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Pipe Tomahawk

Pipe tomahawk

This pipe tomahawk symbolizes the blending of two cultures.

Either Native Americans or European Americans adapted the original tomahawk into a new form known as the pipe tomahawk in the early 1700s. The original tomahawk is an Indian tool with a wooden handle and a metal blade. What differentiates a regular tomahawk from a pipe tomahawk is its head, which consists of a cutting edge on one side and a pipe bowl on the other. Pipe tomahawks could be used for smoking and chopping when necessary, but they usually were more symbolic than practical.

The name tomahawk is a combination of tribal and English words. Algonnquin and Renape peoples called their lightweight axes "tamahak," "tamahakan," or "tamahagan." European Americans pronounced these words as "tomahawk." They liked the size and weight of the original tool, but made their own adaptation by replacing the stone heads with iron heads having steel blades. Tribes who had never seen a tool with a wooden handle and metal head called it a tomahawk, adopting the European American's term.

Pipe tomahawks also are a mix of Old World and New World products. The majority of these tools were made in North America. Their handles are of native woods (New World materials) and their axe blades were metal (an Old World product). Blades were usually iron with a steel cutting edge or, if not intended for cutting, they were made of brass. Some of the heads and handles were decorated with German silver, pewter, lead, brass, and copper inlays. The pipe tomahawk in the Kansas Historical Society's collection (pictured here) has diamond-shaped silver inlays on the handle and silver medallions in its iron head. Decorative inlays helped make pipe tomahawks a fashion accessory for European American pioneers.

Detail of decorative inlay on pipe tomahawk

European Americans traded pipe tomahawks with native peoples during the fur trade era, from about 1650 to 1870. The one pictured one dates to about 1870 and may have been owned by a member of the Sac or Fox tribes. European Americans also presented pipe tomahawks as gifts in diplomatic agreements and treaty signings with tribes. Lewis and Clark took 50 pipe tomahawks with them on their expedition (the Corps of Discovery) to trade or present as gifts. Their use as gifts and fashion accessories led to pipe tomahawks becoming more decorative than practical.

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

The pipe tomahawk's design contains a great deal of symbolism. The traditional tomahawk often was used as a throwing axe and therefore frequently associated with violence. Peace pipes are intended to be smoked during rituals and ceremonies. Because pipe tomahawks were presented to Native Americans during ceremonies, they took on some of the pacifistic symbolism of the latter.

Historians view pipe tomahawks as important symbols of the interactions between Native Americans and European Americans. Like the pipe tomahawk, relations between these two groups could be violent (as symbolized by the tomahawk) or peaceful (as symbolized by the pipe).

Thanksgiving is, in part, a celebration of blended cultures to create a uniquely North American culture. The pipe tomahawk is a blend of languages, New World and Old World products, and violence and peace--just like North America itself. The pipe tomahawk is neither entirely Native American nor European American, but the merger of both, making it entirely and uniquely North American.

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Entry: Pipe Tomahawk

Author: Kansas Historical Society

Author information: The Kansas Historical Society is a state agency charged with actively safeguarding and sharing the state's history.

Date Created: September 2008

Date Modified: December 2014

The author of this article is solely responsible for its content.