Investigating a Pipe Tomahawk

By: and Kayla A. Holmes

November 9, 2018

Pipe Tomahawk 45-15-1357 at the Penn Museum. Photo by Margaret Bruchac.


Kayla Holmes with tomahawks. Photo by Margaret Bruchac.

How does a tomahawk, as an object typically associated with violence, come to be connected to a smoking pipe used in rituals and ceremonies associated with peace? Who devised the idea of welding these different objects together to bring pipe tomahawks into being, and what are the cultural significances surrounding their presence? File these queries under “Things Your Average History Course Doesn’t Tell You.”

This pipe tomahawk, object number 45-15-1357, was purchased from Mrs. Owen Stephens in 1945. It features three parts: a wooden handle and an iron blade, welded to an iron pipe. There is a perforation in the end of the handle, made to hold a wrist strap (now missing). The object measures 80.6 cm in length with a relatively narrow, sharp blade; according to the Penn Museum records, it came from the Great Plains and is representative of Dakota (Sioux) tribal culture.

As I analyzed this pipe tomahawk, I began to think about the significance of tobacco, an Indigenous crop that was introduced to Europeans, and its importance in Native cultures. Tobacco played an important role in many Native religious ceremonies, and so the connection of a smoking pipe with a weapon could illustrate a relationship between warfare and spirituality. Since this object combines two different sources of material—wood from Native territories and metal acquired through trade with Europeans—I wondered if there was a predecessor to the pipe tomahawk that might cast light on this object’s origins?

Kaskaskian calumet pipe stem 97-83-1436 and pipe bowl 97-83-1432a in the Penn Museum. Both collected by Judge George Turner in 1795. This is a post-European contact pipe, given the pewter inlays around the pipestone bowl. Photo by Margaret Bruchac.[3] 
Origins of Tomahawks

Tomahawks are one of the objects most associated with Natives, especially within the stereotype of the savage warrior, and in popular culture they are often presented as a solely Native weapon. The word “tomahawk” derives from the Algonquian Indian language—e.g., tamahaac in Powhatan, temahigan in Abenaki—meaning “the striking instrument.” [4] It can refer to any kind of tool or weapon—wooden club, stone hatchet, iron hatchet—wielded by hand in wood-working or in conflict. Many of the hatchets used by Native people during the 1700s, however, were not of Native manufacture; they were designed and made by Euro-American blacksmiths in Europe or in the colonies in America or France. Before colonial contact, Native people had routinely used various flint and stone cutting tools, but during the early 1600s, they embraced the iron axe as a sharp substitute. Small axes (also called hatchets, belt axes, or hand axes) became a staple and highly desirable trading item during the fur trade era in the Americas. Small axes, without smoking pipes attached, were carried and used by Native people and settler colonial peoples alike, including soldiers and civilians.[5]

Thayendanega/Joseph Brant, Mohawk war leader, 1776. [8]
Lewis Henry Morgan, in his studies of the Six Nations Iroquois (Haudenosaunee) stated, “The tomahawk is known as widely as the Indian, and the two names have become apparently inseparable.”[6] This amalgamation of Native culture with tomahawks created an avenue for harmful stereotypes to arise, especially given its warrior undertones and hints of a wild ferocity. Scott Stevens, an Akwesasne Mohawk scholar, notes that the tomahawk, in the American imagination, came to be equated with “’Indian savagery’: the very notion by which Native Americans stood in opposition to European civility.” Stereotypes gain power when objects are taken out of context, and viewers learn to associate certain images with certain peoples and events; “when repeated frequently enough those misinterpretations take on the patina of truth.”[7] Thus, the image of a “violent Native with a tomahawk” came to be seen as absolute—even though Europeans had used hand axes in warfare long before their introduction into Native society.[9] During the Wild West shows of the 19th century, followed by the movie westerns of the early 20th century, images of “savage Indians” with weapons were widely circulated, and the tomahawk became associated with war more than as a tool for woodworking, or a tool of diplomacy. It can be difficult to escape these images to study Native peoples and cultures without preconceptions. How does one parse out the truths within the stereotypes? How can we find accurate depictions within visual reproductions?

