Standing Bear, the revered leader of the Ponca tribe, placed enormous value on one of his possessions — his ceremonial pipe tomahawk. In 1879, he gave that beloved item to Omaha attorney John Lee Webster in gratitude for successfully defending him in the chief’s landmark trial in Omaha.
In that court case, Judge Elmer Dundy ruled, for the first time in U.S. law, that Native Americans are people under the U.S. Constitution and are entitled to the rights it guarantees. Dundy’s ruling — that Standing Bear, under habeas corpus protections, could appeal his imprisonment for returning to Nebraska after his tribe’s forced removal — directly influenced major changes in federal policy regarding Native Americans.
It’s fitting, indeed, that Standing Bear is one of the two statues now representing Nebraska in Statuary Hall at the U.S. Capitol. Nebraska’s state motto, after all, is “Equality Before the Law.”
Standing Bear’s tomahawk is now at the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology at Harvard University, and State Sen. Tom Brewer of Gordon, a member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, has introduced a resolution calling on the museum to return the tomahawk to the Ponca. The proposal deserves senators’ strong approval. It’s encouraging that the museum is indicating its cooperation with the Ponca on the matter.
Just as the tomahawk itself held great symbolic meaning for Standing Bear, so its return to his people can be a gesture of broad symbolic meaning in our era. An event celebrating its return can provide an occasion for Nebraska to honor its Native peoples and point to the enduring principle of justice for all.