Object: Tomahawk Pipe

 

Figure 1    Tomahawk pipe from the Ethnology Collection of the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History

Figure 1 Tomahawk pipe from the Ethnology Collection of the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History

E/1973/7/15
Tomahawk Pipe
Cheyenne
North America: Plains
c. 1880’s
Materials: Wood and iron alloy

This tomahawk pipe from the Ethnology Collection at the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History has a wooden handle and a head made from an iron alloy. The pipe shaft is 22 5/16” long, 1 3/8” wide, and 15/16” high. The axe head is 9 1/8” long, 3 9/16” wide, and 1 1/4” high. The shaft is incised with both small pinpoint impressions and larger dark spots likely created with a heated tool. The small hole with the bit of string looped through it would have contained a leather strap at one time. This tomahawk pipe has a very interesting history and is an excellent example of how a seemingly simple item can tell a story about the people who collect and donate objects to museums.

When a thoughtful woman named Frances Surr from California donated twenty-two cherished family heirlooms, including this tomahawk pipe, to the Stovall Museum (now named the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History) in the early 1970s, she did so without any apparent personal connection to the University of Oklahoma or to the state itself.[1] So, why did she send her treasured items halfway across the country to reside in a museum she had never previously visited? For her the answer was simple: Place.

Figure 2    Darlington Agency, 1878. Courtesy, Western History Collections, University of Oklahoma.

Figure 2 Darlington Agency, 1878. Courtesy, Western History Collections, University of Oklahoma.

Surr’s father, Dr. Vernon W. Stiles, had collected the tomahawk pipe as a young pharmacist plying his trade at the Darlington Agency on the Cheyenne and Arapaho Indian Reservation between September 1883 and September 1885. The agency, established in 1870, sat on the northern bank of the Canadian River’s northern fork, just opposite a bustling U.S. Army outpost named Fort Reno (now El Reno, OK). Stiles worked for Hemphill & Woy, a pair of traders, and he interacted with Native Americans on a daily basis.[5] So, when Surr contemplated an appropriate new home for her presumably Cheyenne artifacts, she felt an obligation to “send the things back to their source.”[6] In this sense, “source” meant place of origin. For Frances Surr, a meaningful connection existed between her items and the history of the Cheyenne people, the history of her father, and the history of lives lived in Indian Territory (modern day Oklahoma).

What then can this tomahawk pipe tell us about life in and around the Darlington Agency during the late nineteenth century? What did it mean for the various people who possessed it? Did it function as an actual axe, as a pipe, as both, or did its owners give it an altogether different purpose?

While Vernon Stiles probably procured the tomahawk pipe in Oklahoma, its original place of creation is less certain. Considering that Stiles worked on the Cheyenne and Arapaho Reservation, museum officials originally assumed that the artifacts in the collection must be Cheyenne. The Cheyenne, however, sustained exchange networks across a wide expanse of the Great Plains from Montana to Texas. They traded goods and ideas with people from various Native American groups such as: the Osage, Ponca, Plains Apache, Comanche, Kiowa, Cherokee, Choctaw, Creek, Chickasaw, and Seminole tribes.[7] Indeed, the Cheyenne often proved to be “highly effective middlemen” when it came to trading. [8]

Figure 3    Map of Indian Territory, 1866-1889.

Figure 3 Map of Indian Territory, 1866-1889.

Within those trade networks, similar tomahawk pipes were a common ceremonial gift across the continent during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The earliest examples appeared in the first half of the eighteenth century, and scholars generally agree that the first tomahawk pipes drew influence from both Native American and European technologies.[9] People typically used tomahawk pipes for ceremonial and display purposes, but there is some historical evidence of their use as functional tools.[10] Native peoples and European Americans exchanged tomahawk pipes to symbolically seal treaties and to acquire other goods. For instance, in 1804, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark’s Corps of Discovery brought 50 tomahawk pipes along on their famed journey of exploration and diplomacy.[11] Since the Cheyenne also used the reciprocal exchange of gifts to show respect for allies and to solidify agreements, this particular tomahawk pipe might very well have originated with a different group of people altogether.[12] Still, even if the Cheyenne did not produce the artifact, it is of a type that they would have found familiar. In fact, in 1996, a team of Cheyenne experts in consultation with Museum staff determined that the “[pipe] was not made by a Cheyenne.”[13] Yet, they permitted it to “be on display with Cheyenne [red pipe stone] pipes because of [its] trade metal.”[14]

