Among the Bear Men

Page 5 of 5

Figure 10

Lakota warrior Rain in the Face exudes bear power


State Historical Society of North Dakota 1952-5136

Glass-plate photograph, Frank B. Fiske (1890-1952)
Fort Yates, North Dakota.

We know that the Corps of Discovery party first recorded seeing collars of grizzly claws while camping with a party of Yankton Dakota in what is now South Dakota on August 30 and 31, 1804. As Paul Schullery notes in Lewis and Clark Among the Grizzlies, the appearance of the necklaces signaled to the explorers that they were now in grizzly country, although they had yet to encounter any of those formidable creatures.1 While counseling with the Yankton, including a chief named White Bear, John Ordway recorded that "their was Several of the Indians which had Strings of White Bears claws around their necks, which was 3 inches in length, & Strung as close as possable to each other." If Ordway's description is accurate, these Yankton men were wearing necklaces of the "Plains type"—that is, claws that were worn simply strung, without being attached to a fur or cloth foundation. Many Sioux people seem to have favored this basic "Plains" style, at the same time creating and wearing claw assemblages of various types and complexity (Figure 10).


Figure 11

Nez Perce bear claw necklace, "Plains style."

nez perce necklace

Courtesy National Park Service, Nez Perce National Historical Park, Catalog #NEPE 1990

Lewis and Clark continued to record seeing bear claw necklaces as their company moved across the Plains and into the Rocky Mountains. While their descriptions were often cursory, noting that men in various communities wore "claws of the bear" around their necks, their relatively long visits among the Shoshone and Nez Perce facilitated greater attention to detail. Lewis provided the most complete description of such a necklace while among the Shoshone:

The warriors or such as esteem themselves brave men wear collars made of the claws of the brown bear which are also esteemed of great value and are preserved with great care. These claws are ornamented with beads about the thick end near which they are pierced through their sides and strung on a throng or dressed leather and tyed about the neck commonly with the upper edge of the talon next to the breast or neck but sometimes reversed.2

From this description, the Shoshone necklace may have been a slightly more embellished version of the simple claw collar featured on the Nez Perce National Historical Park website (Figure 11). Feder and Chandler would classify both the Shoshone example described by Lewis and the later Nez Perce necklace as examples of the ubiquitous "Plains style." It is entirely possible—especially given the value they placed on otter fur—that the Nez Perce and Shoshone also attached claws to otter-hide foundations. A potential Shoshone origin for the Lewis and Clark necklace cannot be entirely ruled out, given their relationship with the Corps and their relative poverty in trade goods. However, I have so far found no images of Shoshone or Nez Perce otter and grizzly claw collars in the literature for comparison.

A mutual interest in the ways of the grizzly provided common ground for conversation between Jefferson's army officers and the warriors of the Plains and Plateau, many of whom displayed bear imagery on their garments and weapons. The American party killed dozens of grizzlies as they traveled, partly to obtain specimen skins, and they soon realized that bear claws and hides were a valuable addition to their dwindling supply of trade goods and gifts for Native leaders. So absorbed was Lewis by these formidable creatures—and probably so encumbered by their hides—that during an exchange of names, a Nez Perce chief pronounced him "Yo-me-kol-lick," or "the white bearskin foalded."3

In turn, from the time that the American explorers first observed the formidable claw collars worn by Yankton men they encountered in August of 1804, they expressed in their journals a growing respect for the skill and bravery implied by such displays. This was especially true among the gun-poor Shoshone, Clark commenting that "with the means they have of killing this animal it must really be a serious undertaking."4 It is clear that Indian men communicated to Lewis and Clark a strong connection between grizzly claw necklaces, leadership, and war. This network of associations may have worked in the explorers' favor, since they arrived in Native communities packing grizzly skins and asking a host of related questions. Among the Nez Perce, Clark artlessly wrote: "This nation esteem the Killing of one of those tremendeous animals (the Bear) equally great with that of an enemy in the field of action–.     we gave the Claws of those bear which Collins had killed to [chief] Hohastillpelp."5 Hohots Ilppilp, whose name has been translated and interpreted as "a red, or bleeding, grizzly bear, his spiritual animal helper or guardian"6 must have instantly assumed that Lewis, Clark, and Collins were distinguished warriors.

