A pipe-tomahawk given to Cornplanter by George Washington was recently returned to New York state after having been stolen.
Provided by Seneca Iroquois National Museum, Rochester Democrat and Chronicle
SALAMANCA, N.Y. – Given the state of relations between the fledgling United States government and the Seneca nation in 1792, a hybrid peace pipe-tomahawk was a fitting choice of gift from President George Washington.
The Senecas had sided with the British during the Revolutionary War. In retaliation, Washington personally ordered the genocidal Sullivan Campaign that nearly wiped the Senecas out in western New York and earned Washington the title “Town Destroyer.”
The Seneca chief Cornplanter was wary of violence and anxious to establish peace before things got worse. “Are you determined to crush us?” he asked Washington. The president demurred; “The United States and the Six Nations should be truly brothers,” he responded.
In 1792, while negotiations for the Treaty of Canandaigua were underway, Washington marked the uneasy peace by sending Cornplanter as a gift a finely wrought tomahawk head mounted onto a peace pipe.
Twice since then – once during Cornplanter’s lifetime, once long after – the pipe-tomahawk seemed to have been lost forever. It hadn’t been seen in public since 1950.
That is why Brenda Redeye, a descendant of the Seneca chief, was emotional Thursday at the ceremony unveiling it on display at the Seneca-Iroquois National Museum in Salamanca.
“You get overwhelmed with feelings that we’re part of history; we’re part our ancestors,” she said. “And we can feel it all the way down.”
A historical mystery
Pipe-tomahawks like the one Washington gave Cornplanter items were common gifts in European-Indian treaties, according to Gwendolyn Saul, the curator of ethnography and ethnology at the New York State Museum.
“They combine a utilitarian object, the tomahawk, with a pipe and the associations of smoking a pipe when you’ve made an agreement,” she told an Albany-area interviewer last year. “It really speaks to the relationship between Native and non-Native people.”
The brotherhood that Washington suggested did not come to pass. Cornplanter in the years before his death in 1836 retreated from European rapprochement to immerse himself again in the Senecas’ religion.
“The supernatural voices which he hears have told him that, ‘as he was advanced into the vale of years, it was time to lay aside everything calculated to excite ideas of war; and that there were several things in his house which, to this end, he must destroy,'” a white minister with whom Cornplanter was close wrote in 1827.
The chief and diplomat lit a fire and tossed into it most of the valuable gifts he had received through his life from both Europeans and Indians.
Somehow the pipe-tomahawk – at least the blade – survived the purge. Ely Parker, the young Seneca diplomat, fashioned a new wooden handle with silver inlay and gave it as a gift to the state museum after Cornplanter’s death.
There it stayed until about 1950, when the state museum’s newly hired director undertook an inventory and discovered that several items, including the pipe-tomahawk, were missing. The previous director refused to answer any questions about the vanished artifacts.
Between 1950 and 2018 Cornplanter’s pipe-tomahawk changed hands on the black market at least seven times, going for as much as $75,000 in 2010.
Last year, a lawyer contacted the state museum on behalf of the pipe-tomahawk’s current owners, expressing an interest in returning it. The anonymous donation was completed in June 2018, and the next month the state museum put the artifact on display for the first time in 70 years.
‘It belongs here’
For the Seneca living on the Allegany Indian Reservation in Cattaraugus County, though, the home-going was not yet complete. Fortunately they were just in the process of opening a new $20 million museum and cultural center that made it possible to showcase the pipe-tomahawk securely.
The state loaned it to the Senecas, who will have it on display until July 22 – and, they hope, much longer.
“(The loan) is for six months, but who knows what happens between now and then,” Seneca-Iroquois National Museum Director David George-Shongo said.
In 1790 Washington assured Cornplanter in a letter: “If any man brings you evil reports of the intentions of the United States, mark that man as your enemy, for he will mean to deceive you and lead you into trouble. The United States will be true and faithful to their engagements.”
Of course, that did not prove true.
The Senecas in particular remember the flooding of 10,000 acres of their land, including a tract given to Cornplanter himself in perpetuity, during the construction of the Kinzua Dam in 1960.
Nonetheless, Seneca Nation President Rickey Armstrong said: “This tomahawk is not symbolic. It is not here just for show. Cornplanter’s tomahawk is proof that our relationship with the U.S. and outside government is rooted in recognition of our sovereignty.”
Museum Board of Directors Chairman Rick Jemison said the pipe-tomahawk is an invaluable educational and historical treasure in the nation’s quest to connect with and continue its history.
“You can read all you want in the history books about Cornplanter, but until you see something that he held – that was his – that was in his hands – then it comes alive,” he said. “It’s just amazing that this pipe-tomahawk is even here today. But it’s where it belongs. It belongs here, because he was one of us.”
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