Bear Claw Necklace (Pawnee)

Bear Claw Necklace (Pawnee), before 1870, grizzly bear claws and hide, otter pelt, beads, cedar, tobacco and other materials (Denver Art Museum), a Smarthistory Seeing America video

Speakers: Dr. John Lukavic, curator of Native Arts, Denver Art Museum and Dr. Steven Zucker

Additional historical narratives:

Matt Reed
Tribal Historic Preservation Officer, Cultural Resource Division of the Pawnee Nation of Oklahoma notes that:

When the Lakota attacked, Sky Chief put the necklace and the family’s sacred bundle on his young daughter, put her on his horse, and told her to run. She made it to safety. Sky Chief died right after he killed his own little boy to prevent the child’s capture, torture, and death by the Sioux. When Sky Chief’s daughter eventually got back to Genoa, Nebraska (then the Pawnee Reservation), the little girl, now an orphan, was taken in by Bluehawk (Matt Reed’s grandfather), who raised her as his own. She grew up, married, and in 1987, her granddaughter, Elizabeth, gave the sacred bundle to the Earthlodge Museum in Republic, Kansas. More information on the bundle can be found here.

Roger Echo-Hawk
Pawnee tribal historian, notes that:

Stacy Matlock, a Chaui Pawnee chief, was said to have worn this necklace in 1925 during a visit to the Lakota when they formally apologized for the 1873 attack at Massacre Canyon. The Denver Art Museum acquired the necklace in 1973.

Smarthistory images for teaching and learning:

[flickr_tags user_id=”82032880@N00″ tags=”skychief,”]

More Smarthistory images…

[0:00] [music]

Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:05] We’re in the Denver Art Museum, looking at this magnificent Pawnee necklace. Its most striking feature are 34 large bear claws.

Dr. John Lukavic: [0:16] The bear claws come off of what people refer to as a plains grizzly, which some people consider a sub-species that no longer exists on the plains today.

Dr. Zucker: [0:25] These were massive bears. They hunted buffalo. Thinking about what must have gone into the collection of these claws, the hunt of these bears.

Dr. Lukavic: [0:32] Bears are associated with power. That’s specifically why they’re being used here. Only the middle three of each front paw of an individual bear, so only six claws per bear were used in the creation of this. It required at least six bears to create this work.

[0:46] One of the interesting attributes of these claws is not only the size but also their ivory appearance.

Dr. Zucker: [0:52] In addition to the bear claws, there is an otter pelt that wraps around over the shoulder and around the breast, and then over the other shoulder.

Dr. Lukavic: [1:00] On the back side of this you see the head of the otter hanging down one side of the shoulder, and on the other side you have the tail. On the tail and the head, there are beaded elements.

Dr. Zucker: [1:10] There are parts of this necklace that are not visible.

Dr. Lukavic: [1:12] Our records state that it’s formed from a bear hide that is rolled to create the U shape that goes around the neck, but it’s also incorporated with cedar and tobacco, which ceremonially brings the prayers and the power into the piece, to activate it.

Dr. Zucker: [1:25] The power is protective.

Dr. Lukavic: [1:26] The wearer of this has the power of the bear to protect them, their community, from enemies in warfare as well as from sickness or disease.

Dr. Zucker: [1:34] This is a potent spiritual object and that’s one of the reasons that it was being worn by the Pawnee chief, a man named Sky Chief.

Dr. Lukavic: [1:41] In 1873, Sky Chief led his group of Pawnee on what became the last large-scale buffalo hunt on the plains.

Dr. Zucker: [1:48] And the last great inter-tribal warfare on the plains.

Dr. Lukavic: [1:52] While they were out, there was word that there was Lakota people in the area. At some point, Sky Chief removed his bear claw necklace, thinking that the Lakota might attack, handed it to his younger brother, and told him to take off with it so it did not fall into Lakota hands.

Dr. Zucker: [2:05] The act of taking the necklace off is making him vulnerable, and is putting the necklace above his own life.

Dr. Lukavic: [2:12] That’s completely true. Soon after removing the necklace on the hunt, he was skinning a buffalo when the Lakota attacked. In 1873, when this battle occurred — or massacre rather, which became known as Battle of Massacre Canyon — the Pawnee and the Lakota had been at war for about 40 years.

Dr. Zucker: [2:27] The politics at this moment were complicated. The Pawnee had decided to work with the United States government. What the government was seeking was protection as they were moving westward, and specifically, as the transcontinental railroad was being built.

Dr. Lukavic: [2:40] Sky Chief was one of the great supporters of what was known as the Accommodation Treaty with the US Army. The Pawnee provided scouts to the US Army and also provided protection to the building of the transcontinental railroad.

[2:52] Part of this Accommodation Treaty was that the US Army, in exchange for the Pawnees’ help, would provide them protection. Yet during this massive buffalo hunt, only one field agent went with them on the hunt. He immediately escaped as soon as he saw trouble coming.

Dr. Zucker: [3:07] The result was horrifying. The historical accounts vary widely. We’re probably on safe ground when we state that at least 100 people were killed.

Dr. Lukavic: [3:14] The Pawnee were massacred. Two-thirds of those killed were women and children.

Dr. Zucker: [3:19] This moment after the Civil War was the moment when Manifest Destiny, the idea that the United States was entitled to all the land between the Atlantic and the Pacific, was being actualized. Of course, the issue here was there were lots of people living in between.

Dr. Lukavic: [3:33] The Pawnee consist of four distinct political units. After this event, the Pawnee were moved to Oklahoma, or at the time was known as Indian Territory.

Dr. Zucker: [3:42] This is such an intimidating necklace. The power of the claw, these long forms that curve under, that look really terrifying, along with the otter, express for me the close relationship between Pawnee society and the animals that they lived amongst.

Dr. Lukavic: [3:57] Pawnee religion included an emphasis on what some people refer to as animal lodge ceremonialism. Animals had particular attributes and powers that the Pawnee drew upon for use in their own lives.

Dr. Zucker: [4:10] The necklace remains important to the Pawnee people, but it’s also an incredible window into American history.

Dr. Lukavic: [4:16] In February 1998, a group of Pawnee people came to the Denver Art Museum to visit this necklace and to speak to it. William Riding In, a Pawnee man, said the following prayer to the necklace: “Father, smoke, and take note of the smoke. I have clothed you and placed you upon Mother Earth. Now then, Father, smoke with me.


“[4:35] Take pity upon me. Hear my prayers and give long life to him who will hereafter keep you and place you in a prominent place in his home. Once you were owned by Sky Chief, a prominent chief, it was through your power that he was great. I have placed new clothing upon you.


“[4:50] Another man will now take care of you and be with you always. Show your powers to him, and make him a good, wise chief and great man, as you did to the others. May the men of the Bear Society have long life.”

[5:02] [music]

Cite this page as: Dr. John P. Lukavic, Denver Art Museum and Dr. Steven Zucker, "Bear Claw Necklace (Pawnee)," in Smarthistory, January 10, 2018, accessed April 17, 2024,