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Nebraska lawmakers may lend support for returning Standing Bear's tomahawk

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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.

LINCOLN — Shortly after a federal judge issued his landmark ruling in 1879 that Standing Bear and all Native Americans should be considered “persons” under the law, the Ponca chief gave one of his few possessions to one of the lawyers who had represented him.

The gift of a long-handled, ceremonial pipe tomahawk was a demonstration that attorney John Lee Webster was a brother to Standing Bear and the Poncas, who had recently been forced off their homeland in Nebraska.

The Poncas’ 460-mile walk to a bleak reservation in Oklahoma, under guard by U.S. troops, has been immortalized as the tribe’s Trail of Tears. Standing Bear was arrested after he returned to Nebraska to fulfill a promise to bury his eldest son, who had died in Oklahoma, in the Poncas’ beloved Niobrara River Valley.

Now a descendant of the famous chief is seeking the return of the tomahawk, which found its way into the collection of the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology at Harvard University. And the Nebraska Legislature is joining the effort, drafting a resolution supporting the tomahawk’s return. So far, 20 senators have signed on to the resolution.

The return is not a legal matter, but one of morality, said Brett Chapman, a Tulsa, Oklahoma, lawyer who is a descendant of Standing Bear.

The chief had no idea that someone he considered “family” would surrender the prized gift to someone else, Chapman said. The tomahawk belongs in a museum run by the Ponca Tribe of Nebraska, he said.

“It would be a nice display to show that we’re still here,” Chapman said.

State Sen. Tom Brewer of Gordon, who introduced the resolution and is a member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, agreed that the relic, and its connection to history, would be better displayed in Nebraska, where Standing Bear lived and where the historic trial took place.

“Someone in Nebraska can make the connection, where someone at Harvard might not understand the value,” Brewer said.

The resolution is expected to be debated this week and comes at a time when recognition of Standing Bear’s story is at a peak.

Last week, a committee with the Lincoln Public Schools recommended that a new high school in the capital city be named in honor of Standing Bear.

In 2019, a bronze statue of Standing Bear was installed at the U.S. Capitol after the Nebraska Legislature voted to replace the state’s past representatives in the National Statuary Hall, William Jennings Bryan and J. Sterling Morton, with author Willa Cather and the Ponca chief.

Before that, copies of the Standing Bear statue were erected at Lincoln’s Centennial Mall and at the Ponca Tribe’s headquarters in Niobrara. All the statues feature the chief holding a tomahawk.

That all followed the publication of the book “I Am a Man: Chief Standing Bear’s Journey for Justice,” by Lincoln author and journalist Joe Starita.

Chapman, whose great-great-great grandfather was Chief White Eagle, said he learned that the tomahawk was in Massachusetts three years ago, after the Peabody Museum held an exhibit titled “All the World is Here,” which included the Standing Bear item.

According to the Peabody Museum, the tomahawk was conveyed to the museum in 1982 as part of a large bequest from William Henry Claflin Jr. of Belmont, Massachusetts. Claflin had purchased it from the widow of Omaha attorney William Morris in 1930.

Museum officials, in response to emailed requests from Chapman, have said they wish to repatriate the tomahawk to the Ponca Tribe but first need to meet with tribal officials, as well as Chapman and any other interested descendants, to work out the details.

Larry Wright Jr., chairman of the Ponca Tribe of Nebraska, said the tomahawk’s return would be fitting. The tribal museum already features some of Standing Bear’s possessions, including a ceremonial headdress.

“His story originates here,” Wright said. “We would feel very honored to have the tomahawk back and would treat it with the respect that it deserves.”

Chapman said that he was disappointed with the somewhat vague response from the museum but that he, and others, are convinced that the artifact will be returned to the Poncas.

Earlier this year, the Peabody Museum issued a formal apology for the pain it caused by not voluntarily returning some Native American funeral items to their respective tribes.


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Reporter - Regional/state issues

Paul covers state government and affiliated issues. He specializes in tax and transportation issues, following the governor and the state prison system. Follow him on Twitter @PaulHammelOWH. Phone: 402-473-9584.

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