Awakening the Bear

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Figure 1

Lewis and Clark's Grizzly Bear Necklace

necklace with about 60 long bear claws

©2008 Harvard University, Peabody Museum 41-54-10/99700

Among all remaining artifacts of the expedition, this necklace of grizzly bear claws is unique (Figure 1). It is an evocative assemblage of powerful, timeless forces and historic meanings, an intersection of cultural boundaries and categories, a provocation of thought and feeling, a presence. No other expedition object invokes so many associations: the bears encountered by the party, themselves symbolic of the natural world; independent Native societies; Lewis and Clark's interactions with Native leaders; disparate cultural framings of the natural world; the differences between the past and the present. And since the necklace is so many things—nature, culture, artifact, art, history, religion—it also raises important conceptual and methodological questions about working with historically and culturally saturated artifacts, and how they can inform our understandings of the past. The necklace could easily support an entire seminar on the expedition, viewed through the multiple lenses of anthropology, history and historiography, museum studies and material culture, Native American history, and philosophy.

Amazingly, this necklace was not known to exist until it was "rediscovered" in a Peabody Museum storeroom in late December of 2003, just after the museum had launched an exhibit titled "From Nation to Nation: Reexamining Lewis and Clark's Indian Collection." That exhibit, as well as a simultaneously published book, Arts of Diplomacy: Lewis and Clark's Indian Collection1, presented the results of a comprehensive, multifaceted research project on the history and significance of the Peabody's famous but poorly understood collection of Native American objects acquired by the Corps of Discovery. Since the bear claw necklace was not included in the book or in related publications, this essay presents a formal description, narrates what is known about its unusual history, summarizes the results of preliminary analysis, and suggests—but does not exhaust —some of its many meanings and provocations. Readers interested in the larger story of how the Lewis and Clark party acquired Native American objects, what happened to them after the expedition, and how those artifacts have expanded our understanding of the expedition should consult Arts of Diplomacy.

A Note about engaging objects

It is my hope that this essay will inspire readers to pay closer attention to artifacts as primary historical and cultural resources, because they are uniquely engaging and effective teachers (see, for example, "Passing the Hats," by Mary Malloy). Unlike text manuscripts, tangible, three-dimension objects excite our senses as well as our intellects. The materiality of historic artifacts confirms the existence of past realities and lives that were textured and embodied, and analysis of their constituent elements provides us with an opening through which to more fully explore and reconstruct the Zeitgeist of their times. Artifacts provoke questions, stir the imagination, and demand an accounting of their life histories. In the following essay about the grizzly claw necklace that Lewis and Clark conveyed to the Peale Museum, only some of these paths are cleared.

Objects make us feel as well as think; they communicate. The bear claw necklace has a strong, palpable and venerable presence; it excites attraction while simultaneously demanding distance. Confronting these huge claws, it is impossible not to feel, viscerally, the presence of big bears, from which we all instinctively recoil. While it was on display in "From Nation to Nation," the Peabody's Lewis and Clark exhibit, museum visitors were drawn to it, but seldom crowded close to the case in which it rested. Some observers even reported finding it fearful. For those who understand something of its meaning and value, the impact of the necklace is especially strong. A recent visitor to the Peabody who works at a museum in Oklahoma later emailed me to say: "That bear necklace you had in the Lewis and Clark exhibit was one of the most wonderful and exciting things I've ever seen—sent chills up my spine. That alone was worth the ticket to Boston."

For many Native American visitors, especially men from the western U.S., the bear claw necklace is a touchstone to a fundamental indigenous worldview that emphasizes interconnections between people, the natural world, and the spiritual realm. Few if any of our other gallery objects have resonated so strongly with Indian people, or have been so often addressed with prayers. Many Indian people have recognized a deep kinship with this necklace, and are respectfully comfortable, even inspired by being in its presence. A Native student organization in Montana has requested using an image of the necklace as their logo, noting that it represents qualities of accomplishment and leadership that they hope to encourage in their members. As a non-Indian curator and a woman, my own reaction is different: the necklace seems powerfully "other," heightening my self-consciousness of once-profound cultural differences, including my own lack of skills for managing encounters with bears. The necklace stirs feelings of uncertainty in me that must have been familiar to members of the Corps of Discovery as the party traversed the continent.

Clearly, the necklace both emanates and preserves deep meanings that make it a cultural resource as well as an artifact of the expedition. Unlike the rest of the Lewis and Clark artifacts, the necklace is a perceptibly spiritual object, a point of mediation between life forces. While that is not the story that I tell here, it is a highly significant part of this necklace, which somehow communicates great power and mystery. Joseph Epes Brown, a perceptive student of Native American religions, addressed this quality in a passage about traditional Native "arts":

Traditional art forms are vehicles that bear a people's most sacred values . . . . In Native American tradition, . . . art is not the particularly created form, but the inner principle by or from which the outer form comes into being . . . . Neither beauty nor truth can manifest itself, at least in human mode, except through a being [the maker of the object] who has realized the sacred realities within himself or herself. The forms created by these people contain a unique power. Just as the spoken word or name makes present the essence or power of what is named, so too traditional art forms are experienced not just as symbols of some agreed-upon referent. A spiritual essence is present in the form.2.

Because cultural differences are expressed in language and lexicon, it is difficult to acknowledge the many meanings of this necklace in the available vocabulary of museology and art history. While the term "bear claw necklace" has become conventional for objects of this sort, the word "necklace" implies a frivolity of adornment that has no relevance, and the word "object" sounds reductive and generalizing. In their journals, Lewis and Clark referred to claw necklaces as "collars," an antiquarian term that today carries fewer implications, and I find the term "assemblage" both more precise and less culturally laden than most modern options. But as Nelson Atkins Museum curator Gaylord Torrence remarked to me, even the term "assemblage" is too wedded to fine art discourse, since the claws, otter fur, and other materials were joined together "in the nature of a prayer." In an effort to avoid the ruts of "bear claw necklace," I have made use of all of these options in crafting my remarks.

Funded in part by a grant from the National Park Service's Challenge Cost Share Program

  • 1. Castle McLaughlin, Arts of Diplomacy (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2003).
  • 2. Joseph Epes Brown, Animals of the Soul: Sacred Animals of the Oglala Sioux (Rockport, Massachusetts: Element Books, 1997), 84-85.