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The power of the bear and the story an American massacre

The Pawnee necklace, adorned with 34 bear claws and an otter pelt, symbolizes power and protection. Worn by Pawnee Chief Sky Chief, it played a significant role in the last large-scale buffalo hunt and intertribal warfare on the plains. The necklace's history offers a unique glimpse into American history and Pawnee culture. Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

(piano music) - [Steven] We're in the Denver Art Museum looking at this magnificent Pawnee necklace. Its most striking feature are 34 large bear claws. - [John] The bear claws come off of what people refer to as a plains grizzly, which some people consider a subspecies that no longer exists on the plains today. - These were massive bears, they hunted buffalo. Thinking about what must have gone into the collection of these claws, the hunt of these bears. - Bears are associated with power and that's specifically why they are being used here. Only the middle three of each front paw of an individual bear is only six claws per bear were used in the creation of this. It required at least six bears to create this work. One of the interesting attributes of these claws is not only the size, but also their ivory appearance. - 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. - And on the backside of this, you see head of the otter hanging down one side of the shoulder and on the other side you have the tail and on the tail and on the head, there are beaded elements. - There are parts of this necklace that are not visible. - 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. - And the power is protective. - The wearer of this has the power of the bear to protect their community from enemies and warfare, as well as from sickness or disease. - So 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. - In 1873, Sky Chief led his group of Pawnee on what became the last large-scale buffalo hunt on the plains. - And the last great intertribal warfare on the plains. - 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. - The act of taking the necklace off is making him vulnerable and is putting the necklace above his own life. - That's completely true and 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 the Battle of Massacre Canyon, the Pawnee and Lakota had been at war for about 40 years. - The politics at this moment were complicated. The Pawnee had decided to work with the United States government and what the government was seeking was protection as they were moving westward and specifically, as the Transcontinental Railroad was being built. - 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. Part of this Accommodation Treaty was that the US Army, in exchange for the Pawnee's help, would provide them protection. Yet during this massive buffalo hunt, only one field agent went with them on the hunt and he immediately escaped as soon as he saw trouble coming. - And the result was horrifying. The historical accounts vary wildly but we're probably on safe ground when we state that at least a hundred people were killed. - The Pawnee were massacred. 2/3 of those killed were women and children. - This moment after the Civil War was the moment when Manifest Destiny, the idea that the United States was entitled to all of the land between the Atlantic and the Pacific, was being actualized. But of course the issue here was there were lots of people living in between. - 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. - 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's society and the animals that they lived amongst. - 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. - And the necklace remains important to the Pawnee people, but it's also an incredible window into American history. - 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 notice of this smoke. I have clothed you and placed you upon Mother Earth. Now then, Father, 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 care for you and be with you always. Show your powers to him and make him a good, wise chief and a great man, as you did to the others. May the men of the Bear Society have long life." (piano music)