Last month a delegation from the Ponca Tribe of Nebraska, including several members of Tribal Council and staff, visited the Peabody Museum of Archaeology & Ethnology at Harvard University for a ceremony returning the pipe-tomahawk owned by Chief Standing Bear to the Ponca Tribe. They were joined there by a delegation from the Ponca Tribe of Oklahoma, celebrating the return of this piece of heritage to the Tribal nation.

The pipe-tomahawk was originally gifted to Standing Bear’s attorney John Lee Webster, one of Standing Bear’s lawyers in the landmark Standing Bear v. Crook case. After Webster’s death, the pipe-tomahawk was purchased by a private collector and changed hands several times before being acquired by Harvard in 1982, as a bequest from the estate of William Henry Claflin Jr.

After attention was brought to the presence of the pipe-tomahawk in the Peabody collection, the Ponca Tribe of Nebraska entered into discussion with the Peabody Museum to secure its return to the Tribe, which still counts a number of Standing Bear’s descendants as members. In 2021, the Peabody de-accessioned the pipe-tomahawk from its collection, with the intent to return the pipe-tomahawk to the Ponca Tribe. However, travel restrictions relating to the COVID-19 pandemic delayed the Tribe’s journey to retrieve the artifact until late spring 2022.

At the June 3 ceremony for the return of the pipe-tomahawk, Jane Pickering, Director of the Peabody Museum, indicted the faulty acquisition processes of the Museum in the past, and expressed a commitment to change, stating that, “The Peabody directly benefited from collecting practices that we acknowledge today ignored the wishes and values of families and communities,” reflecting on the Peabody’s desire to think, “about our relationship to affected communities, to try to repair the harm that these practices have caused.”

The ceremony was moving for members of both Ponca delegations. Ponca Tribe of Nebraska Tribal Historic Preservation Officer and Standing Bear descendant Stacy Laravie commented on the momentous nature of the occasion. “As I was up here, and I first saw the tomahawk, I was just thinking, ‘Wow… grandfather touched this.’ I just can’t express how I feel right now, so my tears are doing it for me.” Dr. Louis Headman from the Ponca Tribe of Oklahoma expressed admiration of Standing Bear as an ancestor for both tribes, along with his sincere wish that all Ponca recognize those common roots, “We’re not Northern, and we’re not Southern. We are Ponca.” Ponca Tribe of Nebraska Tribal Council Representative Angie Starkel hailed the event as a stepping stone of sorts, saying, “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.” Moved as well were members of the Harvard Staff. Shawon Kinew, (Ojibwe), a member of the Peabody Faculty Executive Committee, remarked, “Many of my ancestors live here, and I hope someday that they’ll follow in the footsteps of yours.”

The return of the pipe-tomahawk marks increased efforts from the museum to return tribal artifacts to their tribes of origin. Kinew spoke to those efforts, saying, “What’s happening here today is what I think we all want to happen, for the Peabody and Harvard not just to do the bare minimum of complying with the law, but to recognize the rightful and moral claims of your sovereign nation,” adding, “You belong to this pipe, and it was always your right to care for this pipe.” The importance of these efforts was echoed by Stacy Laravie, who spoke about the real impact of the repatriation of tribal artifacts, saying, “We talk about generational trauma, but we don’t talk about generational healing, and that’s what we’re doing now, this is healing.”

Ponca Tribe of Nebraska Culture Director Richard Wright Jr. expressed his gratitude to everyone involved with the event, “This was a momentous event for all Ponca people.  We are bringing Standing Bear’s pipe-tomahawk home where it belongs.  I am thankful for Northern and Southern Tribal Councils, Ponca staff, and the Peabody Museum for turning our vision into a reality.”

Plans to exhibit Chief Standing Bear’s pipe-tomahawk will be announced at a later date.

Read more about the pipe-tomahawk return on the Tribe’s website.