The story of an American massacre

a Pawnee chief and the power of the bear

Bear Claw Necklace (Pawnee), before 1870, grizzly bear claws and hide, otter pelt, beads, cedar, tobacco and other materials (Denver Art Museum). 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 daugther, 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.

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Pawnee Bear Claw Necklace

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Key points

  • The Battle of Massacre Canyon was the last large-scale battle between Native Americans (the Lakota and the Pawnee). Following this devastating conflict, the Pawnee were relocated to Oklahoma.
  • This necklace was worn by Sky Chief during the last large-scale buffalo hunt on the plains.
  • The Pawnee assisted the United States in protecting lands that were under development for the transcontinental railroad. This agreement was known as an “accommodation treaty,” though it was not a formal treaty.
  • The Bear Claw Necklace is a sacred and powerful Pawnee object that is believed to provide protection to its wearer. It is still revered by the Pawnee people today.

Go deeper

Read about another Pawnee Bear Claw Necklace

Why were bear claw necklaces important to different Plains Indian and Upper Missouri tribes?

Who was Sky Chief?

An image of Sky Chief wearing the Bear Claw necklace

What other objects survived the Battle of Massacre Canyon?

What is the history of the Pawnee?

What do we know about bison on the Great Plains?

What tensions existed among the Plains Indians? 

More to think about

The Bear Claw Necklace remains a potent spiritual object for the Pawnee, and it gives visitors to the museum a glimpse into U.S. history. What are some issues raised by the presence of Native American objects in museums or other cultural institutions? Based on the prayer read by William Riding In (below), how do you think the Pawnee feel about the necklace’s current display in the Denver Art Museum?

Fathers, smoke and take note of this smoke.
I have clothed you and placed you upon Mother Earth.
Now then, Fathers, smoke with me. 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. 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.

Smarthistory images for teaching and learning:

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Explore the diverse history of the United States through its art. Seeing America is funded by the Terra Foundation for American Art and the Alice L. Walton Foundation.