Academic journal article Early American Literature

Tomahawk: Materiality and Depictions of the Haudenosaunee

Academic journal article Early American Literature

Tomahawk: Materiality and Depictions of the Haudenosaunee

Article excerpt

Abstract: The article investigates the enduring stereotype of the cruel and warlike Iroquois in early American writings and visual representations. It looks at the tomahawk as a material object that reifies this stereotype and appears repeatedly across visual, written, and material culture through the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. By triangulating the archives of the library, the gallery, and the museum, the article is intended to better understand this enduring legacy of violence associated with the Haudenosaunee and perpetuated in written accounts, artistic portrayals, and collections of Haudenosaunee material culture. The bellicose nature of the tomahawk came to represent the false dichotomy imposed by Euro-Americans of the difference between savagery and civilization. The fear provoked by the Iroquois tomahawk acted as an implicit justification for settler violence and oppression of Haudenosaunee. In turn, the article argues, the Haudenosaunee have used this reputation for violence in protection of their sovereignty over the centuries.

KEYWORDS: archival triangulation, stereotypes, material culture, aura of referents, Haudenosaunee, Iroquois, Native America, ferocity, portraiture


Growing up in a biracial Mohawk-Anglo family in upstate New York, I had a deep familiarity with my mother's community on their reservations in New York State and Canada, not to mention other nearby communities such as the Tuscarora Nation to which my Mohawk grandparents had moved when I was a boy. I was keenly aware that the Haudenosaunee, also known as the Iroquois or Six Nations, and our culture persisted across a constellation of reservations stretching from Ontario through New York State and up into Quebec, while including those pockets of urban Haudenosaunee living in such cities as Toronto, Buffalo, Syracuse, and Montreal. But I was raised in my father's small farming village off the reservation and educated at white majority public schools. I knew all too well the enduring stereotypes concerning Native Americans. Not only were these cultural distortions present in my childhood classrooms in the late sixties and early seventies but they were all too present in popular culture as well. Hollywood Westerns of a few decades earlier replayed frequently on television and Westerns were still a staple of weekly programming.

While Haudenosaunee people did not figure into the Western, our nations individually or as the Iroquois or Six Nations were the common foils to settler civilization in the early literature of North America. In 1634, William Wood introduced the name of "Mowhacks" to his English readers when he claimed the very name "would strike the heart of a poore Abergenian [New England Indian] dead" (57) and later Increase Mather would report that the name "Mohawk" was derived from an Indigenous (in this case likely Narragansett) word meaning "man-eaters" (Mather 60; Snow 86). From this point onward in the colonial period the Iroquois, but especially the Mohawk, would be associated with ferocity and cruelty. Poets and fiction writers alike would take up and perpetuate this stereotype throughout the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries as evidenced by the now obscure poetic works of Sarah Morton, Joel Barlow, or James Eastburn and the novels of James Fenimore Cooper. (1)

In this article, I trace this stereotype through and beyond these literary fictions to material and visual cultures of those same periods. My interest is with the enduring associations of the tomahawk (with or without the pipe element) in portrayals of the Haudenosaunee in the visual arts and popular culture, as expressed in museums, literature, fine art, and films. The pipe tomahawk as complex signifier is indeed operative in the images of the Haudenosaunee that we inherit in colonial paintings and printed engravings, but the viewer of these objects in the context of the museum or on film is very unlikely to do the research required to unpack the more complex significance. …

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