Native American tomahawks performed many functions in their era, serving the native peoples as tools, weapons and ceremonial, ritual objects and gifts. Native American tomahawks also held a special place in the imaginations and fears of the European American settlers, often serving as a symbol of just why they deserved to drive out the indigenous peoples or as a justification for efforts to try to ‘civilize’ and Christianize them.
Serving as both a tool and a weapon for the indigenous peoples, the Native American tomahawks were a sort of hatchet. Before the arrival of the Europeans, the blade part tended to be most commonly of stone and afterwards, due to the trading of goods between the native and European peoples, steel was often used for the blade. In addition to the fairly simple and straightforward in design Native American tomahawks that served for the real work of everyday use, there were beautifully ornate tomahawks, meant for use in rituals and to serve as ceremonial gifts, such as to a chief.
For the European American settlers, however, Native American tomahawks had another meaning entirely, although it was frequently used as a tool when acquired through trading or as a gift from the native peoples. As tension levels rose and conflict became bloodier during the continuous consumption of land by the settlers, their continuous westward push, Native American tomahawks came to symbolize the supposed savagery of the native tribes. Often, Native American tomahawks served as a powerful propaganda tool for the European American settlers, justifying the hunting and slaughter of natives by the military and by the settlers in the numerous battles and wars fought for the land, as well as symbolizing their need to be civilized and Christianized by missionaries and even by the government itself, during the era when it was common to remove native children from their parents and send them state run boarding schools.
Native American tomahawks, while serving their users quite well as tools and weapons, were much more than practical items for a particular task at hand. They held within their form and function powerful symbolism, both for the Native Americans and for the European American settlers that struggled and eventually succeeded in taking their place on the American landscape.