Why It’s OK to Bury the Hatchet, Just Not In Someone…

I’ve been watching a creepy series on Netflix recently… You. It won’t be much of a spoiler if I say that sometime during a series, a certain someone buries a hatchet in a certain someone else’s back. The “bury the hatchet” recipient kind of had it coming, but even still, it was somewhat of an impulsive display of overreaction. This whole episode got me thinking… While “bury the hatchet” is a common phrase we use today, it certainly is an odd way to describe forgiveness and reconciliation unless, by reconciliation, you mean hacking your enemies into mincemeat.

A Fearsome Weapon

The “hatchet,” better known as a tomahawk, was a serious club-like weapon with an edge. Dating back to stone-age times when a sharpened rock would be attached to a sturdy handle, the weapon has been a symbolic and literal harbinger of war and conflict for centuries.

The tomahawk has enjoyed a modern resurrection due to its utility as both a tool and a weapon, making it popular among even modern warriors. Back in the mid-1960s, a World War II Marine Corps vet, Peter Lagana, reimagined the tomahawk and built versions that became popular with troops in the Vietnam War. Now, it’s not unusual to find modern warriors still using them. For what it’s worth, the lead character of former Navy Seal Jack Carr’s popular Terminal List hero puts one to gory use. We’ll leave it at that in case you haven’t yet read the entire series.

The modern tomahawk is quite a handy tool, especially in the woods.

Bury the Hatchet Origin Story

The practice of burying weapons of war (the tomahawk in this case) dates back to a Native American practice of warring tribes to come to a peace agreement by quiet literally burying a symbolic tomahawk as a promise it would no longer be wielded in anger. Presumably, should relations decay, the weapon would be dug up, symbolizing a declaration of war.

Iroquois legend credits one notable origin theory to two visionary Native Americans, Dekanawidah and Hiawatha who saw the wisdom in advancing the cause of peace and civil society among tribes back in the late 16th century. The Iroquois Confederacy was originally formed by the alliance of the Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, and Seneca. In a far more tradition-laden and binding ceremony than signing a piece of worthless paper, chiefs from each nation buried their weapons under the roots of a large pine tree, from which an underground river washed them away, never to be used against each other again. In theory.

Literal Hatchet Funerals

While idioms like this one are largely passed through generations verbally, “bury the hatchet” has been used quite formally on numerous occasions.

In Article 11 of the Treaty of Hopewell, which in 1795 established the boundaries of the Cherokee Nation, we find the following reference, “The hatchet shall be forever buried, and the peace given by the United States, and friendship re-established between the said states on the one part, and all the Cherokees on the other, shall be universal; and the contracting parties shall use their utmost endeavors to maintain the peace given as aforesaid, and friendship re-established.”

During what we might loosely refer to as the Pilgrim era, Samuel Sewall wrote in 1680, “of the Mischief the Mohawks did; which occasioned Major Pynchon’s going to Albany, where meeting with the Sachem they came to an agreement and buried two axes in the ground; one for English another for themselves; which ceremony to them is more significant and binding than all Articles of Peace the hatchet being a principal weapon with them.”

Now, if we could only find a way to bury cable news programming…

Got something to say?