Harvard Gives Artifact Back to Chief's Tribe

Campus museum had held Standing Bear's tomahawk since 1982
By Bob Cronin,  Newser Staff
Posted May 7, 2021 3:35 PM CDT
Updated Jun 23, 2022 5:05 PM CDT
Descendant Asks Harvard for Ponca Chief's Tomahawk
This undated photo shows a bronze statue of Chief Standing Bear at the US Capitol in Washington.   (Joseph Morton/Omaha World-Herald via AP)

(Newser) Update: A tomahawk that once belonged to Chief Standing Bear is back with his tribe. A museum at Harvard University turned over the artifact to members of the Nebraska and Oklahoma Ponca tribes in a ceremony on June 3, the AP reports. The tomahawk had been in Harvard's possession since 1982. "This is a good homecoming and a good step in the many steps we have to do to get back to our identity, to our ways of our people," said Angie Starkel of the Ponca Tribe of Nebraska who attended the ceremony. The director of the Peabody Museum of Archaeology & Ethnology said it "directly benefited from collecting practices that we acknowledge today ignored the wishes and values of families and communities." The tribes plan to put the tomahawk on exhibit. Our original story from May 2021 follows:

An Oklahoma lawyer who's a descendant of Chief Standing Bear of the Ponca Tribe has called on a Harvard University museum to return a relic it has on display, arguing that it lacks a moral right to possess it. "Standing Bear's tomahawk in your possession is an item of patrimony," Brett Chapman wrote to the museum in an email, the Guardian reports. "You must understand that you will only benefit by repatriating it." The Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology answered with what Chapman considers a brush-off; he tweeted the response and suggestion of dialogue. Chapman has hope because the museum, after being accused of breaking the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, recently apologized for causing pain when it refused to return other Native American objects.

Standing Bear was one of the first Native Americans to be accorded civil rights under US law, after suing, per the Hill. He was arrested in 1879 after walking off the government reservation in Oklahoma, on his way to bury his son. Standing Bear won a milestone case declaring an Indian as a person and gave the tomahawk to one of his pro bono lawyers in gratitude. If there had been no forced removal of the tribes, Chapman said, Standing Bear wouldn't have given his lawyer the tomahawk, which eventually found its way to the museum. "You’re holding something that belonged to this man who did something great," Chapman told the museum, which issued no comment. "And we’re still here today and we can still have a physical touch with that past." (Read more Native Americans stories.)

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