|The first Indian sculptures to be seen and recognized by the general public, were actually carved wood, and none other than the famous “cigar store” Indians. Tobacco was as indigenous to North America as were its native peoples, and because they used tobacco in a variety of ceremonies and rites, the connection between them remained for literally hundreds of years.
But the connection existed long before one of Christopher Columbus’ diaries recorded how his men had seen Indians smoking “sticks”. Evidence of tobacco ceremonies in Indian culture exists as far back as the pre-Columbian period in 200B.C. when it was smoked in platform bowl pipes carved from soapstone, into character shapes of gods and animals. One such pipe, evidence of the continuity of the tradition, was uncovered in Oklahoma, and dated to 1200-1350A.D. It’s an Indian sculpture of its own, with a bowl that consists a brave seated on the ground, wearing an elaborate and highly detailed headdress as well as ear decorations.
By the first half of the 17th century, settlements in America were flourishing, as was the tobacco industry between the New World and the old. So prodigious was Virginia’s shipments of tobacco back home to England, that merchants there set out statues of Indians wearing a headdress and kilt of tobacco leaves, to signify that they sold tobacco. The Indian sculptures were not only advertising, but a necessity, since most users of tobacco were illiterate, and only knew a store sold it, by some outward visual sign. The figures were called “Virginies”, the Englishman’s mangled way of pronouncing “Indians”. By the 1800s, life-sized wooden sculptures stood outside stores in America as well, regardless of the fact that as the statues remained, the Native Indian was disappearing from their plains homes. However, in one of those rare strokes of fate, the cigar store Indian disappeared not long after, during the tobacco shortages of WWI.