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What Does "Bury the Hatchet" Mean?

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  • Written By: Niki Foster
  • Edited By: Andrew Jones
  • Last Modified Date: 09 July 2014
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"Bury the hatchet" is an English idiom meaning to make peace or to settle differences with an opponent. Its earliest recorded usage dates back to the 18th century, though 17th century texts make reference to the practice behind the phrase. The idiom refers to a Native American practice of literally burying a tomahawk, or hatchet, in the ground as a symbol of a peace agreement between tribes.

Many Native American tribes held the practice of burying, hiding, or destroying their weapons during peacetime or as a symbol of a truce. According to tradition, it originated with the Iroquois. It is said that the truce between the Cayuga, Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, and Seneca tribes, thereafter known as collectively as the Iroquois, was accompanied by the tribes burying their weapons under a white pine. An underground stream was believed to have miraculously washed them away.

Native Americans did not only bury the hatchet when making peace with each other, but also when making peace with Europeans. After American Independence, the new government continued performed this act with Native American tribes as a sign of peace. A similar practice to burying the hatchet was used as recently as 1990 in the Oka Crisis, a land dispute between the Mohawk tribe and the Canadian town of Oka, Quebec. The Mohawks burned their weapons as a sign of the cessation of hostilities.

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In English, "bury the hatchet" was originally simply used to describe the Native American practice. In the late 18th century, the phrase came to be used figuratively to describe any peace between nations. It was not until the early 19th century that idiom came to be used to mean the making of peace between two individuals. Though not as common, phrases meaning the opposite — such as "raise the hatchet" and "dig up the hatchet" — are also occasionally used in English. French and Dutch, two other European languages that were influenced by contact with Native Americans, also have phrases with a similar meaning that are used in much the same way to their English counterpart.

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