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Pipe Smoking Rabbit: Mythical & Traditional Wabanaki Image

Pipe Smoking Rabbit; Tomah Joseph. Passamaquoddy
Small Mukuk, Pipe Smoking Rabbit; Chief Barry Dana, Penobscot
Porcupine quill & birch bark box; Paul St John, Mohawk
"The Rabbit (Mahtoqehs) print; Gina Brooks Maliseet
Corner of birch bark picture frame; David Moses Bridges (d) Passamaquoddy
Handle of Spirit Moose root club, Joe Hugga Dana, Penobscot

The image of the Wabanaki Pipe Smoking Rabbit appears scraped/etched on many birch bark items of the past 3 centuries made by Wabanaki peoples. In more current work it appears in paintings, wood carving and work of porcupine quill. I had seen the image often and found it intriguing, Over the years I posed questions about Pipe Smoking Rabbit to three artists who use this image in their work; Gina Brooks, Maliseet, David Moses Bridges, Passamaquoddy (d 2017) and Paul St John, Mohawk. Paul’s mother is Maliseet, Passamaquoddy and MicMac. Paul has studied art, crafts, history and spirituality with elders/relatives of all of his 4 tribes. I searched for information in several books and while I have learned a bit from sources and books, I still feel there is more to learn about this interesting fellow. Apologies to my sources if I have misinterpreted their information…..(let me know and I will make appropriate corrections!)

Native American legends and myths are often ways of teaching spirituality and/or morality. Animals, mythical creatures, natural elements such as wind, fire, or a mountain take on human characteristics. Some animals/creatures such as the Thunderbird are found in many tribes and areas. The thunderbird is also an example of a mythical creature being represented widely in Native American art.

Wabanaki mythology and legend is not as widely known. (5 Northeastern tribes make the Wabanaki Confederacy; Abenaki, Maliseet, MicMac (Mi'kmaq - Canadian spelling), Passamaquoddy and Penobscot) One mythical creature of the Wabanaki is a rabbit smoking a pipe which appears on Maliseet, Passamaquoddy and Penobscot work done by various artists and in a few different mediums. It likely illustrates and embodies the legend of how Rabbit becomes a shaman and other stories of how Rabbit used his magic/medicine powers. The Pipe Smoking Rabbit appears on work by Tomah Joseph, Passamaquoddy, 1837-1914. To me the Rabbit is not the curiosity, but rather it is his pipel I have read many Rabbit legends/stories and found other animals depicted in early Wabanaki art that smoke pipes. There are a few explanations, but none that seem to me to adequately explain the symbolism or importance of these pipe smoking animals.

The image of the pipe smoking rabbit appears in several Wabanaki artists' works. A few of these depictions are in the photos above .

  1. Pipe Smoking Rabbit; Tomah Joseph, Passamaquoddy - Historic photo

  2. Small mukuk of birch bark; Chief Barry Dana, Penobscot - (Ravailable "Current Maine Items - birch bark"- Store section - this website) click link

  3. Porcupine quill on birch bark box; Paul St John, Mohawk (and Maliseet, MicMac & Passamaquoddy) - Recently sold - Formerly available "Current Maine Indian Arts - birch bark"- Store section - this website click link to view more of this item - now in a private collection

  4. "The Rabbit (Nahtoqehs) print; Gina Brooks, Maliseet - Now in private collections

  5. Corner of birch bark picture frame, David Moses Bridges, (1964-2017) - Personal Collection

  6. Root Club with Pipe Smoking Moose incised on handle; Joe Hugga Dana, Penobscot - Apologies, I can't photograph entire moose as it wraps around the handle here - It is wonderful when you can see it all! Available in "Current Maine Indians Arts - chip carving, wood" Store section - this website Or click link

Some legends and stories about the smoking Rabbit appear in Charles Leland's 1884 book, "The Algonquin Legends of New England". The illustrator of that book was Tomah Joseph, a Passamaquoddy man well known for his art on birch bark items he made and sold to tourists along the coast of Maine. Born in 1837, Tomah Joseph passed away in 1914. He was a tribal governor, outdoor guide and mentor to a young Franklin Delano Roosevelt whose family summered on Campebello Island, part of the traditional Passamaquoddy lands. Tomah Joseph is best known for his works of art on birch bark. While Wabanaki craftsman had for centuries decorated birchbark items by painstakingly etching/scraping off a layer of bark to expose the lighter layer of bark beneath, prior to Tomah Joseph these had depicted traditional designs. Tomah Joseph used picture writing to etch/scrape historical scenes and later scenes from myths and legends onto his birch bark items; log holders, boxes, long panels, traditional mukuks and rectangular storage boxes as well as canoes. Tomah Joseph used traditional design motifs and incorporated pictures depicting scenes of his peoples' regular life; hunting, fishing, cooking. Historic scenes of war also were shown, and Tomah Joseph depicted scenes from legends and myths of his people.

Much of Tomah Joseph's work survives and on many of these items is depicted the shaman Rabbit, often with a pipe. Charles Leland writes the Passamaquoddy origin story of how Rabbit became a shaman, in which "Master Rabbit studied m'teoulin (medicine/magic) so severely that he became an awful conjurer" (Leland 1884:213). Tomah Joseph's seated pipe smoking rabbit represents the transformation from an ordinary rabbit into a shaman. Rabbit appears in stories as well as some of Tomah Joseph's art with "Wild Cat" (a lynx?) who is sometimes also depicted with a pipe. Wild Cat is usually shown as an enemy of Rabbit, and as such being defeated by Rabbit. Some have said that the seated Pipe Smoking Rabbit is showing contempt for Wild Cat as he leisurely taunts the Wild Cat showing his superior intellect and speed..... even when Rabbit is seated relaxed with pipe, Wild Cat can not catch him. However there are works where Rabbit and Wild Cat sit together or appear on the same illustration, but separately.

Gina Brooks, Maliseet artist, says of her Pipe Smoking Rabbit illustration "The Rabbit (Mahtoqehs) is a benevolent trickster in Maliseet Culture who can transform himself and what you think about. He can also make wishes come true."

There is also one petroglyph of a pipe smoking moose drawn centuries ago on a rock face along the Kennebec River. The last photo shows this moose on a root club by Joe Hugga Dana, Penobscot carver.