Merging of Pipe & Tomahawk

While the history seems to suggest that iron tomahawks were European creations introduced into Native society, it is unclear who decided to bring the pipe and the tomahawk together. There are two possible origin stories. One possibility is that pipe tomahawks were first manufactured by blacksmiths in Europe or America who “recognized the advantages of bringing the two objects together” as a clever gadget, a new negotiation tool.[10] A more intriguing possibility is that a Native man familiar with metal working (likely one who had apprenticed to a Euro-American blacksmith) constructed the first pipe tomahawk to create something to demonstrate an Indigenous concept: a Native offering of peace could be met with ferocity if any betrayal occurred. In other words, this object signaled: “Peace or War – Your Choice.” This possibility of Native innovation is backed up by the observations of Moravian missionary David Zeisberger who, in 1779-80, noted:

“. . .some [Indians] who have been much with whites have begun to work in iron, have fashioned hatchets, axes, etc., right well, have given up the chase because they have found regular work much more profitable and less hard on clothing and shoes than wandering through the forest in pursuit of game.”[11]

The presence of Natives who were familiar with European skill-sets also leads me to think about museum objects and classification. If Native artisans were learning to work with European techniques and tools, is it possible that there may be pipe tomahawks and other objects in museums labeled as European-made that might be Native-made?

Gifts and Negotiations

Regardless of its origins, the combined pipe and tomahawk became a crucial diplomatic tool. Some pipe tomahawks were made in England and exported to North America to be used in trade, but the majority seem to have been made in America by rural blacksmiths.[12] European colonists also presented pipe tomahawks as gifts during diplomatic agreements and treaty signings with tribes. Lewis and Clark, for example, carried 50 pipe tomahawks with them on their expedition westward to use in trade or present as gifts to Native leaders.[13]

“Pipe tomahawks eventually became status symbols within the tribes. Chiefs who received pipe tomahawks at treaty signings carried them their entire lives. As signs of prestige, pipe tomahawks often were held by Native American Chiefs while being photographed.”[14]

Some of the pipe tomahawks made for special occasions and presentations to Chiefs were elaborately designed and displayed superior craftsmanship. These featured “silver or brass inlays, engraved iron and steel blades, handles of selected hardwoods, [and] the name of the donor or recipient and the date of the gift engraved on the metal inlays.”[15]

Mass Production & Authenticity

The pipe tomahawk that I analyzed is simple in its design, and was likely not part of a formal presentation. Its style does not represent any particular tribe, and its design is nearly identical to dozens of other pipe tomahawk in museum collections. Pipe tomahawks on display at the Penn Museum, National Museum of the American Indian, the British Museum, and Pitt Rivers Museum, for example, are eerily similar, from the staining and coloring of the wooden handle, to the simplistic detailing, cut of the blade, and shape of the pipe. Maker’s marks are faintly visible on some of the blades. All of these pipe tomahawks also have a piece of leather in between the blade head and the wooden shaft, acting as a seal. These similarities in shape, size, and simple detailing all suggest a mass-produced object.[16]

Kristina Novakovic with pipe tomahawks on display at the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, England. Photo by Margaret Bruchac.

The evidence of common production brings up questions of authenticity. If iron tomahawks and pipe tomahawks did not originate in Indigenous communities, are they authentic artifacts and markers of Native American culture? Some of the early anthropologists and collectors of the late 19th and early 20th centuries believed that age and culture went hand and hand, as though Native-ness somehow ended with European contact.[17] While it may not be an accurate portrayal of ancient Native weapons and pipes, the tomahawk does show how Native American culture was flexible and adaptable, and it also reveals the extent to which Natives interacted with Europeans. Before Native interactions, there would have been no need for the combination of a pipe and a weapon, since Europeans did not associate the smoking of pipes during rituals and ceremonies with the intention of making peace. Relations between European colonial settlers and Natives were often violent (as symbolized by the tomahawk) and often aspired to be peaceful (as symbolized by the pipe).

