Tomahawk. This is a word that can pull up some gruesome scenes in our minds from studies in early American history, as well as images portrayed in western movies. What is a Native American Tomahawk and how was it developed and used in the historical and social context? Why does it continue to have an allure to us today as a decorative and conversational piece of Native American Art?
Native Americans Indians first made this hatchet-like instrument from stone with a wood handle attached with leather bindings. The word itself stems from an Algonguian word tamahak, which simply meant a tool used for cutting. Often, large animal jawbones as well as horns were used in the making of a tomahawk. The intricately carved stone or bone blade, as well as the wood handle were sometimes decorated with ornate designs and feathers. Eagle feathers were used to denote brave acts in war or in the hunt. The early European settlers became fascinated with this implement and improved it by introducing metal in its fabrication. The first metal ones were made of iron, then came iron with steel welded to the edging, then brass with a steel bit, and lastly, tomahawks made from solid brass. These tomahawks became a useful trade item with the Native Americans. They liked the newer, lighter pieces. The implements were handy and could be used to easily chop large trees for building canoes. The other end of the blade was shaped either as a spike or a hammer head thus further increasing its usefulness. These prized European made trade items remained popular well into the 1800s.
The Native Americans used their tomahawks in many ways. They were useful for chopping, raking, catching, pulling and digging. Not only used for war and hunting, the Indian tomahawks were important in ceremonies and council meetings. In fact, even today we have a term that has been handed down. “Bury the Hatchet.” During war councils, the tribal leader would place a tomahawk on the ground in front of the assembled warriors. After discussion, if he picked up the tomahawk, it meant that war was at hand. If he covered it with soil and thus buried it, war was averted. Native Americans also used the tomahawk to confirm treaties and to establish friendships. Many of the implements had a built in peace pipe to be used for such events. The handle was hollowed out and a smoking bowl was placed on the opposite end of the blade.
However, it is in war that the Native American Indian tomahawk gained its notoriety. It had a usefulness as both a defensive and offensive weapon. The early stone tomahawk was used as an effective war club and could be employed in close quarters or thrown at an enemy from a distance. However, it was the later use of metal bladed tomahawks that brought terror to their enemies and was embellished by Hollywood in movie battle scenes. Scalping a fallen enemy was the process of removing the hair to be kept as a trophy for the warrior’s bravery. Hollywood depicts scalping as being done with a tomahawk, when in reality, after felling his opponent with the instrument, it was much easier and quicker to remove the trophy hair with his knife. One of the other uses of the tomahawk before or during war was to attach medicine bundles to help bring in the supernatural realm to assist in battle victories.
Today, apart from historical and social context, the Native American Tomahawk continues to be an object of allure. Not as a weapon, but as a unique conversation piece or a beautiful decorative wall hanging. Native American craftsmen produce tomahawks as wonderful pieces of art embellished with leather wrappings, designs on the blades or stone, feathers, fur, horsehair, beads and buckskin. Now, collectors or those who love to decorate with southwest or western themes, can obtain beautiful pieces for themselves. So, check out Grey Wolf Trading Post. We do have a wonderful selection of Native American Indian Tomahawks and Hatchets, including those with blades made of stone, jawbones, iron and brass. Artist include members of the Navajo and Creek Indian Tribes. A Certificate of Authenticity is included with each piece. To view our selections, just click here.