Stiles lived at Darlington during a time of flux for the Native American inhabitants of the Cheyenne and Arapaho reservation. Many Cheyenne did not readily adapt to farming after being forcibly removed to Indian Territory from their ancestral homelands in Minnesota. Instead, the local agent, John D. Miles, established the Cheyenne-Arapaho Transportation Company which employed willing men as teamsters (wagon drivers) who freighted goods to Kansas railheads in Arkansas City and Wichita.[15] The Chisolm Trail, a great cattle-moving corridor between Texas and Kansas passed through the reservation, and many Cheyenne made a living from the cattle industry.[16]

As a clerk for Hemphill and Woy, Stiles had direct contact with prominent Cheyenne tribal members. Frances Surr attributed three of the artifacts in the collection, including the tomahawk pipe, to Chief Wolf Robe, as related to her by her father. One of the other artifacts, a war club, contains the initials W.R. etched into its handle. Without direct documentary evidence to prove an exchange took place between Stiles and Wolf Robe, we cannot say for certain that the items in question belonged to the Cheyenne chief. However, the two men almost certainly knew each given that Stiles held a conspicuous position at Darlington. Furthermore, the three items (the tomahawk pipe, the war club, and a headdress) would all be items a chief like Wolf Robe could have possessed. Wolf Robe frequently engaged in diplomatic encounters, and even traveled to Washington, D.C. to meet President Benjamin Harrison, who gifted the Cheyenne leader with a peace medal.[19] A chief accustomed to such diplomatic encounters could have easily received a tomahawk pipe like the one in the Stiles collection.

Figure 4    Chief Wolf Robe wearing the peace medal given to him by Benjamin Harrison. Wolf Robe holds a ceremonial pipe often called a calumet or “peace pipe”.  Courtesy of Western History Collections, University of Oklahoma Library.

Figure 4 Chief Wolf Robe wearing the peace medal given to him by Benjamin Harrison. Wolf Robe holds a ceremonial pipe often called a calumet or “peace pipe”. Courtesy of Western History Collections, University of Oklahoma Library.

Ultimately, regardless of the tomahawk pipe’s potential connections to Wolf Robe, the artifact itself offers fascinating insights into the complex nature of trade and reciprocal giving by people who lived in Indian Territory and throughout the Southern Plains. It also speaks to the social and economic transitions that occurred in the Southern Plains during the 1880’s. When Frances Surr felt the need to return the tomahawk pipe and other items to Oklahoma, she did so because she knew that they had much to say about life in Indian Territory in the late 19th century. Additionally, Darlington Agency’s place within Indian Territory shaped its history. Its proximity to railheads in Kansas, its position relative to other Native American lands, and its location on the Chisolm Trail all combined to frame life for the Cheyenne, Arapaho, and European Americans who lived there. Darlington Agency and Indian Territory shaped Vernon Stiles too, and he passed the memories of that place down to his children. The University of Oklahoma: a place that Frances Surr had never been, and yet the place that seemed most appropriate to deposit the material expressions of her precious memories of her father.

[Bryan Nies]

Notes:

[1] According to the Kansas Historical Society, the word tomahawk “is a combination of tribal and English words. Algonquin and [Powatan] Renape peoples called their lightweight axes ‘tamahak,’ ‘tamahakan,’ or ‘tamahagan.’ European Americans pronounced these words as ‘tomahawk.’” See: Kansas Historical Society, “Cool Things – Pipe Tomahawk,” Kansapedia (September 2008, Modified December 2014) https://www.kshs.org/kansapedia/cool-things-pipe-tomahawk/10379 (accessed 20 March 2015).

[2] Letter from Frances Surr to Dr. Bell of the Stovall Museum, dated 5 November 1973.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Letter dated 7 September 1885, signed Hemphill & Woy. Held in the tomahawk pipe’s accession file.

[6] Letter from Frances Surr to Dr. Bell of the Stovall Museum, dated 5 November 1973.