During my research on objects produced for use in the Indian trade, I became keenly aware of the influence of Native people on colonial and European culture, and in primary sources, Native American and First Nations tribal leaders frequently referenced the importance of calumets and pipe tomahawks. Yet, when Native culture is overwhelmingly written about and displayed by non-Natives, crucial nuances may be left out of the conversation.

Also, in the written records, there is an overwhelming mention of men when discussing tomahawks and warriors. Native women are rarely mentioned, even though there are many examples of female warriors: the Wampanoag sunksqua Weetamoo during King Philip’s War; the Cherokee war women who followed their husbands and brothers into battle; Yellow-head and Running Eagle of the Blackfoot who led war parties; Da’nawa-gasta, or “sharp war,” who was an especially tough warrior and head of a women’s military society; and many more.[18] Did these women carry weapons? Did they smoke pipes to negotiate peace? Are the objects they handled laying silent in this and other museum collections?

Indigenous artifacts are often seen, by Native history-keepers, to have agency; they are powerful beings with histories of their own. The pipe tomahawk lives in that liminal space in the midst of the colonial frontier, where the threat of war and the hope of peace frequently co-existed. In that sense, this object and others like it are not just “European trade goods;” they are witnesses to Native perspectives and experiences that we can only begin to imagine.


[1] Donald J. Blakeslee, “The Origin and Spread of the Calumet Ceremony,” American Antiquity, Vol. 46, No. 4 (Oct. 1981): 759-768. Also see Sean Rafferty and Rob Mann, Smoking and Culture: The Archaeology of Tobacco Pipes in Eastern North America, Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2004.

[2] Ralph Linton, Use of Tobacco among North American Indians, Chicago, IL: Field Museum of Natural History, 1924, 24-25.

[3] For more information on the circumstances surrounding the acquisition of these objects, see Margaret Bruchac and Ben Kelser, “The Kaskaskian Beaver Bowl,” in the research blog Beyond the Gallery Walls, University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology.

[4] “The Virginian tamahaac (tamahack, tamohak) is cognate with the Lenape tamahicun, Massachusetts tomhegan, Abnaki temahigan, Micmac tomehagan, etc., and the suffix –egan, –higan, –hican, –gan, of these words shows that the Indian word is a derivative, with the instrumental suffix –(hi)kan, from the Algonkian radical tam, ‘to strike’. . .The tomahawk is, therefore, by etymology, ‘the striking instrument.’ . . .The verb ‘to tomahawk’ is also in use, likewise the phrases ‘to bury the tomahawk,’ ‘to dig up the tomahawk,’ though less common than ‘to bury the hatchet,’ etc.” Alexander Chamberlain, “Algonkian Words in American English: A Study in the Contact of the White Man and the Indian,” The Journal of American Folklore, Vol. 15, No. 59 (Oct. – Dec., 1902), 262-263.

[5] Harold L. Peterson, “Notes on Tomahawks, Hatchets and Boarding Axes used by Americans,” American Society of Arms Collectors Bulletin 6:11-15.

[6] Lewis Henry Morgan, League of the Ho-dé-no-sau-nee or Iroquois. Rochester, NY: Sage, 1851, 363-364.

[7] Scott Manning Stevens, “Tomahawk: Materiality and Depictions of the Haudenosaunee,” Early American Literature, 53.2 (2018), 478-479, 481.

[8] Etching of Joseph Brant published in Francis S. Drake, Indian History for Young Folks, New York: Harper and Brothers, 297. Copied from a 1776 oil portrait by George Romney, now in the National Gallery of Canada.

[9] European military and navy personnel favored the hand axe as both a practical tool and a military weapon, and Spanish soldiers of the early 16th century used both small hand axes and larger battle axes or halberds as weapons throughout their efforts in colonizing the Americas. See Peterson, “Notes on Tomahawks,” 15.

[10] Richard A. Pohrt, “Pipe Tomahawks from Michigan and the Great Lakes Area,” Bulletin of the Detroit Institute of Arts, vol. 62, no. 1, 1986, 55.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Pohrt, “Pipe Tomahawks from Michigan,” 57.

[13] Kansas Historical Society, “Pipe Tomahawk.” Kansapedia, Kansas Historical Society website 2008.

[14] Kansas Historical Society, “Pipe Tomahawk.”

