of the Tomahawk
"Perhaps the most
ubiquitous symbol associated with Native Americans is the tomahawk. However,
few people are aware of the multiformity of its history as well as its
The term "tomahawk"
is a derivation of the Algonquian words "tamahak" or "tamahakan".
The earliest definitions of these words (early 1600's) applied to stone-headed
implements used as tools and weapons. Subsequent references involved all
manner of striking weapons; wood clubs, stone-headed axes, metal trade
hatchets, etc. As the years passed a tomahawk was thought of as any Indian-owned
hatchet-type instrument. That association changed somewhat as white frontiersmen
(traders, trappers, explorers) came to rely on the tomahawk as standard
The popular perception
of a tomahawk has become that of a lightweight (one lb. or less) metal
head on a wood handle. With the exception of a relative few made by Indian
blacksmiths, tomahawks were manufactured on a large scale in Europe or
created by individual makers in America. Some were crafted in a most elaborate
manner, with fancy engraving and pewter or silver inlaid blades and handles,
for presentation to important chiefs in order to commemorate treaties
and seal friendships. The majority of them, though, were personalized
by their owners. Vastly different methods or adornment abounded - according
to materials available and the customs and styles of the time and region.
Hafts were polished smooth, carved, scalloped, inlaid, branded with hot
files, tacked, wrapped with copper or brass wire, covered with rawhide,
leather or cloth, stained, painted and hung with every type of ornament
Metals used (in rough
chronological order) were solid iron, iron with a welded steel bit (cutting
edge), brass with steel bit and lastly, solid brass (which diminished
its usefulness as a wood-chopping tool). The end of the head opposite
the cutting edge provided a place for a spike, hammer poll, or most ingeniously,
a pipe bowl.
With a smoking pipe bowl and a drilled or
hollowed handle, the pipe tomahawk became the most popular "hawk"
of them all. It developed as a trade good by Euro-Americans for trade
with native peoples. Iroquois men traded furs for these sought-after tomahawks.
Ornate examples were presented at treaty signings as diplomatic gifts
to Indian leaders, who carried them as a sign of their prestige. It was
at once a weapon and symbol of peace for over 200 years and was carried,
scepter-like, in the majority of photographic portraits of prominent Indian
Source: "Tools and Weaponry of
and Indian" by Ray Louis
was a small ax that the Indians of North America used as a tool and a
weapon. Most tomahawks measured less than 18 inches (45 centimeters) long
and were light enough to be used with one hand. Early tomahawks consisted
of a head (top part) made of stone or bone mounted on a wooden handle.
Some tomahawks ended in a ball or knob instead of a flat blade. After
Europeans arrived in America, the Indians traded with them for iron tomahawk
The Indians used tomahawks to chop wood,
to drive stakes into the ground, and for many other purposes. In battle,
warriors used their tomahawks as clubs or threw them at their enemies.
Tomahawks also served as hunting weapons.
The Indians used a pipe tomahawk in religious ceremonies. This kind of
tomahawk had a pipe bowl on the head and a hollow handle, and it could
be smoked as a ceremonial pipe. The Indians decorated these tomahawks
with feathers or dyed porcupine quills.
Some people think the expression bury the
hatchet came from an Indian custom of burying a tomahawk to pledge peace.
However, many scholars doubt that the Indians ever had such a custom."
Source: W. Roger Buffalohead M.A.,
Interim Dean, Institute of American Indian Arts