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Tribal reps a no show to pick up tomahawk they demanded back from Harvard

Activist said he would fly to Harvard to retrieve it, won’t say if he offered to do so

Native American leaders still have not gone to retrieve a tomahawk from Harvard University, nearly a year after the school agreed to return the artifact.

The Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology at Harvard told The College Fix it “deaccessioned the Standing Bear pipe tomahawk to the Ponca tribal nations last fall,” meaning that it no longer displays the item (pictured) publicly. The Nebraska Commission on Indian Affairs had previously shared in June 2021 that Ponca representatives would travel in September to retrieve it.

Chief Standing Bear was the first person to get the U.S. government to acknowledge Native Americans as “persons” under the law and entitled to Constitutional protections. He gifted the tomahawk to one of his attorneys, John Webster, whose estate later sold it, and eventually a collector bought it and donated it to Harvard.

“The nature, timing etc. of the physical transfer to the Ponca is a matter for the tribal governments and I refer you to them for that information,” museum director Jane Pickering told The Fix on April 22.

Pickering did not answer questions about steps the museum took to return the tomahawk, the reasons for canceling the initial trip, costs for maintaining the tomahawk and whether Harvard would be open to sending a representative to the tribe’s headquarters in Nebraska.

The Harvard Crimson reported that COVID concerns in October led the tribal representatives to cancel the trip.

The Fix reached out to the Ponca Tribe of Nebraska to ask whether it plans to travel to retrieve the artifact, what the obstacles have been to traveling and whether it would be open to having a Harvard representative bring the tomahawk to Nebraska. The tribe did not respond to these inquiries through their website on April 18 nor an email to its listed address on April 25.

An Oklahoma attorney who is a descendant of Standing Bear helped lobby for the tomahawk’s return. Brett Chapman called attention to the tomahawk on Twitter in May 2021 and the media attention appears to have prompted Nebraska to pass a resolution calling for its return.

Despite the tribe not being able to travel to Harvard in October, Chapman accused Harvard in January 2022 of dragging its feet on returning the artifact.

He called it an issue of “racial justice” and said he would pay his own way from Tulsa to retrieve the tomahawk if the leaders asked him to, according to the Crimson.

The College Fix asked Chapman if he had reached out to the tribe to travel and retrieve the tomahawk and whether there was a member of the tribe that could coordinate to meet a museum employee near Omaha.

Chapman did not respond to these questions over email or an additional follow-up sent in the past week and a half. He did not respond to a third inquiry sent via Twitter messaging on April 27.

Chapman cited the three-hour trip to Omaha’s airport as a potential obstacle. “It is a hardship, in a way, for these tribal leaders to travel,” he told The Crimson.

The Fix asked specifically about this claim, too. The Fix asked if members could make the 100 mile trip to Sioux Gateway Airport for flights. In addition to operating flights to Chicago, United also flies directly from Iowa to Boston.

The Fix asked if there were not any tribal members near Omaha or another closer airport that could travel to Boston.

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IMAGE: Daderot/ Wikimedia Commons

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About the Author
Aly Buckner -- University of Virginia