Many objects in the Luce Center, where nearly 40,000 objects from the New-York Historical Society’s permanent collection are displayed, are beautiful to look at. But they are also intriguing portals into the past, making us wonder “Why these objects? What makes them so important?” The answer lies in not what they are, but the story they tell, such as the story of this pipe tomahawk. “The tomahawk is significant as an artifact of cultural exchange between Native Americans and the new American government, and conveys the importance of maintaining friendly relations with the Iroquois,” says Decorative Arts Curator Margaret Hofer.
Hofer explains that the pipe tomahawk represents the duality of the settlers’ relationship with the Indians. “Pipe tomahawks are especially interesting, as they symbolize both war (the tomahawk) and peace (the pipe).” This pipe tomahawk belonged to Red Jacket, a member of the Seneca tribe of the Iroquois Confederacy known for wearing a red military jacket presented to him by the British for his work as a runner during the Revolutionary War. He then became an outspoken supporter of preserving Indian culture against the rising influence of European culture from settlers.
Rumor has it that the tomahawk was presented to Red Jacket by George Washington, but we don’t know this for sure. However, “the eagle imagery on the silver inlay does seem consistent with the idea that it came from the government,” says Hofer. Wherever it came from, the tomahawk became a permanent part of Red Jacket’s wardrobe.
The tomahawk was gifted to the New-York Historical Society by Dr. Samuel W. Francis, who said his father purchased it from Red Jacket himself. Now, after being “rehabilitated,” it will be displayed in the Luce Center with a new handle designed to look like the original, down to the missing silver inlays that it’s rumored Red Jacket may have traded away. “It is a rare Seneca artifact with a clear chain of provenance,” says Hofer, “connecting Red Jacket, his contemporary Dr. Samuel Francis and the donor.” When is a tomahawk not just a tomahawk? When it tells a story like this.