Via The Harvard Crimson, July 1, 2022
For some Nebraska legislators, the whereabouts of Ponca Tribe chief Standing Bear’s pipe tomahawk were discovered as a coincidence.
Charles R. “Dick” Clark, a staff member of state Senator and Oglala Sioux tribe member Tom Brewer, had ordered tomahawk heads as part of an initiative to drive business opportunities for Native Americans in the area. As the two collaborated, their conversation meandered to another tomahawk — that of Standing Bear, the Ponca chief who was at the heart of a landmark civil rights case in 1879.
“We just go Google it up, and it’s like, ‘Huh. It’s at the Peabody Museum for Archaeology and Ethnology at Harvard University,” Clark said.
On June 3, after pandemic-induced delays, a delegation of Ponca Tribe representatives — including Standing Bear’s direct descendent, Stacy Laravie — traveled to Cambridge for the repatriation ceremony. Now back in Nebraska, the tomahawk will remain there and be exhibited.
Director of Cultural Affairs for the Ponca Tribe of Nebraska Richard Wright Jr., who was tasked with facilitating conversations between the Northern and Southern Ponca tribes and Harvard in preparation for the repatriation, said the return indicates a symbolic and spiritual milestone.
“It’s meant everything,” he said. “It’s getting our history back. It’s very emotional in a way, as well. These things belong with the Ponca people. They belong at home.”
On his way to his son’s funeral shortly after being forced to migrate from Nebraska, Standing Bear was intercepted and imprisoned. In the trial that resulted, the Ponca chief’s lawyers requested the judge grant him a writ of habeas corpus.
The case resulted in a landmark decision by Judge Elmer S. Dundy, who, after the U.S. attorney had argued that Standing Bear was incapable of suing the government, concluded that the group of Poncas led by Standing Bear were defined as people under federal law and had a legal right to a writ of habeas corpus.
“To us in Nebraska, that’s a touchstone in legal history like no other,” Clark said of Standing Bear’s court case. “It wasn’t, by any means, the final step or the last step that was needed — but what an important thing to have happened that should be commemorated.”