Seneca Nation celebrates return of Cornplanter pipe tomahawk

The official repatriation of Seneca Chief Cornplanter’s peace pipe-tomahawk took place in a ceremony Thursday at the Onohsagwe:de’ Cultural Center’s Distinct Community Room. Mark Schaming, director of the State Museum, and Seneca Nation President Rickey Armstrong stand with the famed relic that will remain with the Seneca Nation where it belongs.

SALAMANCA — Seneca Chief Cornplanter’s peace pipe tomahawk is back where it belongs — with his people.

A ceremony for the official repatriation of the famed pipe tomahawk took place Thursday at the Onohsagwe:de’ Cultural Center’s Distinct Community Room.

Seneca President Rickey Armstrong said Thursday was an important, historical day for all Senecas. He said George Washington was so impressed with Cornplanter that he gave him the pipe tomahawk out of friendship and respect.

“Last year, for the first time in 150 years, Cornplanter’s tomahawk peace pipe appeared back on Seneca territory,” he said. “It was supposed to be on loan, but how can you loan someone something that is truly theirs. This is the only one true home for this piece of Seneca history.”

Cornplanter’s peace pipe tomahawk had been missing from the New York State Museum in Albany for the past 70 years. It finally made its way home, but only temporarily, to the Seneca Iroquois National Museum in March. At that time, the relic was celebrated with a special ceremony and officially unveiled at the cultural center — and has been on display since.

Washington gave the pipe tomahawk to Cornplanter in 1792 as a gift during discussions for the Treaty of Canandaigua. Signed in 1794, the treaty confirmed the sovereignty of the Haudenosaunee, with the United States pledging to honor their land rights.

The Senecas said last March was the first time the tomahawk had been in their possession since 1850, when Seneca lawyer and tribal diplomat Ely Parker donated it to the state museum. Parker had previously purchased the tomahawk from the widow of Seneca resident Small Berry.

The tomahawk was later stolen from the state museum between 1947 and 1950, before being returned by an anonymous donor in 2018.

Mark Schaming, deputy commissioner of cultural education and director of the state museum, said the Seneca Nation requested to have the pipe back permanently.

“When we received it, we knew there would be enormous interest here (in the Seneca Territory), so the question came up, ‘How do we handle that sort of thing?’” Schaming said. “There’s a federal process for doing that called ‘repatriation.’ It’s called the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, but we didn’t have enough time to go through the process.”

Schaming said the state museum got the pipe tomahawk back in 2018 where it was exhibited for six months before being sent to the Seneca Iroquois National Museum. He said as soon as the pipe arrived at the Seneca museum, the conversation started about what it would take to get it there permanently and should they do a formal federal repatriation.

“It went on exhibit here. Then I came here, spoke about it and met everybody,” he said. “Our curator, Gwen Saul, was working with (the Senecas). After that day in September, Joe (Stahlman) and I began talking very specifically about the next steps to do this.”

Schaming it was discussed how they might avoid the federal process and directly transfer the relic from the state museum to the Senecas. He said the transfer was done this way because it had more symbolism than going through a federal process.

“It would have taken forever, but I also strongly believe that we are acting on behalf of President Washington,” Schaming said. “He intended this pipe to go to Cornplanter and the Seneca Nation, so it’s really kind of a no-brainer. It belongs here and, as an American, I’m proud to do that on behalf of our first president.

“We’re thrilled that the Senecas have it back in their hands.”

(Contact press reporter Deb Everts at salpressdeb@gmail.com)