Ponca Tribe Wants Chief Standing Bear's Tomahawk Back

May 11, 2021, 5:36 a.m. ·

Standing Bear, not long before his death in 1908, beside his home (NET Archives).

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After Chief Standing Bear’s landmark civil rights case to recognize American Indians as people, he gifted a ceremonial tomahawk to his attorney more than 140 years ago. Now, the tomahawk is in the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology at Harvard University. Nebraska lawmakers are drafting a resolution, to return the tomahawk to the Ponca Tribe.

Forced off their homeland to live on a reservation in Oklahoma, Standing Bear and some Poncas walked for four months to Nebraska so they could fulfill the chief’s eldest son’s dying wish: to be buried in his homeland. Before they could reach Omaha, Standing Bear was arrested.

Chairman of the Ponca Tribe of Nebraska Larry Wright Jr., said the chief gave attorney John Lee Webster his tomahawk after winning the 1879 Nebraska federal court case to thank him, but it was symbolic too.

"Tomahawks were a weapon for fighting and that lifestyle," he said. "Obviously, the trial took place in a very different environment, essentially still defending itself, then defending his right to go home and live in peace."

Brett Chapman, an Oklahoma lawyer and descendant of Standing Bear, said the tomahawk belongs in a museum run by the Ponca Tribe in Nebraska. So far, 20 Nebraska lawmakers have signed a resolution in support of the effort.

Wright said the tomahawk’s rightful place is with them. Many of the chief’s possessions, like his ceremonial headdress and necklaces, are in the Ponca Tribe Museum in Niobrara, Nebraska.

"The fact that that item was at the trial itself with him. And the reason that the Ponca Tribe is back in Nebraska is because of the efforts that he and those followers that came back with them," he said. "They were willing to come back to Nebraska to be in their homeland or die trying."

The Nebraska Legislature will likely discuss the resolution next month. There will be a public hearing about it beforehand.