Form and Cultural Identity

Page 4 of 5

A Comparative Assessment

The cultural origin of the necklace is of great interest to many people, but we may never know for certain who conveyed it to Jefferson's party. No related documentation has been found, and bear claw collars such as this one were worn by men from many tribes in the region between the Upper Missouri River area and the Rocky Mountains. In the broadest sense, claw collars are one manifestation of the deep and ancient reverence that Native American people have for bears, which is strongly expressed throughout their religious ceremonies, traditional narratives, and material culture – a complex of beliefs and practices that Irving Hollowell famously termed "bear ceremonialism."1 Bear ceremonialism was ubiquitous throughout the prehistoric northern hemisphere, and has existed in North America as long as humans have occupied the continent. Native North American peoples shared the belief that bears were close relatives of people, but that this relationship of "dangerous kinship" required ritual mediation. Since most Native communities recognized in bears two other dominant characteristics: their ferocity and tenacity of life, and their knowledge of medicinal plants and healing, they were widely seen as the patrons of warriors, shamans, and doctors.  As shown in pecked and painted rock art across the continent as well as archaeological recovery of claws, the dominant symbol for bears has long been a paw with claws, representing both the aggressive bear and the digger of medicines. Ethnographer John Ewers observed that when eastern Woodlands peoples moved west onto the Plains and encountered grizzlies, their bear ceremonialism intensified.2

Real claws were not considered to be mere symbols, but rather, potent, metonymic links to a living, spiritual essence of tremendous force. If cared for properly, they would strengthen a man's relationship with those powers, enabling him to do great things under their protection and guidance. While reviewing much of the related ethno-historic literature, I was struck by the extent to which Indian men expressed the idea that having bear claws was more important than the manner in which they were acquired. Whether they were obtained directly by killing bears, traded for, captured, or purchased, claws were thought to have an inherent, latent power that could be activated to the benefit of the owner if handled in an appropriate ritual fashion.

Both warriors and spiritual leaders sought to cultivate relationships with bear powers, and men made such connections manifest by taking a bear name (e.g., Four Bears), mimicking bear sounds and behavior, performing relevant rituals, wearing images of bears, and attaching paws and claws to their garments, shields, and tipis. Because of the profound significance of bears in Native cultures, a full consideration of that topic and its implications for bear claw necklaces is beyond the scope of this essay. However, such an enterprise would necessarily take account of  the many shared aspects of North American "bear ceremonialism"3 and related art,4 as well as how relationships with bears were organized in specific cultural contexts. Little attention has been paid to changes in bear ceremonialism and related material culture during the nineteenth century, but it is likely that changes in hunting technology, leadership, trade relations and other aspects of social life effected the making, use, and meaning of bear claw collars over time.

Figure 6

mesquakie necklace

Mesquakie (Sauk and Fox) bear claw necklace with otter tail.

A basic research method for identifying artifacts is to undertake a formal analysis of their material properties and to compare their physical attributes and style with similar things that do have an established history, or provenance. To my knowledge, the only comparative study on grizzly claw necklaces was undertaken by Norman Feder and Milford E. Chandler, who studied museum examples in hope of identifying tribal and chronological styles. In their 1961 article "Grizzly Claw Necklaces," the authors present four major styles based on construction methods and stylistic features.5 But they warned that, "Very little can be stated as absolute fact concerning the differences in necklace construction by different tribes," due to the scarcity of examples, the wide range of forms worn by members of the same culture, and the complications of trade. For example, the range of distribution for their most basic or "Plains style" of necklace, which consists of simply strung claws, with or without added spacers such as beads, extends from the Great Lakes to the Plateau and includes a wide variety of forms.

As is often true of early examples of types or styles of things, the "Lewis and Clark" grizzly claw necklace doesn't conform exactly to any of the Feder and Chandler categories. Instead, it is a hybrid between the ubiquitous "Plains style" and their "Style 4," which is "characterized by claws with a double perforation mounted on a core and covered with otter fur," which the authors found to be distributed along the Missouri River and into the western Great Lakes. The authors discriminate four distinct types, or variations, of Style 4, based on different treatments of the head and the tail of the otter. By far the most common and relevant to this discussion is their "Type 3," or Upper Missouri River variant, which is described as having "a core that is not continuous around the back, and further uses the tail and head of the otter as decorative projections."