Based especially on their interactions with Shoshone and Nez Perce men, Lewis and Clark understood that men wearing bear claw necklaces had personally killed the bears, and that those feats of bravery, determination and strength elevated their standing as warriors and leaders. This was almost certainly more true in 1800 than it was in 1850. Bears Arm, a Hidatsa, told anthropologist Alfred Bowers that "only very brave men ever owned [personal] Bear bundles before guns came, for the purchaser, having made his vow, was required to kill a grizzly bear unassisted," adding that this was considered the most dangerous hunt to undertake.7 Four Bears was a war leader, and was said to have earned his name because he fought "like four bears" against his enemies. According to the artist George Catlin, Four Bears wore his grizzly claw necklace "as a trophy—as an evidence unquestionable, that he had contended with and overcome that desperate enemy in open combat."8 Unfortunately, Catlin chose not to depict the necklace, which he described as having "fifty huge claws," in his full-length portrait of Four Bears, for which the chief modeled in 1832. However, he reportedly purchased it from Four Bears, along with the rest of the ensemble in which he posed.9

Wearing a claw collar was the prerogative of a "made man" who had earned honors and distinction in war and by those who had accepted community ceremonial responsibilities. But as the abundance and quality of firearms increased and bear hunting became less dangerous, grizzly claws became more widely available through trade and purchase, and seem to have become less emblematic of personal kills. Maximilian observed Hidatsa warriors wearing "large and well-finished" necklaces of forty grizzly claws "for which they often give a high price," and suggested that some of them had been obtained in trade from the Crow.10 But the association between claw necklaces, war honors, and leadership remained strong. A Mesquakie man cited by Feder and Chandler stated that men sometimes went to war against their Sioux enemies expressly to obtain a grizzly claw necklace, an accomplishment even greater than killing a bear. White Bull, a Lakota chief and nephew of Sitting Bull who was born in 1849, considered having killed eleven grizzlies from horseback with a rifle to be among his notable achievements, and he gave away twelve horses to commemorate that feat.11

Communal, ritualized forms of bear hunting were probably most common before firearms and horses became readily available, partly because of the danger to the hunters. But also, social hunting was directly related to the descent groups, men's societies, and community religious ceremonies responsible for the ritual management of bears. Lewis reported that before a hunt, Indians "paint themselves and perform all those supersticious rights commonly observed when they are about to make war upon a neighbouring nation"12 Catlin saw and painted a bear dance staged prior to a grizzly hunt, in which Lakota men-some wearing the head and skin of bears-danced to communicate with the bear spirit "which they think holds somewhere an invisible existence, and must be consulted and conciliated before they can enter upon their excursion with any prospect of success."13 The Mandan and Hidatsa emphasized to both Lewis and Clark and to Maximilian that large parties of men were required to take a grizzly, and trader Edwin Denig observed the same of the Assiniboine nearly fifty years after the Lewis and Clark expedition. Denig, who was the American Fur Company trader at Fort Union (1837-1855) and was married to an Assiniboine woman, reported that men might fight a grizzly during an unexpected encounter, and that "The killing of a grizzly bear by a single man is no trifling matter and deservedly ranks next to killing an enemy. A coup is counted for that action in their ceremonies where they publicly recount their brave exploits."14 But he judged such an event to be the exception, stating that it was more common for grizzlies to be hunted by groups of men, who smoked them out of their winter dens or surrounded them on horseback. Bears killed in this way were painted with vermilion, given prescribed gifts, offered a pipe to smoke, and were addressed with prayers. Across the plains, such ceremonial hunts were widely conducted prior to a war expedition.15

Because of language barriers, their own biases, and the brevity of their journey, Lewis and Clark acquired a relatively superficial understanding of Indian life. While the captains understood those men who wore grizzly claw collars to be distinguished war leaders, they were unaware of the spiritual dimensions of warfare and of the singular importance that bears played in shamanism and in the religious life of warriors. Lewis studied grizzlies by killing them and measuring their bodies; Indians observed and learned from their behavior. Because grizzlies ate medicinal plants and were difficult to kill, they were seen as teachers of strength and healing. Short Feather, a nineteenth century Lakota, explained that bear spirits taught shamans their ceremonies, medicines, and songs: "When a man sees the Bear in a vision, that man must become a medicine man."16 James R. Murie, a Pawnee ethnographer who recorded the ceremonial life of his people in the early twentieth century, captured the integrated duality of meanings about bears when he stated that, "In olden times, every chief and member of the Bear Society [an organization of native doctors] owned a bear claw necklace" (Figure 12).17

Bear's Belly, a member of the medicine fraternity of
the Arikara, wrapped in his ceremonial bear skin.

