Descendant of Native American chief calls on Harvard to return ancestral relic

Descendant of Native American chief calls on Harvard to return ancestral relic
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An attorney who is a descendant of a Native American tribal chief and civil rights leader is calling on Harvard University to return an ancient relic currently on display at one of its museums. 

Brett Chapman of Oklahoma, who is related to Chief Standing Bear of the Ponca Tribe, detailed in a recent Twitter thread that he sent an email late last month to Harvard’s Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology challenging the “moral right” to hold and display a tomahawk that once belonged to Standing Bear. 

Chapman in his letter to the museum’s director, Jane Pickering, explained that the single-handed axe wrongfully ended up in Harvard’s possession after Standing Bear, one of the first Native Americans to sue and be granted civil rights under U.S. law, in 1879 gave the tomahawk as a gift of thanks to one of his lawyers, John Lee Webster. 


The attorney noted in his email that while the details surrounding the object’s path are unclear, it eventually ended up at Harvard, without Standing Bear’s knowledge. 

“Standing Bear’s tomahawk in your possession is an item of patrimony,” Chapman wrote to the museum. “You must understand that you will only benefit by repatriating it.” 

“Bringing this item home will create a unique opportunity for ceremony and the Ponca people to celebrate this relationship between these two men,” he added.


Chapman in his initial email cited Peabody's public apology in March for the “pain” it caused by refusing to voluntarily return funerary objects to Native American tribes. 

In the apology letter, the museum said it would be implementing changes to its research and repatriation politics in response to a letter from the Association on American Indian Affairs criticizing the museum. 

Chapman said in his Twitter thread that Harvard did not immediately respond to his email, adding that he only received a response after his social media posts and an interview he did with NPR member-station GBH went viral. 

The Hill has reached out to the Peabody museum for comment.

Chapman also said on Twitter that he had been told that the Nebraska state legislature was planning on introducing a resolution calling for the tomahawk to be returned to the Ponca tribe. 

In Pickering’s emailed response to Chapman this week, the museum director said, “We would welcome the possibility of dialogue with you, other lineal descendants, and tribal government representatives.”

“As the museum moves forward in considering its ethical responsibilities to descendant communities, we feel such conversations can lead to actions to begin to make amends to tribal communities,” she added. 

However, Chapman said he was not satisfied by the museum’s response, and said in a statement to GBH after his interview initially aired, “I want to ‘collaborate’ and have an immediate ‘dialogue’ about the specific things I addressed in my letter regarding this tomahawk, nothing more.” 

“The author failed to address the tomahawk at all. That is disrespectful,” he added.