Both "Upper Missouri" necklaces, which the authors associate with tribes such as the Arikara, Pawnee, and Mandan, and "Plains style" claw collars are well documented in the early portraits of Plains Indian men painted by artists George Catlin and Karl Bodmer along the Upper Missouri in the 1830s. During that decade, new steamship service on the Missouri greatly increased communication between the "frontier" and St. Louis, entr'pot to the west. Several European and American adventurers who visited Native communities and trading posts along the river have left written and artistic documentation of lasting value. Among the most important of these frontier chroniclers were the German prince Maximilian of Wied and Bodmer, a young Swiss artist hired to illustrate their travels. After consulting with William Clark and directors of the American Fur Company in St. Louis, Maximilian and Bodmer traveled along the Upper Missouri throughout 1833-34, spending the winter among the Mandan.  Maximilian observed that

The Mandans and Manitaries [Hidatsas], and all the Indians of the Upper Missouri, often wear the handsome necklace made of the claws of the grizzly bear. These claws are very large in the spring, frequently three inches long, and the points are tinged of a white colour, which is much esteemed; only the claws of the fore feet are used for necklaces, which are fastened to a strip of animal skin, lined with red cloth, and embroidered with glass beads, which hangs down the back like a long tail. Such a necklace is seldom to be had for less than twelve dollars; and very often the owners of them will not part with them on any terms.6

Feder and Chandler imply that the Upper Missouri style was the early prototype for the later and increasingly elaborate Prairie style developed by  riverine and prairie tribes such as the Iowa, Ponca, Missouri, Sauk, and Mesquakie. However, that hypothesis may be an artifact of our limited historic record, as well as of personal bias. The chronological development implicit in their descriptions is correlated with an increasing elaboration over time of the "tail" of bear claw necklaces, culminating in the highly conventionalized prairie-style necklaces (especially Mesquakie, Figure 6) of the period 1860-1890. The "prototype" necklace of this style was collected about 1925 by Milford Chandler, co-author of the comparative study, in Tama, Iowa.

Now owned by the Detroit Institute of Arts, images of that necklace have been included in so many publications that it has become iconic of bear claw necklaces in general.7 The authors consider necklaces of this kind ("Style 4, Type 4") to be "the ultimate in the development of the grizzly claw necklace as an ornament," and they are clearly very different in form and affect from the Lewis and Clark necklace.

While the historic record is too fragmentary to fully reconstruct the cultural history of bear claw necklace styles, it is apparent that otter fur war wraps and long otter tail pendants-independent of bear claws- were worn by Northern Plains men by 1800.  Lewis and Clark were deeply impressed by the sight of Nez Perce and Shoshone warriors wearing elaborate otter neck drapes in 1805-1806, including otter "tippets," which Lewis proclaimed "the most elegant piece of Indian dress I ever saw" (See "Lewis's Shoshone Tippet"). More generally, Lewis said of the Shoshone: "Their ornements are Orter Skin dcurated with See Shells;"8 and of the Nez Perce:

Collars of bears Claws are also Common; but the article of dress on which they appear to bestow most pains and orniments is a kind of collar or breastplate; this is most commonly a Strip of otter skins of about Six inches Wide taken out of the Center of the Skin it's whole length including the head. this is dressed with the hair on, this is tied around the neck & hangs in front of the body the tail frequently reaching below their knees; on this skin in front is attached pieces of pirl, beeds, wampum, pices of red Cloth and in Short whatever they conceive most valuable or ornamental.9
In a portrait by Karl Bodmer, the Siksika Blackfeet man The Low Horn wears a spectacular example of an otter war tippet covered with sparkling white shells and featuring a long and embellished tail10 At one time, the Peale Museum had a tippet given to Lewis by the Shoshone leader Cameawait, but it is no longer part of the surviving collection. It was probably lost in the fires that destroyed several museums owned by P.T. Barnum, who purchased some of the Peale Museum collections in 1849-1850.

According to Lewis, the Nez Perce leader Hohâstillpilp also wore a "tippet" made from the scalps and fingers of enemies he had killed in battle. Necklaces strung from multiple, graduated animal digits or other component parts alternating with spacers were common on the Plains, other examples being duck bills, turtle leg bones, raptor talons, and human fingers, which were sometimes alternated with bear claws. Such assemblages are based on the same pattern of simple stringing that defines Feder and Chandler's "Plains style" bear claw necklaces.

The most famous surviving "Upper Missouri" necklace was acquired by Maximilian from the celebrated Mandan war chief Mato Tope or Four Bears (Figure 7) and is now in the Linden-Museum in Stuttgart.11 The Mato Tope claw collar seems to typify an Upper Missouri style of the period, when the Mandan and Hidatsa villages were important centers of trade, interaction and influence. Mato Topes' skill at managing relationships in this cross roads of intertribal and international traffic is underscored by the use of blue glass trade beads on his necklace. Everywhere they traveled, Lewis and Clark found blue beads more highly valued than any other color, and this color of bead seems to have been important for use on early bear claw necklaces. Bodmer's portraits of contemporary village leaders The Flying Eagle (Mandan) and Two Ravens (Hidatsa) depict those men wearing similar Upper Missouri style claw collars.12

Figure 7

Four Bears Necklace

Grizzly claw necklace commissioned from Mandan Mato Tope (Four Bears) by Maximilian, 1833-34.

