A descendant of a Native American chieftain and civil rights leader urges Harvard University to repatriate an ancestral relic. The Ponca Standing Bear chief’s tomahawk, a one-handed ax, is currently on display at Harvard’s Peabody. Museum of Archeology and Ethnology.
“This is an issue of morality and justice,” says Brett Chapman, an Oklahoma attorney with Ponca, Pawnee and Kiowa heritage. Chapman’s maternal great-great-grandfather, Chief White Eagle and Standing Bear shared a common grandfather.
On April 29, the lawyer sent a letter to Jane Pickering, director of the museum where the hatchet is displayed. In the lyrics, Chapman challenged Harvard’s moral right to own the relic.
The demand for repatriation comes in the wake of the Peabody Museum campaign. excuse for the “pain” caused by the museum’s refusal to return Native American artifacts amid allegations of violating the Native American Tombs Protection and Repatriation Act. Strengthening calls for museums, universities, and cultural institutions to correct historical errors are occurring on a broader scale across the country.
“The only reason this hatchet came into Harvard’s possession was because of the illegal and forced expulsion of Native Americans,” Chapman told The Guardian. “If it hadn’t happened, Standing Bear would not have needed a white lawyer, and would not have given him the relic, which then would not have given it to Harvard.
In 1878, on a cold night during Christmas week, Standing Bear left the government-run Indian Reservation in Oklahoma. Along with 29 other members of the Ponca Indian tribe, the chief set out to fulfill his only son’s last wish: to be buried in the land where he was born, 600 miles north on the cliffs of White Chalk overlooking the Missouri River, in what which is now Nebraska.
The grueling journey lasted four months, during which time Standing Bear and the others faced freezing temperatures. Before they could reach the burial site in Omaha, they were arrested by the American cavalry for having left the Oklahoma reservation.
In March 1879, Native Americans were not yet legally defined as people. Defying orders To forcibly change the people of Ponca, a sympathetic Brigadier General George Crook instead tipped off a local newspaper editor for the Omaha Daily Herald.
Word of the matter reached attorneys Andrew Jackson Poppleton and John Webster, who set out to represent Standing Bear pro bono in Nebraska court. On May 12, 1879, a landmark federal decision declared an Indian a person within the meaning of the law. As a thank you for representing him, Standing Bear gifted his tomahawk to Webster. Some time later, unbeknownst to Standing Bear, the hatchet was delivered to Harvard.
“We don’t have any business in Boston,” says Chapman. “We live here in Oklahoma, where they put us; We live in Nebraska, where we are from. We’re not going to get anything out of this arrangement as long as Harvard shows the hatchet. “
Chapman believes his social media posts along with a radio interview on a local NPR station led Harvard to respond to his letter on May 5 stating that the museum would welcome the possibility of dialogue.
Chapman has never seen, nor had in his hands, the hatchet that represents a direct link to his past. “Standing Bear carried that tomahawk with him when he walked into Nebraska,” he says. “You have something that belonged to this man who did something great. And we are still here today and we can still have a physical touch with that past. “
Harvard declined to provide a comment to The Guardian. While Chapman expects Harvard to return the hatchet on moral grounds, he is not ruling out repatriation of the ancestral relic through litigation.
“Harvard has everything to gain from the return, and nothing to lose except a hatchet that means nothing to them,” says Chapman.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism