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Chief Standing Bear’s Tomahawk, on view in the Peabody Museum (via Wikimedia Commons)

Harvard University’s Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology in Cambridge, Massachusetts announced plans to restitute a pipe tomahawk that formerly belonged to Ponca chief and civil rights icon Standing Bear. A joint agreement between the Peabody, the Ponca Tribe of Nebraska, and the Ponca Tribe of Oklahoma, is currently underway to secure the return of the heirloom, which has been in the museum’s collection since 1982. While the date of the return has yet to be announced, tribal representatives will visit the museum this September to view the tomahawk, along with a necklace, moccasins, and a pipe bowl, all associated with Standing Bear.

Chief Standing Bear was among the hundreds of Ponca tribe members who were forced by the US government in 1877 to leave their homeland in Nebraska and relocate to Indian Territory in Oklahoma. When Standing Bear and a cohort set out from the Oklahoma reservation to bury the chief’s son in his native Nebraska, they were arrested. In the watershed federal court case that followed in 1879, during which Standing Bear gave a moving speech, the judge ruled that Native Americans should be recognized as persons under the law with the right to expatriate. In recent years, bronze statues of Standing Bear have been erected on the Centennial Mall in Lincoln, Nebraska and, with his tomahawk in hand, in the Statuary Hall of the US Capitol.

Performer at the dedication of the Standing Bear statue at the US Capitol, 18 September 2019 (United States House of Representatives, from the Office of Greg Stanton and via Wikimedia Commons)

Standing Bear had given the tomahawk to John L. Webster, a member of the legal team that represented him pro bono, as an expression of gratitude. When Webster died, his estate sold the tomahawk to a private collector. It went on to change hands several times before it was gifted to Harvard by William Henry Claflin Jr., a Massachusetts resident.

Though Standing Bear’s tomahawk has been in the Peabody’s collection for decades, the petition for its return only gained traction this spring. Brett Chapman (Pawnee), an Oklahoma attorney with Ponca heritage who is descended from Standing Bear, had tweeted about the tomahawk on multiple occasions. On April 29, after receiving an expression of support from Nebraska State Senator Tom R. Brewer (Sioux), Chapman sent a letter to Peabody Museum director Jane Pickering, urging the museum to return the heirloom.

“I do not challenge the legal right of Harvard to possess this item,” wrote Chapman in the letter. “However, I do challenge the moral right on this basis: Standing Bear’s tomahawk in your possession is an item of patrimony… While Harvard may have had a relationship with a White individual somewhere in the chain of custody, it did not have a relationship with Standing Bear or what occurred.”

Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology at Harvard University (via Wikimedia Commons)

Pickering responded to Chapman’s letter, which he had also posted on social media, on May 5, saying that the museum would welcome the possibility of a dialogue. A new statement posted on the Peabody’s website reads that the museum and the Ponca tribe are “in active discussion about the homecoming of Chief Standing Bear’s pipe tomahawk belonging to the Ponca people.”

Larry Wright Jr., the chairman of the Ponca Tribe of Nebraska, told AP: “That’s a piece of our history that represents who we are and why we’re here in Nebraska, so for it to be back home is very appropriate.” Wright added that the Ponca Tribal Museum in Niobrara, Nebraska is currently preparing to house the tomahawk and other artifacts.

Earlier this year, the Peabody was criticized by the Association on American Indian Affairs (AAIA) for allegedly failing to fulfill the mandates of Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), which was implemented in 1990 and requires that federally funded institutions inventory and repatriate any Native American human remains and funerary and sacred objects in their collections. In response, the Peabody asserted that it had upheld NAGPRA but issued a public apology and announced plans to enact a series of policy changes around voluntary repatriation. The return of the tomahawk may be indicative of this welcome shift.

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Cassie Packard

Cassie Packard is an NYC-based writer and cultural critic with bylines at publications including Artforum, BOMB, frieze, and Los Angeles Review of Books. She is a regular contributor to Hyperallergic.