When she got to hold a tomahawk that once belonged to Standing Bear, Stacy Laravie said, it felt like a moment of generational healing.
Laravie, a descendant of famed Chief Ponca and a civil rights icon, was one of the representatives of the Nebraska tribe who traveled to Harvard University’s Peabody Museum of Archeology and Ethnology for the tomahawk repatriation ceremony on June 3.
“Being able to hold the tomahawk, I was like, ‘Wow, my great-great-great-grandfather touched that,'” Laravie said. “It was like a parent coming home.”
Standing Bear had gifted the pipe-tomahawk to his attorney, John Lee Webster, following Webster’s work in Standing Bear v. Crook of 1879 which helped cement human rights for Native Americans.
After Webster’s death, the object was purchased by a private collector. It changed hands a few times before being acquired by the Peabody Museum in 1982, according to a press release from the Ponca Tribe of Nebraska.
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Once it was brought to the attention of the tribe that the object was in the museum, efforts began to return the artifact to the Ponca people. The Nebraska Legislature passed a resolution in May 2021 encouraging the Peabody Museum to meet its commitments to repatriate native artifacts.
The Peabody Museum officially removed the tomahawk from its collection in 2021, but tribal leaders were unable to travel to Massachusetts until earlier this month due to pandemic travel restrictions.
On June 3, representatives of the Nebraska tribe joined museum staff and representatives of the Ponca tribe of Oklahoma for what Laravie described as a moving ceremony.
Laravie said he was happy that the historic object is now back in the lands of Ponca and in the hands of those who know and appreciate its history.
“Even though the tomahawk was gifted…it was always meant to stay in a family, not in a museum,” she said.
Museum director Jane Pickering apologized for the museum’s past acquisition policies during the ceremony, according to a press release from the Ponca Tribe.
“The Peabody directly benefited from collection practices that we recognize today ignored the wishes and values of families and communities,” Pickering said.
The return of the Standing Bear tomahawk is representative of a larger movement to return historical and ceremonial objects to their respective tribes. It also comes amid a new federal push to understand the reach of boarding schools that once existed across the country in an effort to assimilate Native American children. These efforts include attempts to document and locate the remains of deceased Native children at facilities like the Genoa Indian Industrial School in Nebraska.
“These are all things that need to be taken home,” Laravie said.
The Ponca Tribe of Nebraska will announce plans to display the tomahawk at a later date, according to the release.
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