Some of the published photographs of Mato Tope's necklace, including one used by Feder and Chandler, clearly show that the "tail" of his necklace was simply the literal and unembellished hindquarters and tail of an otter. We might expect that the literal form of tail was also the earliest. If so, the style was also persistent. Many years later, Mato Tope's son, Charging Eagle, was photographed wearing a claw necklace very similar to his father's – but with the claws oriented up, as Lewis saw them worn among the Shoshone (Figure 8). Unfortunately, if the Peabody's necklace ever had a "tail," it is now missing.

Figure 8

charging eagle

Charging Eagle, son of the Mandan chief Mato-tope (also known as Four Bears), wearing a bear claw necklace.

Mato Tope's necklace is smaller than the Peabody necklace, and the twenty-two grizzly claws on the Mandan example are strikingly uniform in their light yellow color, which was said to be prized on the Plains and prairie. In length, the claws are much more varied than are those on the Peabody assemblage, and the additional string of blue bead spacers creates overall a more delicate and finished appearance.13 Nonetheless, the two necklaces share both the simple otter body foundation and a minimalism that derives in part from their early nineteenth century origins. The claws on both necklaces were trimmed and shaped, which Feder and Chandler associate with the oldest known examples, and were strung in graduated pairs of like size and color, possibly representing the claws of individual bears.  Unlike all other known examples of the Missouri River style, the claws of the Peabody necklace were drilled only once, and no glass trade beads were added. Since Feder and Chandler suggest that single drilling was both the oldest and most widespread practice, it seems reasonable to assume that the Lewis and Clark necklace represents an earlier version of the 1830s "Upper Missouri" style as illustrated by Mato Tope's necklace. From the perspective of social relationships, it would make sense for Lewis and Clark to have obtained the Peabody bear claw necklace during their long and hospitable stay among the Mandan. Still, even taking into account that the Peabody necklace would have been made a generation earlier than Mato Tope's collar, the absence of beads and other European materials seems curious, given that the Mandan and Hidatsa villages were such active centers of trade.

At the time of the expedition, grizzly claw and otter fur necklaces were worn by tribes from the Missouri River west to the Rocky Mountains. The persistence of this style throughout the nineteenth century is well documented by artists and travelers, although their reports often lack details regarding formal treatment of the head and tail of the otter.

While resting in the Mandan and Hidatsa villages en route home in August of 1806, Clark called on a party of visiting Cheyenne and observed that, "they also ware Bear's Claws about their necks, Strips of otter skin (which they as well as the ricaras are excessively fond of) around their neck falling down behind"14 George Catlin depicted men from a number of Missouri River tribes wearing simple claw and otter collars without long tails during the 1830s (Figure 9).

Figure 9

Shon-ta-yi-ga, Little Wolf, a Famous Iowa Warrior, 1844
George Catlin

oil, 29 x 24 in.
Gift of Mrs. Joseph Harrison, Jr.

At mid-century, the trader Edwin Denig wrote of the Assiniboine: "A good many of the renowned warriors wear necklaces made of the claws of the grizzly bear, worked or tied on a strip of otter skin,"15 Later still, Weasel Tail, a Blood Indian from Montana, was photographed wearing a bear claw collar with an otter or beaver fur foundation.16 

By the 1830s if not before, Mandan and Hidatsa men were wearing several styles of bear claw necklaces. In one of Bodmer's paintings of a Hidatsa scalp dance, a robed man wears a collar of fur and grizzly claws to which is attached a long otter tail displaying additional large claws17 So longer and more ornate bear claw necklaces, perhaps inspired by the  Rocky Mountain tippets, were already en vogue at the time that Mato Tope created his more austere example. If these distinct necklace styles also once implied a social distinction between the men who wore them, that knowledge has not survived.  According to Hidatsa men interviewed by anthropologist Alfred Bowers during the 1930s, otters, like bears, were considered to be "doctors" and were included in hereditary, personally owned grizzly bear bundles that were used for both healing and directing warfare.18

The claws on both Mato Tope's necklace and the Lewis and Clark necklace are covered with red ochre, a pigment used to express a complex of meanings including life, blood, and the presence of holy or sacred forces (according to Lewis, the Shoshone regarded it as emblematic of peace). While Feder and Chandler suggest that red-painted claws are diagnostic of "Siou"X origins, this is an error, for the use of red ochre (and later, Chinese vermilion, which Lewis purchased as a trade item) is both ubiquitous and ancient. In fact, red pigment is apparent on so many bear claw necklaces that it seems to have been requisite.  Jim Hanson states that it symbolizes "the flowing blood of enemies slashed by the bear."19

