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Harvard University museum agrees to return Standing Bear's tomahawk

Harvard University museum agrees to return Standing Bear's tomahawk

Standing Bear statue

A bronze statue of Ponca Chief Standing Bear at the U.S. Capitol. The statue, which was installed in 2019, features the chief holding a tomahawk.

The Nebraska Legislature is considering a bill that would replace Columbus Day with Chief Standing Bear Day.

A Harvard University museum has agreed to return to the Ponca people a ceremonial tomahawk that once belonged to Standing Bear.

Once finalized, the move, which was requested by descendants of the legendary Ponca chief, as well as tribal leadership and the Nebraska Legislature, will mark the homecoming of an important part of Ponca history. The saga also could serve as an example of a nonconfrontational process for returning native belongings, according to members of the Ponca Tribe.

“I think this could be an example for sure,” said Larry Wright Jr., chairman of the Ponca Tribe of Nebraska and a participant in the repatriation discussions. The Ponca Tribe of Indians of Oklahoma also are involved in the repatriation talks.

Calls to return the tomahawk emerged earlier this year when Brett Chapman, a lawyer in Tulsa, Oklahoma, brought awareness to the fact that the tomahawk was at the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology at Harvard in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Chapman, a descendant of Standing Bear, contended that the tomahawk should be returned to the Ponca people.

The Nebraska Legislature joined the chorus calling for the tomahawk’s return in May when it adopted, on a 42-0 vote, a resolution encouraging the Peabody Museum to fulfill commitments to repatriate native artifacts.

After Chapman brought the issue to the attention of the Peabody, the museum contacted Ponca officials and started conversations with the goal of repatriating the tomahawk, according to a Harvard spokesperson.

Talks involving the museum, the Ponca Tribe of Nebraska and the Ponca Tribe of Indians of Oklahoma have been respectful and fruitful, according to Wright.

“So far in the process I’ve been pleased that it hasn’t (been confrontational),” Wright said. “The Peabody has been very open and receptive to working with us and doing this.”

The tribes requested that they be allowed to inspect the tomahawk, two other items that once belonged to Standing Bear and funerary objects that once belonged to the Ponca. That visit is tentatively planned for September.

“We want to be mindful of those (items) and treat those with the respect and dignity that they deserve,” Wright said.

The tribes have not decided what they will do with the artifacts, but Wright said he hopes they will be preserved in a manner that is accessible to the Ponca, particularly the tomahawk.

Standing Bear gifted the ceremonial pipe tomahawk to his attorney, John Lee Webster, following a landmark trial that ended with a federal judge ruling in 1879 that all Native Americans should be considered “persons” under the law. The case followed Standing Bear’s arrest after he returned to Nebraska, the homeland of the Ponca people before they were forcibly moved to Oklahoma by the U.S. government, to bury his eldest son.

The tomahawk was conveyed to the Peabody in 1982 as part of a bequest from William Henry Claflin Jr. of Belmont, Massachusetts, according to the museum. Claflin had purchased it from the widow of Omaha attorney William Morris in 1930. The museum does not know how Morris obtained the tomahawk.

The history and prominence of the artifact — many sculptures and paintings of Standing Bear depict him holding a tomahawk — make its return all the more significant, said Stacy Laravie, a member of the Ponca Tribe of Nebraska and descendant of Standing Bear. And the fact that a member of the Ponca Tribe initially raised the issue makes the tomahawk’s return even more special.

“I am really proud that a Ponca (member) stepped up and did that and that just shows right there the heart of the Ponca people. We are resilient,” Laravie said. “I am just so proud of the Ponca people.”

Chapman, who jump-started conversations, said he was proud to have played a role in the return of a piece of Ponca and American history.

“It makes me happy to think about how all the future Ponca children in 50 or 100 years will be able to have this connection with their people’s proud past,” he wrote in an email. “It belongs to the Ponca people then, now and will forever.”

State Sen. Tom Brewer, who introduced the resolution in the Nebraska Legislature, said he was happy to learn that the tomahawk would be returned to the Ponca. The story of Standing Bear is a critical part of Nebraska history.

While museums serve an important role in preserving and spreading awareness of history, the tomahawk belongs with the Ponca people in Nebraska, said Brewer, a member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe.

“It’s a priceless item coming back to the Ponca people, and it’s a really good thing,” he said.

The tomahawk’s return would coincide with growing awareness of Standing Bear’s story, Brewer noted.

A feature film based on the award-winning book “I Am a Man: Chief Standing Bear’s Journey for Justice,” by Lincoln author and journalist Joe Starita, is in the works. The film is currently in pre-production, according to the online movie database

A statue of Standing Bear stands in the U.S. Capitol thanks to action by the Nebraska Legislature in 2018.

Talks between the museum and tribes come amid the discovery of hundreds of human remains in unmarked graves located near Catholic Church-run residential schools that housed Indigenous children taken from their families in Canada.

In late June, the remains of 182 bodies were discovered using ground-penetrating radar. That discovery followed reports of similar findings at two other church-run schools, one of more than 600 unmarked graves and another of 215 bodies.

The initial discovery preceded an announcement by the U.S. Department of the Interior that it will undertake a search of federal boarding school sites for potential graves, the New York Times reported.

Though painful, Laravie said such revelations ensure that the truths and trauma faced by native people are widely known.

She sees similarities between Standing Bear’s story and the story surrounding his tomahawk. The Ponca chief’s seemingly small act to return to Nebraska carried far larger consequences in the form of a landmark court case. The return of the tomahawk, another seemingly small act, could be a harbinger for a societal shift that places greater respect and dignity for native people and their cultures.

“I really do see a shift happening,” she said, “and I just feel like this is something that could lead the way and be an example, just like Standing Bear so long ago.”

This report includes material from the Associated Press.

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