When Standing Bear, chief of the Ponca Tribe, won a landmark 1879 court case affirming the legal personhood of Native Americans, he thanked one of his two attorneys, John Lee Webster, by gifting him his pipe tomahawk.
Part weapon, part smoking pipe, the artifact served largely as a symbolic gesture of Standing Bear’s goodwill. Upon Webster’s death, it was sold to a private collector, changing hands multiple times before ending up in Harvard University’s Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology in 1982. Now, reports Neely Bardwell for Native News Online, the pipe tomahawk has been returned to the Ponca after a yearlong repatriation effort led by Standing Bear’s descendants and other members of the tribe.
“It’s meant everything,” Richard Wright Jr., director of cultural affairs for the Ponca Tribe of Nebraska, tells the Harvard Crimson’s Isabella B. Cho. “It’s getting our history back. It’s very emotional in a way, as well. These things belong with the Ponca people. They belong at home.”
Per the Crimson, the campaign began with a collaboration between Nebraska state senator and Oglala Sioux tribe member Tom Brewer and staffer Charles R. Clark. Discussing tomahawk production, which Clark envisioned as a business opportunity for the local Indigenous community, the two mused about the whereabouts of Standing Bear’s famed pipe tomahawk. A quick Google search revealed its unexpected location.
If the tomahawk were still in the possession of Webster’s descendants, that would be one thing, Wright says. Instead, he tells the Crimson, the object was “passed around and … around years later.”
Wright adds, “I think it’s right that it comes back to the Ponca people.”
Shortly after their discovery, Brewer and Clark drafted a legislative resolution asking Harvard to return the tomahawk; the Nebraska State Legislature unanimously passed the measure. Brett Chapman, an Oklahoma attorney who is a descendant of Standing Bear, collaborated on the resolution and gained widespread social media attention after posting on Twitter about the Peabody’s response—or lack thereof—to his April 2021 letter on the matter. (The museum’s director replied to Chapman following his Tweet and the publication of an NPR article on the repatriation push.)
Chapman tells News 9’s Jonathan Cooper that Harvard ultimately agreed to not only repatriate the tomahawk but also the funerary artifacts of a Ponca woman. Museum representatives returned the objects to delegations from the Ponca Tribe of Nebraska and the Ponca Tribe of Oklahoma on June 3, according to a statement. Now, says Chapman to News 9, the tribe can decide whether to place them in a museum or keep them tucked away as private ceremonial items.
In 1876, the United States government ordered the Ponca to relocate to Indian Territory in what is now Oklahoma. Per Jennifer Davis of the Library of Congress, the tribe’s members were dissatisfied with the land they’d been assigned and attempted to return home to Nebraska, only to be forcibly sent back by federal troops.
Many Ponca died on the grueling journey south, among them Standing Bear’s wife and daughter. Conditions were similarly harsh in Oklahoma, with an estimated one-third of the tribe dying of malaria, hunger and exhaustion during their first year there, according to the National Park Service. The chief’s eldest son, Bear Shield, died on the reservation in January 1879.
Honoring his son’s wish to be buried in the Ponca’s traditional lands, Standing Bear and his followers made the 600-mile trek back to Nebraska in the middle of winter. Because they’d left Indian Territory without asking the government’s permission, the men were arrested and imprisoned in Fort Omaha in March 1879.
The arrest culminated in Standing Bear v. Crook, a U.S. District Court Case that legal scholars have likened in impact to Dred Scott v. Sandford and Brown v. Board of Education. Offering their services pro bono, attorneys Webster and Andrew J. Poppleton petitioned federal judge Elmer Dundy to grant Standing Bear a writ of habeas corpus, or court order demanding legal justification for an individual’s detention. Citing the recently passed 14th Amendment, the lawyers refuted the opposition’s claim that Standing Bear “was neither a citizen, nor a person, so he could not sue the government.”
Dundy sided with Standing Bear’s lawyers, ruling that “an Indian is a PERSON within the meaning of the laws of the United States” and freeing the chief and his men to return home. Before departing, notes Nebraska Public Media, Standing Bear visited Webster and presented him with the pipe tomahawk.
Reflecting on the tense relationship between white settlers and Native Americans, the chief said, “[W]hen we have been wronged we went to war. To assert our rights and avenge our wrongs we took the tomahawk. We had no law to punish those who did wrong, so we took our tomahawks and went to kill.”
He concluded, “But you have found a better way. You have gone into court for us and I find our wrongs can be righted there. Now I have no more use for the tomahawk. I want to lay it down forever. I lay it down, I have no more use for it. I have found a better way.”