SALAMANCA — Few items in American history symbolize the troubled relationship between the United States and Indigenous Nations more than Seneca Chief Cornplanter’s peace pipe-tomahawk.
A present from President George Washington in 1792 with hopes to end years of battle, murder and crimes, Cornplanter’s peace pipe-tomahawk soon took a strange journey from its home on Seneca territory to the New York State Museum and then disappearing for decades.
But today, March 14, Cornplanter’s peace pipe-tomahawk is officially returning to the Seneca Nation of Indians, taking its overdue place in the Seneca-Iroquois National Museum (SINM) in the recently constructed Onöhsagwë:de’ Cultural Center.
“It was returned back to the New York State Museum in 2018, and then they talked it over with us,” said Jennifer Jimerson, the museum’s promotion manager. “Because we have this new building, they wanted to bring it back here.”
Jimerson said Dr. Gwendolyn Saul, a curator with the state museum, spoke with the Seneca Nation during its election night in November about the peace pipe-tomahawk, expressing how happy she was that it would be coming home.
“We’re all really excited about it,” Jimerson added.
The SINM is both a place for important artifacts and a cultural center to show Native Americans still living and thriving in the United States as well as the ongoing role of natives in American history.
“This peace pipe-tomahawk signifies the relationship between two governments,” explained David George-Shongo Jr., director of the museum. “This is the reason it is displayed in our Agwas tiadiya’dade’ — or our ‘Distinct Community’ room. The only Seneca word I can think about the peace pipe-tomahawk being in this room is ‘gáíwagwáihsös,’ which means, ‘it proves it.’”
Jimerson said the state museum had been easy to work with during the process because everyone agreed the SINM is where the peace pipe-tomahawk belongs.
“And they brought it back here themselves because they didn’t want to just send it,” she added.
Shortly after Cornplanter’s death in 1836, the New York State Museum in Albany obtained Cornplanter’s peace pipe-tomahawk in 1850, and there it was thought to remain.
In 1947, however, the peace pipe-tomahawk was stolen from a locked display case but wasn’t reported missing until 1950. The trail goes cold from there — over seven different owners are believed to have bought and sold this piece of Native and American history for up to tens of thousands of dollars.
It was in 2018 when an anonymous collector in Portland, Ore., contacted the New York State Museum about the item. The Seneca Nation immediately engaged to bring their history home, and the New York State Museum arranged for the return of the peace pipe-tomahawk.
“The return of Cornplanter’s pipe-tomahawk to our new Cultural Center is truly a historic moment,” said Rickey Armstrong, President of the Seneca Nation of Indians.
Because Washington’s gift to Cornplanter was both a peace pipe and a tomahawk, it highlights both the opposition of the indigenous people and the settlers from Europe as well as the hopes for peace between all nations following the Revolutionary War.
“Cornplanter was one of our first people who talked with George Washington,” Jimerson said. “He fought for our rights with treaties in those days, so it’s amazing Washington had it made just for him.”
Sadly, peace and prosperity wouldn’t survive the two leaders. Multiple rewritings of established treaties seized long-established Seneca homelands culminating with Cornplanter’s own historic home and lands submerged when the Kinzua Dam was built in 1960.
Disillusioned by the damage done to his people by European society and America’s Manifest Destiny, Cornplanter destroyed most gifts given to him by Washington and other dignitaries, retreating to his lands to breed horses until his death.
It’s amazing the peace pipe-tomahawk survived at all, but this small, significant piece of Native and United States history is back where it belongs.
“You wouldn’t even believe it’s that old,” Jimerson said. “It was all cleaned up looks really nice. Now, we just have to put it up on the floor for everybody to see it.”
The Seneca Nation opened its $20-million, 33,000-square-foot museum and cultural center in late 2018. Now, important native items have a new home to return to and be preserved in the facility’s cutting-edge “clean room” before being displayed and honored.
A special ceremony is being planned today, March 14, to show the peace pipe-tomahawk on display in the museum.
All are welcome to visit the museum to see Cornplanter’s peace pipe-tomahawk and learn about the Seneca and Iroquois’ past, present and future.
(Contact managing editor Kellen Quigley at email@example.com)