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Sean Kirst: To Senecas, a tomahawk from George Washington should stay at home

Sean Kirst

Chad Whitcomb, modified boys lacrosse coach at Salamanca High School, brought his team to the Seneca-Iroquois National Museum on Friday. Whitcomb appreciates the sport for all the elements it takes to play it well, and he tries to teach his young players the skill and passion they need to win.

Yet he also believes the game's lasting power connects to larger things, such as the meaning of Cornplanter’s pipe and tomahawk – a precious heirloom created more than 220 years ago that is now, finally, back on Seneca territory.

While most but not all of Whitcomb’s players are native, the story takes on universal meaning. The teenagers crowded around an illuminated case while Breann Crouse, a cultural specialist at the museum, shared the tale.

The tomahawk was a gift from George Washington, first president of the United States, to Cornplanter, the great Seneca chief and diplomat. It eventually was purchased by Ely Parker, a Seneca who – as an officer in the U.S. Army – became a key aide to Gen. Ulysses Grant during the Civil War, and later served as the first native commissioner of  Indian Affairs.

In 1850, according to state records, Parker donated the tomahawk to the state museum in Albany through his connection to anthropologist Lewis Henry Morgan. At some point about 70 years ago, it was stolen and vanished for decades, until an unidentified donor bought it for $75,000 and agreed last year to give it back to the state.

The tomahawk was officially unveiled at the Seneca Nation this month. State officials responded to a 38-page request from David George-Shongo Jr., acting director of the museum, by approving a loan that allowed the artifact to be displayed for six months on Seneca territory.

Seneca leaders, pointing to the essential meaning, are asking state officials to turn over ownership – or at least to put the tomahawk on permanent loan at the museum, which moved last year into a new building.

"It belongs here," said Rick Jemison, museum chairman, who described the return of the tomahawk as one of the great moments of his life. In a speech at the welcoming ceremony, Rickey L. Armstrong Sr., the Seneca Nation president, emphasized that “this tomahawk is not symbolic. It is not here just for show.”

Seneca-Iroquois National Museum Director David L. George-Shongo Jr. holds the pipe tomahawk that Seneca leader and diplomat Cornplanter received from President George Washington. (Mark Mulville/Buffalo News)

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He said it offers physical evidence of the deep original ties between the Senecas and the U.S. government, and that it is proof “our land – our home – shall be ours for time immemorial.”

In an email Monday, a spokesperson for the state museum wrote that a condition set by the anonymous donor who returned the tomahawk was that it must remain within the museum's permanent collection, which is housed in Albany.

"At the end of the loan," the spokesperson wrote in an email, "the pipe tomahawk will return to the State Museum with plans to display it in a future exhibition for hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers to see, appreciate and learn from."

Tyler Heron, a Seneca elder and historian, said that reasoning sounds too familiar.

"It's like anything else George Washington gave us," he said. "There's always some government to break that word."

The tomahawk, he said, represents a commitment between two historic leaders, and the intention was for the gift to be a permanent reminder among the Senecas of their bond with the first American president. "It's finally back where it should be," Heron said. "This was a mark of Washington's word."

Missing for decades, George Washington's gift 'finally came home' to Senecas

George-Shongo, in recalling his great-grandfather, Sharman Warrior, spoke of that meaning as intensely personal. Deep into the 20th century, George-Shongo said, Warrior followed the old ways, living in a cabin with a dirt floor, surviving on what he could hunt or trap himself, asking his great-grandchildren to “run and get the pail and bring him water.”

Even as a child, George-Shongo sensed deep sadness in the older man. Warrior often spoke with admiration and sorrow about Cornplanter, the revered war chief and diplomat whose negotiations with Washington in the early years of the new American nation helped lead to the landmark Treaty of Canandaigua.

In a 1790 address to Cornplanter and other Seneca chiefs, Washington promised the American government would not allow individual states to simply buy up Six Nations territory without federal approval, a vow that remains intertwined with the emotional core of many modern legal actions by Iroquois nations, seeking government redress for lost land.

Warrior brought the young George-Shongo to see the Kinzua Dam, built more than 50 years ago. He explained how hundreds of Senecas were told to leave their homes once the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers began construction, a mass eviction that Warrior said violated core promises going straight to Washington.

One of the most painful results, the child learned, involved the grave of Cornplanter himself, whose remains were unearthed and moved before the area was inundated by the dam. To George-Shongo's great-grandfather, that seemed an ultimate statement of disregard for both Cornplanter's life and his dreams for his people.

The construction of the dam, George-Shongo said, shattered Warrior’s hope and caused him to believe “it was the beginning of the end” for the Senecas as an independent nation.

In childhood, George-Shongo had his own glimpse of despair. He was 13 when his father left the family. His mother, a year later, learned she had cancer, an illness from which she needed time to recover. George-Shongo had to find work, as a teen, to help feed his younger siblings.

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One of those jobs was working part-time at the museum, where he began absorbing the same lessons Chad Whitcomb hopes to teach his lacrosse team. As George-Shongo grew aware of the sweep of Seneca history, he began seeing himself as something more than one teenager, caught up in a lonely struggle.

He realized that everything he did with his life, individually and collectively, played a role in a broader story.

"What I learned, what I try and get across to these kids, is that we’re worth it,” George-Shongo said.

He went on to attend St. Lawrence University, returning home to become increasingly involved with the museum. His wife, Evelyn, is now a court of appeals judge for the Senecas, and they have raised their daughter, Arianna, 13, to know and understand the Seneca language.

Even “I love you,” which George-Shongo tells Arianna all the time in their own language, has a slightly different meaning in Seneca, he said.

“It means I cherish you,” he said, “and I’m not going anyplace.”

The Salamanca Middle School boys lacrosse team, with Cornplanter's tomahawk. (Photo courtesy of Chad Whitcomb)

To Whitcomb, the lacrosse coach, that sense of place and continuity becomes pivotal for young lives. Amid a digital avalanche of social media, children often feel more isolated than ever, especially when the internet brings bullying and cruelty into their own homes.

Lacking a sense of self, when drugs and alcohol are never that hard to find, young people can be vulnerable to the sway of harsh forces.

“We need to teach them about life, about getting along,” Whitcomb said of his players.

For all those reasons, he brought them to see the tomahawk. They are in middle school, and he did not kid himself that every child might suddenly feel some bolt of life-changing lightning. Instead, he joined with the staff at the museum in hoping these teens, as they grow older, will have the chance to learn the meaning of the gift to Cornplanter.

“If this can come back,” George-Shongo said, “anything can come back.”

Sean Kirst is a columnist with The Buffalo News. Email him at or read more of his work in this archive.

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