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.
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.”
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.
Goya’s Coded Love Letter to the Duchess of Alba
Goya neatly clothes himself in his own world of fantasy: He will have her in the end. In life, where the climate is much chillier, it was, alas, to be otherwise.
Witches Take Over Westchester
Bowen’s multimedia art is an alchemical mix of the sensuous and arcane, and it is more than a little witchy.
The Public Theater Explores the Hurricane Katrina Diaspora in shadow/land
Written by Erika Dickerson-Despenza and directed by Candis C. Jones, this lyrical meditation on legacy, erotic fugitivity, and self-determination is on view in NYC.
14 Art Books and Catalogues We’re Reading This Month
Anthologies and catalogues on feminist art in Latin America, Native mound building, Armenian photography, and more are on our reading list.
Saudi Arabia Announces $1M “Freedom of Expression” Art Award
Kanye West, Roman Polanski, and Carl Andre are among the shortlisted artists.
The Rubin Museum Presents Death Is Not the End
Tibetan Buddhist and Christian works of art made across 12 centuries explore death, the afterlife, and the desire to continue to exist. On view in NYC.
British Museum Offers Greece “Exclusive NFT” of the Parthenon Marbles
“With the power of blockchain technology, there will be no question who the real owner is,” said a British Museum spokesperson.
MoMA to Co-Curate Exhibition With NYPD
Arrest Me, Daddy hopes to cast a more positive light on the work of law enforcement officers.
When I Am Empty Please Dispose of Me Properly
Ayanna Dozier, Ilana Harris-Babou, Meena Hasan, Lucia Hierro, Catherine Opie, Chuck Ramirez, and Pacifico Silano explore the myths of the American Dream at Brooklyn’s BRIC House.
Repatriation-Inspired Fragrance Line Hopes to Heal Collector Wounds
The exotic scents of the Rapatriement line offer solace and joy to dismayed collectors who were forced to return looted artifacts.
Mediocre Painting Thought AI-Generated Revealed as Work of Real Artist
Visitors who spoke to Hyperallergic said they were “horrified” to learn that a human could come up with such a banal and poorly executed artwork.
Pratt’s 2023 Fine Arts MFA Thesis Exhibition Is On View in Brooklyn
The two-part exhibition features the work of 41 graduating artists across disciplines, including painting, sculpture, printmaking, and integrated practices.
Prince Harry to Star in New Van Gogh Biopic
The estranged prince said he took the role to raise awareness of mental health issues.
Newly Discovered Trove of Vermeer Works Reveals He Painted Mainly Dogs
A cache of 243 paintings found in an English castle, all depicting canine subjects, suggests Vermeer’s true aspiration was to become a dog portraitist.