[15] Pohrt, “Pipe Tomahawks from Michigan,” 59.

[16] Ibid, 58-59. See, for example, a pipe tomahawk given to Shawnee Chief Tecumseh by Col. Proctor c. 1812, in the on-line exhibit “Infinity of Nations: Art and History in the Collections of the National Museum of the American Indian.”

[17] Victorian era collectors were most interested in older objects – “those considered ‘traditional’ or representative of aboriginal life before contact with Europeans.” Shepard Krech III and Barbara A. Hail, eds., Collecting Native America, 1870-1960 (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Books, 2010), 56.

[18] Denise K. Lajimodiere, “American Indian Females and Stereotypes: Warriors, Leaders, Healers, Feminists; Not Drudges, Princesses, Prostitutes,” Multicultural Perspectives. 15.2 (2013): 106 – 107.

Sources Cited:

Blakeslee, Donald J. 1981. “The Origin and Spread of the Calumet Ceremony,” American Antiquity, Vol. 46, No. 4 (Oct. 1981): 759-768.

Chamberlain, Alexander. 1902. “Algonkian Words in American English: A Study in the Contact of the White Man and the Indian.” The Journal of American Folklore, Vol. 15, No. 59 (Oct. – Dec., 1902), 240-267.

Drake, Francis S. 1885. Indian History for Young Folks. New York: Harper and Brothers.

Krech III, Shepard, and Barbara A. Hail, editors. 2010. Collecting Native America, 1870-1960. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Books.

Lajimodiere, Denise K. 2013. “American Indian Females and Stereotypes: Warriors, Leaders, Healers, Feminists; Not Drudges, Princesses, Prostitutes.” Multicultural perspectives. vol. 15 no. 2.

Linton, Ralph. 1924. Use of Tobacco among North American Indians. Chicago, IL: Field Museum of Natural History.

Morgan, Lewis Henry. 1851. League of the Ho-dé-no-sau-nee or Iroquois. Rochester, NY: Sage.

Peterson, Harold L. “Notes on Tomahawks, Hatchets and Boarding Axes used by Americans,” American Society of Arms Collectors Bulletin 6:11-15.

Pohrt, Richard A. 1986. “Pipe Tomahawks from Michigan and the Great Lakes Area,” Bulletin of the Detroit Institute of Arts, vol. 62, no. 1:

Rafferty, Sean and Rob Mann. 2004. Smoking and Culture: The Archaeology of Tobacco Pipes in Eastern North America. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press.

Stevens, Scott Manning. 2018. “Tomahawk: Materiality and Depictions of the Haudenosaunee,” Early American Literature, vol. 53 no. 2: 475–511.

This object analysis was conducted for the Fall 2018 University of Pennsylvania course “Anthropology of Museums.” Students are examining Native American objects in the American Section of the Penn Museum by combining material analysis (elements, construction, design, condition, etc.) with documentation (texts, photographs, ethnographic data, etc.). Since some objects have minimal provenance data, we seek out similar materials, consult research articles and archives, and consider non-material evidence (oral traditions, ecosystems, museum memories, etc.) that might illuminate these objects. This research is designed to expand our understandings of object lives, using insights and information gathered from inside and outside of the Museum.

For more blogs from the 2018 Anthropology of Museums class, see the following articles, edited by Margaret Bruchac:
• With Erica Dienes. “The Salmon Basket and Cannery Label.”
• With Erica Dienes. “Choctaw Beaded Sash: Crossing Histories.”
• With Lilianna Gurry. “Moose Hair Embroidered Birchbark Trays: French, Native, or Both.”
• With Lilianna Gurry. “Blackfeet Moccasins: Gifts for Charles Stephens.”
• With Kayla A. Holmes. “Tlingit Raven Rattle: Transformative Representations.”
• With Ben Kelser. “The Kaskaskian Beaver Bowl.”
• With Ben Kelser. “Children Among the Caribou: Clothes for a Young Innu.”
• With Leana Reich. “Lady Franklyn’s Quilled Mi’kmaq Box.”
• With Leana Reich. “The Mysterious Beaded Collar.”