Tulsa attorney and descendant of tribal chief asking Harvard museum for return of chief’s family heirloom to the tribe


TULSA, Okla. (KFOR) – A Tulsa, Okla., attorney and descendant of Chief Standing Bear of the Ponca Tribe took a stand against the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology Friday, hoping to get a tribal tomahawk back.

Brett Chapman said the Tomahawk was passed down through generations of Standing Bear’s family. Now, it’s sitting in that museum and Chapman is asking for it to be given back to the Ponca tribe of Nebraska.

The interesting story, first reported by The Guardian, dates back to the 1800s. Chapman’s great-great-grandfather, Chief White Eagle, shared a common grandparent with Chief Standing Bear.

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Chief Standing Bear and Chief White Eagle

“This story is not a difficult one that should take months and years of dialogue and conversation,” Chapman said.

Chapman said he just wants to bring the key piece of history home.

“I’m appealing to their humanity,” he said.

The Ponca Tribe was forced to relocate to Indian Territory along with an estimated 60,000 other native and indigenous people along the deadly Trail of Tears. In 1878, Standing Bear left the reservation in hopes to return to his native land of present-day Nebraska. After his son’s death, he wanted to bury him in the place where he was born.

“The President ordered the army to apprehend him,” Chapman said.

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Chief Standing Bear

It was that arrest that would ultimately lead to a landmark federal decision. The decision would recognize Native Americans as people who are protected by law and entitled to rights and protection. Standing Bear gave the two lawyers who took up his case for free a token of his gratitude.

“He presented them, or gifted them, with these tomahawks, two tomahawks, which he said were family heirlooms,” Chapman said.

However, at some point, the tomahawk was given to the museum.

“It was moved from this attorney to Harvard without Standing Bear’s knowledge,” Chapman said. “Harvard has absolutely no connection to this whatsoever.”

Photo goes with story
Chief Standing Bear’s tomahawk.

Although it was a gift, Chapman cited the whole picture of the situation.

“If it weren’t for this injustice of them being forcibly removed illegally, which the government recognized, he wouldn’t have needed a white lawyer,” Chapman said. “He wouldn’t have needed to give this to them. It would still be in the family.”

KFOR reached out to the museum but did not hear back. Now, Chapman said he is hoping he can bring an artifact near and dear to him back to the tribe.

“They clearly have a superior claim to it morally,” he said. “They should be able to celebrate their own history, celebrate their own culture.”

According to Chapman, there has been dialogue between he and the museum. However, he said the details moving forward are still vague. Chapman said he believed the media attention prompted the response to his letter and the only answer he has at this point is that they are welcoming dialogue. Chapman said he has never seen nor held the tomahawk that is a direct link to his past.

The full interview with Chapman is featured below:

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