[7] David LaVere, Contrary Neighbors: Southern Plains and Removed Indians in Indian Territory (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 2000), 222; K.N. Llewellyn and E. Adamson Hoebel, The Cheyenne Way: Conflict and Case Law in Primitive Jurisprudence (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1941), vii; See also, Donald J. Berthrong, The Cheyenne and Arapaho Ordeal: Reservation and Agency Life in the Indian Territory, 1875-1907 (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1976).

[8] Pekka Hämäläinen, “The Western Comanche Trade Center: Rethinking the Plains Indian Trade System,” The Western Historical Quarterly, vol. 29, no. 4 (Winter, 1998): 506-507.

[9] Kansas Historical Society, “Cool Things – Pipe Tomahawk,” Kansapedia (September 2008, Modified December 2014) https://www.kshs.org/kansapedia/cool-things-pipe-tomahawk/10379 (accessed 20 March 2015).

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Loretta Fowler, Tribal Sovereignty and the Historical Imagination: Cheyenne-Arapaho Politics (Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2002), 4.

[13] NAGPRA findings 9/23/1996-9/25/1996, reported in Jethro Gaede, “A Time of Transition: Darlington Indian Agency and the Vernon W. Stiles Collection, 1883-1885 (Unpublished report compiled and held in artifact accession file, 2005-2006), 30.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Stan Hoig, Fort Reno and the Indian Territory Frontier (Fayetteville, AR: The University of Arkansas Press, 2000), 55-56; Stan Hoig, The Cheyenne: Indians of North America (New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 2006), 86.

[16] Hoig, Fort Reno and the Indian Territory Frontier, 128-134.

[17] Ibid., 104-105, 139.

[18] Letter dated 7 September 1885, signed Hemphill & Woy. Held in the tomahawk pipe’s accession file.

[19] Francis Paul Prucha, Indian Peace Medals in American History (Bluffton, SC: Rivilo Books, 1994), 67-68; Stan Hoig, The Peace Chiefs of the Cheyennes (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1980), 81.

 

Works Consulted:

1. Berthrong, Donald J. The Cheyenne and Arapaho Ordeal: Reservation and Agency Life in the Indian Territory, 1875-1907. Norman:University of Oklahoma Press, 1976.

2. Fowler, Loretta. Tribal Sovereignty and the Historical Imagination: Cheyenne-Arapaho Politics. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2002.

3. Gaede, Jethro. “A Time of Transition: Darlington Indian Agency and the Vernon W. Stiles Collection, 1883-1885. (Unpublished report compiled and held in artifact accession file, 2005-2006).

4. Hämäläinen, Pekka. “The Western Comanche Trade Center: Rethinking the Plains Indian Trade System.” The Western Historical Quarterly 29, no. 4 (Winter 1998): 506-507.

5. Hoig, Stan. The Cheyenne: Indians of North America. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 2006.

6. ——. Fort Reno and the Indian Territory Frontier. Fayetteville: The University of Arkansas Press, 2000.

7. ——. The Peace Chiefs of the Cheyennes. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1980.

8. Kansas Historical Society, “Cool Things – Pipe Tomahawk,” Kansapedia (September 2008, Modified December 2014) https://www.kshs.org/kansapedia/cool-things-pipe-tomahawk/10379 (accessed 20 March 2015).

9. LaVere, David. Contrary Neighbors: Southern Plains and Removed Indians in Indian Territory. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2000.

10. Llewellyn, K.N. and E. Adamson Hoebel. The Cheyenne Way: Conflict and Case Law in Primitive Jurisprudence. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1941.

11. Prucha, Francis Paul. Indian Peace Medals in American History. Bluffton, SC: Rivilo Books, 1994.

12. Surr-Stiles Collection. Accession No. E/1973/7/15, Ethnology Collection, Sam Noble Museum of Natural History, Norman, OK.

2 Responses to “Object: Tomahawk Pipe”


  1. 1 mara fine April 13, 2015 at 4:31 pm

    Wonderful, interesting, many thanks. Mara

  2. 2 Bryan Nies April 13, 2015 at 5:10 pm

    Thank you for the feedback, Mara. I enjoyed working on this project.


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Ethnology @ SNOMNH is an experimental weblog for sharing the collections of the Division of Ethnology at the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History.

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