Harvard To Return Standing Bear’s Tomahawk To Ponca Tribe

After decades of displaying a Ponca tribe tomahawk in a museum, Harvard University is returning the artifact to its rightful owners.

In a statement, the Peabody Museum of Archaeology & Ethnology at Harvard University explains it is “in active discussion about the homecoming of Chief Standing Bear’s pipe tomahawk” with both the Ponca Tribe of Nebraska and the Ponca Tribe of Indians of Oklahoma.

There is not yet a timeline for the return of the artifact, but all involved parties have established the next step: tribal chairmen and other tribal representatives have accepted the museum’s invitation to travel to Harvard in September. There, they will view the pipe tomahawk, as well as three other items associated with Standing Bear: a beaded necklace, quilled moccasins, and a pipe bowl.

Chief Standing Bear, the tomahawk’s former owner, is the famous Native American civil rights leader of the late 1800s. In 1878, Standing Bear left the tribe’s reservation in Oklahoma in order to bury his son on their tribe’s homeland — Nebraska’s Niobrara River Valley. He was arrested for leaving the reservation, but made history in his federal trial, where he advocated for the recognition of Native Americans as people, fully entitled to the rights and protections under the law.

“The blood that will flow from mine will be the same color as yours,” Chief Standing Bear famously recited in court, according to the Associated Press. “I am a man. The same God made us both.”

Larry Wright, Jr., chairman of the Ponca Tribe of Nebraska, explained to The Hill that the return of Standing Bear’s artifact feels “very significant and very appropriate,” as it is “an opportunity to bring items that belong to Standing Bear back to the homeland that he desperately wanted to get back to.”

Prior to his death in 1908, Standing Bear gifted the tomahawk to John Lee Webster, who had served as one of the lawyers on his case. After Webster’s own death, however, it is unclear what happened to the important artifact.

The Peabody Museum received the pipe tomahawk in 1982 as a donation on behalf of the estate of William Henry Claflin Jr. of Belmont, Massachusetts. Claflin himself had purchased the artifact in 1930 from the widow of William R. Morris, an Omaha, Nebraska attorney. The museum explains that it is not certain how the tomahawk originally ended up in Morris’s possession.

In the wake of the artifact’s return, Wright said that the tribe is beginning preparations on its own museum in order to display Standing Bear’s artifacts in his own homeland. The museum will be located near his grave.

Wright also commended Oklahoma lawyer Brett Chapman, a descendent of Standing Bear, for his work in advocating for the return of the tomahawk. 

“This heritage item belonged to the Ponca people then, it belongs to us now and after this, it will belong to us forever,” Chapman explained.

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