Arunta culture, Central Australia, Northern Territory, Australia. Late 19th century. Wood, pigment; metal, plant fiber, soot. Division of Anthropology, American Museum of Natural History, ST/4179.

From the Exhibition:

Frontier Shores: Collection, Entanglement, and the Manufacture of Identity in Oceania

A tobacco pipe like this might not be as visually appealing as some more renowned elements of Aboriginal material culture, such as didgeridoos, boomerangs, or anything adorned with dot art. But examining it can uncover a surprising amount about Aboriginal material history and our own appreciation of native cultures.

The object was primarily fashioned with materials that had been commonly used in generations of Arunta tools and implements—wood, soot, and a faint yellow pigment applied as decoration. But a careful inspection of the pipe’s bowl reveals a relative newcomer to Arunta life: metal. In precolonial Australia, the various Aboriginal cultures of the continent did not mine, refine, shape, or otherwise incorporate metals into their material culture. After the British established a presence, however, Aboriginal people gained access to metal and integrated it into everyday objects, even if rather subtly. Objects such as the pipe are thus markers of European contact with Aboriginal people.

These often visually minute changes did not go unnoticed by European social scientists, who first became fascinated with studying Aboriginal people in the nineteenth century. Regarding Aboriginal life as highly “primitive,” they speculated that analyzing contemporary Aboriginal practices might help reveal how Europeans had lived during the Stone Age. Objects of Aboriginal material culture therefore gained special importance in the scientific community.

Indeed, items such as this pipe often came to museums because of the work of early twentieth-century ethnographers, who believed Aboriginal culture would die out within a few generations and needed to be researched quickly. W. Baldwin Spencer, the natural scientist and anthropologist who gave this pipe to the Museum of Natural History, remarked in 1921 that the purpose of Aboriginal studies was “to protect [Aboriginal people] not only from us, but from themselves, in the new environment we have created for them, and with which, left to themselves, they are totally incompetent to cope.” Spencer, like the other scientists of his time, understood Aboriginal people to have a primitive and—before the arrival of Europeans—“pure” unchanging culture. Therefore, he thought they would have difficulty surviving around white settlers. With European influence creeping across the continent, Spencer tried to collect representations of “untainted” Aboriginal life before it vanished. Thinking that it would not be long before Aboriginal people would “have lost all knowledge of their original tribes and customs,” Spencer particularly lamented signs of cultural fusion in Aboriginal objects. Used for smoking a nonnative plant and created partly with metal—a “nontraditional” material—this pipe must have been an object of great scorn for him.

Ironically, Spencer himself is in part responsible for the proliferation of this kind of Aboriginal tobacco pipe and other foreign-influenced Aboriginal implements. He and other ethnographers would acquire objects of Aboriginal material culture by trading knives, tomahawks, and tobacco with Aboriginal people. This would have almost certainly helped replace any remaining “static,” “pure,” or “Stone Age” features of Aboriginal culture with European or European-inspired tools, instruments, and products. Spencer’s ethnographic collecting, then, contributed to what he would have called the downfall of the very culture he sought to study, promote, and preserve through his research.

Of course, Spencer’s view of this pipe in the history of Aboriginal culture is severely misguided. Rather than marking a type of cultural decay, tobacco pipes are part of a tendency toward intercultural innovation that has characterized Aboriginal life in Australia for generations. For instance, Walter Roth, a contemporary of Spencer and fellow ethnographer in Australia, observed that the culture of Aboriginal people in coastal northern Queensland was not isolated and static but had probably already been influenced by peoples from the greater Oceania region. The people of this region had outrigger canoes and practiced taboo when he was there. His research suggests that the Aboriginal culture observed when Europeans arrived was not somehow removed from outside influence or completely unchanged throughout history; such a culture was merely a figment of Spencer’s imagination. Rather, this consistent adaptation and borrowing from other cultures forms part of the essence—if such a thing exists—of Aboriginal culture. The innovation Spencer observed through tobacco pipes, then, is certainly not “un-Aboriginal,” as he had claimed.

Close to a hundred years after Spencer stopped researching in Australia, the various Aboriginal people of the continent retain distinct identities. But they also continue to integrate foreign material into their lives. Many Aboriginal people live in cities, drive cars, and have smartphones. And frankly, none of this should be surprising, least of all to Americans. Cross-cultural entanglement should be familiar to anyone here who has ridden in a Toyota, ordered a hamburger, or said “ciao!” to a departing friend. Indeed, the lifestyle of almost every person on earth is a mélange of influences from people with whom they identify and people they consider outside of their own social groups. With this in mind, we would be foolish to claim that authentic American culture is dying because many young people like to eat pizza or watch anime. Our material culture comprises the objects we use in our lives, regardless of their origins. But even today, this idea is often lost when we discuss Aboriginal people in Australia or native peoples throughout the world, whose cultures must be “pure,” unchanging, and rooted in an ancient past to be considered “authentic.” Take a look again at how metal has been incorporated in this tobacco pipe. I hope it helps give you some perspective on the variety of objects that form part of Aboriginal (or any other) material culture.