In A Persistent Vision: Art of the reservation Days, Richard Conn pictures two bear claw necklaces treated with red ochre, one owned by Fish Wolf Robe, a "traditional" Blackfeet man who died in the 1950s.20 The second necklace, collected among the Crow and dated to the 1870s, is in fact made of horse hooves carved in the shape of bear claws, yet these are still covered by "layer upon layer" of red ochre-evidence, according to Conn, that the maker was responding to a spiritual vision. (There are several "fau"X bear claw necklaces in the Peabody collections, and Feder and Chandler note that necklaces of this type are neither uncommon nor a recent phenomenon).

In summary, the formal properties of the Peabody's grizzly claw collar support a relatively early date of construction compared to other museum examples, and it may well be the oldest surviving bear claw necklace in a public collection. In particular, the modification of the claws, their single drill holes made with a stone tool, the absence of trade materials, and the idiosyncratic nature of the design are features indicating that this necklace was made before the 1830s, when Euroamericans began to collect grizzly claw necklaces and to depict them in art. Because the necklace is so simple in form, essentially combining aspects of what Feder and Chandler called "Plains style" and "Style 3," or Missouri River style bear claw necklaces, it is impossible to attribute the necklace to any particular historic tribal group on that basis. Nonetheless, it remains an important artifact of the expedition's relationships with Native peoples.


1. Irving A. Hollowell, "Bear Ceremonialism in the Northern Hemisphere," American Anthropologist, 28 (1926), 1-175.

2. John Ewers, "The Bear Cult Among the Assiniboins and their Neighbors," Southwestern Journal of Anthropology, vol. 11, no. 1, 131-145.

3. Hallowell, 1-175; David Rockwell, Giving Voice to Bear: North American Indian Rituals, Myths, and Images of the Bear (Niwot, Colorado: Roberts Rinehart, 1991); Paul Shepard and Barry Sanders, The Sacred Paw: The Bear in Nature, Myth, and Literature (New York: Viking, 1985).

4. John Ewers, "The Awesome Bear in Plains Indian Art," American Indian Art, vol. 7, no. 3 (1982), 36-45.

5. Norman Feder and Milford G. Chandler, "Grizzly Claw Necklaces," American Indian Tradition, Vol. 8, no. 1 (1961), 11.

6. Maximilian, Prince of Wied, Travels in the Interior of North America, Vol. 2, in Reuben Gold Thwaites, ed., Early Western Travels, 1748-1846 (Cleveland, Ohio: Arthur H. Clark, 1906), 24:262.

7. Art of the Great Lakes Indians, Flint Institute of Arts, Flint Michigan, 1973; David W. Penney, Art of the American Indian Frontier: the Chandler-Pohrt Collection (Detroit: Detroit Institute of Arts, 1992), Plate 46.

8. Moulton, Journals, 5:139.

9. Ibid., 7:224.

10. Davis Thomas and Karin Rohhefeldt, ed., People of the First Man; Life Among the Plains Indians in Their Final Days of Glory (New York: Promontory Press, 1982), 141.

11. "In the River of Time: Mandan, Hidatsa, Arikara: Native Live Along the Upper Missouri River," Exhibit catalog, Linden Museum, Stuttgart, 2000; Axel Schulze-Thulin, ed., Indianer der Prärien und Plains, (Stuttgart: Linden-Museum, 1987).

12. Thomas and Ronnefeldt, 237, 222.

13. The Linden necklace is an especially valuable example of Mandan style because according to Maximilian, he commissioned Mato Tope to create it. In his journal entry for November 24, 1833, Maximilian wrote: "I gave Mato-Topé a bear-claw necklace which he will complete for me. For this purpose I purchased an otter skin and blue glass beads at the Company store." This fact would certainly account for the perhaps atypical patten of claws, while ensuring that the design composition was consistent with Mandan norms. Thomas and Ronnefeldt, 178.

14. Moulton, Journals, 8:318.

15. Edwin Thompson Denig, The Assiniboine (1930; repr. with a new introduction by David R. Miller, Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2000), 159.

16. John Ewers, Indian Life on the Upper Missouri (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1968), Plate I.

17. Thomas and Ronnefeldt, 215.

18. Alfred W. Bowers, Hidatsa Social and Ceremonial Organization (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1992.)

19. James Hanson, Spirits in the Art: From the Plains and Southwestern Indian Cultures (Kansas City: The Lowell Press, Inc., 1994), 106.

20. Denver: Denver Art Museum with the University of Washington Press, 1986.

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