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Native NationsBear Claw Necklace
History - the Necklace
Form and Cultural Identity

Object and Artifact

Page 3 of 5

The Grizzly Claw Necklace
as Object and Artifact

despite taking a keen interest in grizzly bears and describing the men's necklaces of grizzly claws they saw while traveling across the continent, Lewis and Clark seem to have left no written commentary regarding the cultural or geographic origins of the claw collar they deposited at Peale's Philadelphia museum. This omission is consistent with their generally sparse documentation of the Native American materials they acquired, which were not regarded as "specimens" in the same manner as minerals or birds. They acquired most of their Native American objects in the course of diplomatic exchanges and pragmatic barter, and did provide basic information about them — sometimes including the previous owner’s name — to museum proprietor Charles Wilson Peale, who entered the information in a museum ledger. Unfortunately this necklace does not appear on Peale's museum accession list, our single best guide to the extant collection at the Peabody. Likewise, the handwritten Peale label for the necklace makes no mention of its tribal or individual origins.

Even so, we can learn both about and from this necklace. This essay presents a description of its material properties, using those characteristics as a basis for comparing the necklace to other known examples. Criterion for the classification and dating of North American bear claw necklaces that were proposed nearly fifty years ago by Norman Feder and Milford G. Chandler1 support a very early date for the Peabody necklace relative to other known examples, and suggest an origin in the geopolitical region of the Upper Missouri River. Lewis and Clark's descriptions of bear claw collars and their relationships with various tribal communities are reviewed for clues as to the tribal origin of the necklace, and it is compared to a similar necklace acquired by Prince Maximilian from the Mandan chief Mato Tope (Four Bears). Contextual ethnographic and historic data show that the bear claw collars worn by Native leaders were considered culturally appropriate gifts for chiefs to present to important visitors. Lewis and Clark established cordial diplomatic relationships with Yankton, Mandan, Nez Perce and Shoshone chiefs, all of whom they reported as wearing bear claw necklaces. Ultimately, as we found with the rest of the Lewis and Clark collection, a specific attribution remains elusive because for early historic material culture, regional styles are much better understood than are tribal distinctions.

Yet the necklace remains a powerful statement of an ancient indigenous theology based on maintaining reciprocal relationships with both natural and with supernatural forces governing the universe. As an expression of core values as well as specific ideas about bears, the necklace highlights the cultural vitality of the independent western Native nations encountered by Lewis and Clark, and serves as a touchstone to indigenous consciousness and philosophy. It also underscores the well-known significance of grizzlies in expedition history, and deepens our appreciation of how a shared interest in bears mediated interactions between Indian people and Lewis and Clark despite vast differences in their understanding of those animals.

Physical Description

as a form, the bear claw necklace is simple and direct. It is an assemblage of thirty-five perforated grizzly claws, lashed to a foundation of otter hide and covered with red pigment. Three additional, detached claws, two of which have a second hole drilled in the center, were found in the same storage container as the necklace (Figure 4).  While it is unclear whether they were originally associated with the necklace, only the claw with a single perforated hole would seem to be a good match. With the possible exception of vermilion (a European-made red pigment available decades before the Lewis and Clark expedition) on one of the double-perforated loose claws, no Euro American trade goods appear to have been utilized in its creation. Their absence is a striking departure from the other objects in the Lewis and Clark collection, particularly in comparison to the other Plains materials.  Unlike beaded garments or woven hats, here there are no markers of chronology or social interaction. Instead, the necklace refers primarily to essential, and therefore, timeless, values and relationships.

Figure 4

three grizzly claws

Loose, perforated grizzly claws found with the necklace.
Vermilion, a trade pigment, may be present on the claw on the left.

Preliminary macroscopic analysis of the necklace was undertaken by Peabody zooarchaeologist Richard Meadow, Peabody conservator Scott Fulton, and by David Mather, a Minnesota archaeologist specializing in the cultural history of North American bears. Each of the thirty five large claws on the necklace were taken from the forefeet of grizzlies. The claws were probably soaked to soften them before they were perforated once by working each side with a flint tool, strung on a rawhide thong, and lashed with sinew to a foundation made of river otter (Lutra canadensis) fur. The claws-which are variegated shades of ivoried yellows, olives, and browns- were also modified by cutting away part of the undersides to flatten and smooth their surfaces (Figure 5). Red ochre, a mineral pigment, covers the knuckles and the underside of the claws as well as portions of the otter fur.  The otter hide has been denuded by time and insect damage, which have stripped away the long guard hairs, leaving only the dense nap of the under coat.  Unfortunately, the necklace is also now missing the neck strap, an important component of stylistic and cultural information.

Figure 5

underside of necklace

Underside of necklace, showing modification of claws, method of their
attachment to otter fur foundation, and red ochre pigment.

The necklace was carefully strung in graduated fashion, so that the longest claws fall in the center. Longest of them all at 8.7 cm, or about 3.5 inches, is a visually distinctive claw that appears to be carved from old, dark wood, but which is actually the keratin, or sheath of a claw now missing a bone core (Figure 6). It is possible that this “anomalous" claw pre-dates the others, but this seems unlikely, since bone is more durable than keratin. The remaining claws were sorted by color and size and strung across from one another in opposing pairs.  Mather has determined that at least twenty individual bears are represented on the necklace, each of which contributed between one and four claws. Curvature, length, and color patterns indicate that claws from both the left and the right forepaws are included, in some cases likely representing pairs of claws from the same animal. While they look imposing, the size of these claws (between three and four inches long) is within the range of variation for contemporary grizzlies, and is consistent with the average length of claws that Lewis and Clark reported having seen on  necklaces and on the feet of bears killed by members of their party. According to expedition journals, expedition members killed at least two huge grizzlies whose claws measured between six and seven inches long.

Figure 6

top view

Detail of grizzly claw necklace; anomalous claw
is sixth from the right, knuckle bone absent.

Many of the grizzlies killed by the Lewis and Clark party were closely examined and described by Meriwether Lewis because of his passionate interest in discovering how this massive, unfamiliar "white bear" fit into emerging systems of natural history classification and discourse, especially with regard to species distinctions. Paul Schullery’s Lewis and Clark Among the Grizzlies2 provides a cogent account of how Lewis's evolving analytical interest in grizzlies resulted in the earliest scientific descriptions of the bears, which many consider to be the expedition’s most notable intellectual achievement. While long-standing debates about speciation have been largely solved by genetic research, modern bear researchers believe that scientific analysis of the claws on this necklace could provide valuable information about the ecology and demography of grizzly populations in the early nineteenth century that could potentially contribute to current conservation efforts. It is possible that the claws represent the historically significant but long-extinct "Plains Grizzly," a little understood variety or ecotype of Ursos arctos, the brown bear. Microscopic portions of the claws might also yield information about the diet, age, and geographic location of the bears from which they were taken, in turn suggesting where Lewis and Clark obtained the necklace. But given the tremendous cultural and historic significance of the necklace, sampling even miniscule portions of the claws for analysis is unlikely.

--Castle McLaughlin, 09/08

1. Norman Feder and Milford G. Chandler, "Grizzly Claw Necklaces," American Indian Tradition, vol. 8, no. 1 (1961), 7-16.

2. (Guilford, Connecticut: Globe Pequot Press, 2002), 53-54.

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

History - the Necklace
Form and Cultural Identity

From Discovering Lewis & Clark ®, http://www.lewis-clark.org © 1998-2014
by The Lewis and Clark Fort Mandan Foundation, Washburn, North Dakota.
Journal excerpts are from The Journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, edited by Gary E. Moulton
13 vols. (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1983-2001)