Tomahawk Pipe

By Farzana Fariha

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AE2010.11.633 Tomahawk Pipe collected by Charles A. Philhower. Gift of Rutgers University, Special Collections.

Tomahawk pipes are unique artifacts that contain duality in use and meaning. A tomahawk is a lightweight, single-handed axe originating from North America. They are closely associated with Native Americans, and unfortunately, it is often thought to be a symbol for savagery as depicted in early American art and literature. However, the tomahawk pipe introduces a story of peacemaking between tribes, and between Native Americans and early European settlers.

The earliest evidence of tomahawk pipes are from the 18th century. They are objects that are designed for dual use, with a tomahawk and pipe bowl on one end. The long wooden handle that connects the two ends serves as a pipe stem. The early forms may have been intended to be used as both a hatchet and pipe but became a symbol for difficult decision-making about war and peace. They became prized personal objects that implied prestige within a group. The creator of the tomahawk pipe is unknown, but they were owned by Native Americans and settlers. This implies that these objects were diplomatic devices.

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AE2010.11.633 Tomahawk Pipe collected by Charles A. Philhower. Gift of Rutgers University, Special Collections.

The earliest tomahawk pipes were heavy and made with wood, iron, or steel, but other metals such as brass were used later on as the decorations became more ornate. Tomahawk pipes with incredibly intricate designs and marks of fine craftsmanship arose, making them highly prized personal possessions, and were passed down from generation to generation. Obvious nonfunctional blades came into existence in the mid 19th century, further supporting the idea that it was a ceremonial tool.

Pipes and tobacco are incredibly significant and an integral part of Native American culture. Smoking tobacco is thought to connect humans to spiritual powers, and the plant itself is considered to be sacred. Native Americans use tobacco as an offering to other tribes as gifts, an offering to elders, and are placed next to graves for the departed. Tobacco originates from the Americas and was unfamiliar to Europeans. Pipes were made out of clay and stone, and often times they displayed incredible attention to detail. Pipes were also referred to as peace pipes because smoking together was a method to end conflict and disagreements.

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AE2010.11.633 Tomahawk Pipe collected by Charles A. Philhower. Gift of Rutgers University, Special Collections.

The tomahawk pipe above features a carving of two hands clasping in the middle of a long, wooden handle. The end with the pipe has an intricately carved dog head with steel teeth and glass eyes. The specific symbolism of this dog head is unknown as we do not know who made or used this pipe. It should be noted that there are hundreds of different kinds of cultures that are “Native American.” Meanings vary from tribe to tribe, making it difficult to assign meaning to a pipe with an unknown origin. Towards the end are bands of copper and iron, and the bands appear again on the opposite end towards the blade. The head of the tomahawk features a blade with inlays of copper and etched triangular designs on both the blade and the pipe bowl. The themes of peace, agreement, and diplomacy are portrayed literally by the hands shaking on the center of the pipe.

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