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After Agreeing to Repatriate Ponca Tomahawk, Peabody Museum Awaits Visit from Tribal Leaders

Harvard’s Peabody Museum has agreed to return a pipe tomahawk that once belonged to Ponca chief Standing Bear to tribal leaders.
Harvard’s Peabody Museum has agreed to return a pipe tomahawk that once belonged to Ponca chief Standing Bear to tribal leaders. By Truong L. Nguyen
By Jorge O. Guerra and Davin W. Shi, Crimson Staff Writers

The Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology removed a pipe tomahawk that once belonged to Ponca chief Standing Bear from its collections last September, after calls for the museum to return the tomahawk to the Ponca Tribe of Nebraska and the Ponca Tribe of Indians of Oklahoma garnered international attention.

Oklahoma attorney and lineal descendant of Standing Bear Brett A. Chapman called attention to the tomahawk in a viral Twitter thread last May, prompting Nebraska State Senator Tom R. Brewer to sponsor a bipartisan resolution in the Nebraska State Legislature calling upon the University to return the tomahawk. The museum then initiated talks with Chapman and Ponca tribal leaders on a potential repatriation of the relic.

According to Jane Pickering, director of the Peabody Museum, Ponca tribal representatives planned to travel to Cambridge and take possession of the tomahawk last October, but ultimately canceled their visit due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

“When I last heard from them they planned to reschedule their visit for the Spring,” Pickering wrote in an email.

“The Peabody stands ready to welcome the delegation and assist in any way we can,” she added. “In the meantime, we continue to care for the pipe tomahawk but do not allow access to it without permission from the tribal governments.”

Chapman said he pushed for the repatriation of the tomahawk to “bring visibility” to the experiences of Native Americans. Standing Bear played a pivotal role in an 1879 landmark federal case that legally defined Native Americans as people under United States law.

“In this, what I would call a cultural zeitgeist, that we’re in at the time, with racial justice and things of that nature, I think repatriation is an issue that fits right into that,” Chapman said.

Chapman said he would travel to Cambridge “on [his] own dollar” to retrieve the tomahawk if Ponca tribal representatives ask him to make the trip.

He added that he believes the tomahawk should not be shipped across the country through the mail, but he acknowledged that tribal representatives may face significant challenges preventing them from traveling to Cambridge, noting they would have to make “a decent drive to an airport.” The trip from Niobrara, Nebraska – the headquarters of the Ponca Tribe of Nebraska – to the airport in Omaha would take approximately three hours by car.

“It is a hardship, in a way, for these tribal leaders to travel,” Chapman said.

Larry D. Wright, a former chairman of the Ponca Tribe of Nebraska, said in an interview last May he hoped to work with the museum to take back the tomahawk.

“While we appreciate the museum's mission and efforts, those items we feel are best repatriated back to the Ponca for what they represent, who they belonged to originally, and what that history means to us,” he said.

–Staff writer Jorge O. Guerra can be reached at

—Staff writer Davin W. Shi can be reached at

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