporated shapes and styles found in Russian pipes, which were in turn influenced by the Turkish chibouk, as the Ottoman empire was among Russia's earliest and largest suppliers of tobacco.

The method by which Chukchi and Inupiaq peoples smoked may also have been influenced by opium smoking, which was prevalent in China and its environs at the time. Many outsider accounts describe how a group of Inuit would gather with their pipes and compete to see who could smoke the most tobacco in a single puff, with many ultimately left in a nicotine-induced stupor. Though such accounts from non-native observers may be exaggerated, it does seem clear that Inuit inhaled the tobacco smoke, as is relatively common for pipe smokers across eastern and northern Asia. The Japanese kiseru, for example, is often smoked with an inhalation technique.

Pipes of the Arctic

An Arctic Eskimo smoking pipe. Its UBC Museum of Anthropology catalogue number is A2.226

Arctic Eskimo smoking pipe

The tobacco chambers on most early Inuit pipes are not much larger than those of kiseru and, when prepared, were packed with a pinch of reindeer fur or other non-tobacco substance, upon which a bit of tobacco was placed. The fur was intended to keep the tobacco from falling into the airway, and so prevent the waste of what was a precious commodity in the tundra. Using this method, the bowl would be exhausted and replenished multiple times in a sitting, often in the company of others, both men and women of the community. What can be gleaned from primary written accounts with a greater degree of certainty is that, upon its introduction, tobacco quickly gained wide popularity among Chukchi and Inuit communities. Furthermore, with the absence of existing ritual tobacco use among their communities, the practice of smoking remained a pastime of pleasure, with less spiritual significance among the northern First Nations than their counterparts to the south.

The eastern Inuit were introduced to tobacco still later than their counterparts in modern-day Alaska. It wasn't until the early 19th century when European sailors brought tobacco to what is now Nunavut on one of their many voyages in search of the fabled Northwest Passage. As such, once the eastern Inuit began making pipes of their own, they took on a decidedly European form, resembling the clay and meerschaum pieces familiar to smokers today. However, as baked clay and meerschaum were as scarce as tobacco, First Nations people often used bone and ivory for their pipes, usually from whales or walruses, much like their western neighbors had a century before.

First contact between the eastern Inuit and Europeans was made near the island of Iglulik in 1822, recorded in the private journal of the British explorer George Lyon. He recorded that "the sailors very soon discovered that the natives could do 'anything in the world,' and amongst other accomplishments were convinced that they could chew tobacco; but when I saw several of them swallowing very large pieces of it, I thought proper to put a stop to so cruel a joke." Lyon also remarked that "they all endeavoured (sic) to smoke." Lyon made no mention of the condition of the unfortunate Inuit who swallowed said tobacco, but it can be said that many of the indigenous people of Nunavut took to consuming tobacco through various means from the first moment that they encountered it.

There are quite a number of tobacco-related anecdotes from the early days of its introduction to the eastern Inuit both comical and concerning. Kenn Harper, in his article "The Inuit Love Affair with Tobacco, Part One" cites Karen Routledge and her book Do You See Ice? (2018) as she relates a story told by Etooangat of Pangnirtung, on the coast of the Cumberland Sound of Baffin Island. Etooangat spoke of his father's first encounter with white men, called qallunaat. The newcomers gave his father, among other items, a barrel of tobacco. Not knowing what it was, and remarking that it smelled and tasted awful, he dumped its contents into the sound to make use of the barrel. Etooangat said that his father often lamented that day after he became acquainted with the leaf.

The Chukchi. A pipe for smoking tobacco during public meetings

The Chukchi

The Spread of Tobacco Culture

Bearded Inuit man with pipe and cap, Pond Inlet. 27 August 1923

Bearded Inuit man with pipe and cap

Within a generation, tobacco had become a central part of life among Inuit communities across the Arctic. In the years before the potential side effects of tobacco use were widely understood, there was no age limit for smoking, with some accounts observing young children smoking pipes with the rest of their communities. Tobacco also became a mark of distinction, as well as a valuable trade good among the Inuit. American whaler George Comer, who worked in the Hudson Bay, recalled that, upon sighting a whale, "the whale was raised by a native boy living here...later he got his box of tobacco—this is the prize given to the person who first sees a whale and it is caught." While we can't be sure of the boy's age, one can gain some insight as to the role of tobacco smoking in Inuit society as fulfilling multiple roles as a creature comfort, trade commodity, and status symbol, all of which were available to the entire community, regardless of age or sex.

The history of tobacco in the far north is a unique example of the emergence of a tobacco culture among native North Americans that was observed in contemporary writing, as well as the living memory of the Inuit peoples. They, like others, have been influenced by the leaf, which is unsurprising. Tobacco is a comfort, perhaps even more so for those living constantly in harsh and challenging conditions than for those of us who appreciate the relaxation and stress relief of pipe smoking in more temperate climes.


  • The Pipe Book (1924) by Alfred Dunhill
  • "The Inuit Love Affair with Tobacco, Part One" (2020) by Kenn Harper, Nunatsiaq News
  • "The Inuit Love Affair with Tobacco, Part Two" (2020) by Kenn Harper, Nunatsiaq News
Category:   Pipe Line
Tagged in:   History Pipe Culture


    • Dave MacKenzie on April 9, 2023
    • A great article, well written and researched.

    • michael F on April 22, 2023
    • Very interesting article, another great history peace on pipes ad tobacco. Very impressive.

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