Bear's Belly, Arikara

Archives & Special Collections, The University of Montana, Missoula

Photogravure, ca. 1908,
from The North American Indian

At the time of the Lewis and Clark expedition, bear claw collars might have been worn by a variety of religious and war leaders whose relationship to bears was culturally shaped. Men's societies of bear healers and bear dreamers were ubiquitous across the west.18 Dreaming of bears, seeing them in a vision, or experiencing an unusual encounter indicated that the bears wanted to adopt or assist an individual, who would then be instructed how to establish and maintain a relationship. In some communities, the close association with bears that individual warriors and shamans sought was also cultivated and managed by social groups such as clans and associations. For example, among the Mandan descent groups orchestrated much of community ceremonial life, and before the smallpox epidemics of the 1830s, these included a grizzly bear clan.19 Given that men might inherit responsibilities for bear ceremonies, or choose to purchase membership in a bear society, existing claws and necklaces were sometimes transferred from one person to another and renewed ritually. Murie describes the ceremonial renewal and transfer of an old bear claw necklace, during which the original claws were attached to a new otter hide.20

It was considered honorable for chiefs and leaders to make gifts of their most valued objects, and Lewis and Clark probably received the grizzly claw necklace from a prominent man who was interested in cultivating a relationship with the Americans. Many of the other Native American objects they acquired, such as pipes and robes, were traditional "protocol" gifts customarily presented to important guests on behalf of the community, or were presents from individual chiefs with whom they exchanged symbols of rank, such as war and military shirts. In subsequent decades, grizzly claw necklaces were acquired by a number of important visitors to the Plains, including U.S. government officials; several styles are represented in the Smithsonian's "War Department" collection of treaty and delegation gifts.21 In 1832, the artist George Catlin witnessed Miniconjou Lakota chiefs disrobe and present their own head dresses, garments and bear claw necklaces to agents of the U.S. government and the American Fur company during a feast and council held near Fort Pierre.22 As Lewis and Clark experienced, this form of "chiefly gifting" was by 1800 a well-established ritual of cross-cultural diplomacy that was almost certainly rooted in indigenous trading ceremonies. Lewis memorably exchanged garments with Cameawait, the Shoshone band leader, and during formal meetings with Native leaders, Lewis and Clark enacted the ritual of "dressing" chiefs by presenting them with military garments and accouterments.

On the other hand, bear claw necklaces were singular prestige items that could be given spontaneously as an act of honoring another. The Irish-Canadian artist Paul Kane described being given a bear claw necklace by a Blackfoot chief he painted during the 1840s, and his story makes clear that such collars were often cherished by their owners:

Mah-Min, "The Feather," their head chief, permitted me to take his likeness, and after I had finished it, and it was shown to the others, who all recognized and admired it, he said to me, "You are a greater chief than I am, and I present you with this collar of grizzly bear's claws, which I have worn for twenty-three summers, and which I hope you will wear as a token of my friendship."23

While the grizzly claw collar brought back by Lewis and Clark cannot be traced to either a particular individual or even to a tribe of origin, it stands as a poignant reminder of the spirit in which it must have been given, and of a brief moment in which a relationship of "peace and friendship" between western tribes and the United States government still seemed possible. To a remarkable extent, it makes present that moment and the Indian people who encountered Lewis and Clark.

1. Lewis and Clark Among the Grizzlies: Legend and Legacy in the American West (Guilford, Connecticut: Globe Pequot Press, 2002).

2. Moulton, Journals, 5:135.

3. Ibid., 8: 79.

4. Ibid., 5:135.

5. Ibid., 7: 259.

6. Ibid., 7:241n.

7. Alfred W. Bowers, Mandan Social and Ceremonial Organization (Moscow: University of Idaho, 1992), 357.

8. George Catlin, Letters and Notes on the Manners, Customs, and Condition of the North American Indians, 2 vols. (1844; repr., New York: Dover, 1973), 1:146.

9. Ibid., 1:145.

10. Thwaites, Travels, 24:368.

11. Joseph White Bull, Lakota Warrior, James H. Howard, ed. (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1998), 30.

12. Moulton, Journals, 4:31.

13. Catlin, Letters, 1:245.

14. Denig, 105.

15. Ewers, Bear Cult, 5.

16. James R. Walker, Lakota Belief and Ritual, ed. Raymond J De Mallie and Elaine A. Jahner (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1980), 116.

17. James R. Murie Ceremonies of the Pawnee, ed. Douglas R. Parks (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1989), 385.

18. Ewers, Bear Cult.

19. Bowers, Mandan Social and Ceremonial Organization, 176.

20. Murie, 386.

21. Candace S. Greene, Bonnoe Richard, and Kirsten Thompson, "Treaty Councils and Indian Deletations: The War Department Museum Collection," American Indian Art, vol. 33, no. 1 (2007), 66-80.

22. Catlin, Letters, 1:228-29.

23. Paul Kane, Wanderings of an Artist Among the Indians of North America (1859; repr., Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 1996), 289.

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