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Adopt-an-Artefact: The bearclaw necklace story

Sitting Bull’s Bear Claw Necklace

Bear Claw Necklace Shaun Harry Roberta & Clifford

Following the battle of Little Big Horn in 1876, Sitting Bull led many of his people to safety within the Hudson Bay Company’s territory to the north, Rupertsland. Protected under the authority of Queen Victoria, and specifically the Northwest Mounted Police, he spent quite some time around Fort Qu’ Appelle, in what is now part of Saskatchewan. That’s where he met my grandmother, Ellen Arabella Inkster, and my grandfather, Henry McKay.

Yes, I did say “grandmother” and “grandfather”! In some ways I’ve jumped a few generations as my grandfather was 47 years old when my father, Reginald Harold Stanley McKay, was born in 1903, and my  father was 47 years old when I was born in 1950. It seems odd to be able to note that when my grandparents got married at Ft. Ellice in August, 1881, Sir Sam Steele, an historic figure in our country’s history, and then head of the North West Mounted Police, served as best man at their wedding.

In the 1960’s, my father wrote a short paper about the McKay family and their deep roots to the history of Western Canada. In it he mentioned that his father “soon learned to converse in the Sioux tongue and Sitting Bull told him much of his life story in the Northwestern States during those turbulent days. He presented my mother with his necklace of Grizzly Bear Claws, a symbol of authority only reserved for chiefs of high rank. In turn, my mother gave this relic to her uncle Sheriff Colin Inkster and at present I believe this is seen periodically in a glass case in the Winnipeg Civic Auditorium Museum”.

There are a few stories within the McKay family which have been passed down over the years about Sitting Bull’s necklace. They all affirm that it was given as a gift by Sitting Bull. One story has our grandmother sitting in the general store at Ft. Ellice when Sitting Bull walked in. She noticed the poor shape that his shoes were in so she offered him a pair of moccasins which she had made. He then gave her the necklace in appreciation of her gift. Another story suggests that the necklace was given by Sitting Bull as a gift for my grandparent’s wedding.

As chance would have it, in the early 1990’s I was invited to a small luncheon the purpose of which was to brainstorm ideas on how funds could be raised in support of The Manitoba Museum (then known as The Manitoba Museum of Man and Nature). Following the luncheon I mentioned to the then Director, that while through my family I was aware of a grizzly bear claw necklace in the Museum’s collection, I never had the opportunity to actually see it. I was encouraged to make arrangements to view the necklace through the Curator of the Native Ethnology Department at the Museum.

The viewing was organized for later that summer.  I was joined by my sister Roberta McGillivary, her son Clifford, my wife Elvira, our son Shaun, and our friend (and photographer) Bill Eakin. We all followed up to the 3rd floor where the necklace was being kept in storage.

The white box containing the necklace was opened and voila – there it was! Roberta exclaimed: “That’s it, that’s it. I’ve heard so much about it! Can I try it on?” I turned to her and said: “Roberta, it’s a precious artefact, and this is a museum!” However, to my surprise the curator lifted the necklace from the box and gently placed it around Roberta’s neck. I immediately had this vision, or strange sense of a special moment from long ago – of Sitting Bull placing his necklace on my grandmother, Ellen Inkster. It was a powerful feeling and hard to explain.

Bear Claw Necklace Harry Roberta & CliffordDisplayed is the photograph of my sister Roberta wearing the bear claw necklace.   After the meeting, I provided the curator with my father’s paper on the McKay family, as well as a few old newspaper clippings and other documents connecting Henry McKay with Sitting Bull reinforcing our interesting family history and connection of Western Canada.

Every time I visit the Manitoba Museum, I make a point of going to the Parklands/Mixed Woods exhibit, where Sitting Bull’s Bear Claw Necklace is on permanent display. I am reminded of my grandmother and her connection to the iconic Aboriginal leader, Sitting Bull; and I think fondly of my sister Roberta who passed away on January 2, 2011. I am pleased to have been able to adopt this priceless artefact in her memory.

Harry H. McKay Finnigan


Harry FinneganHarry Finnigan, founder and principal of McKay Finnigan and Associates in Winnipeg, is recognized internationally as a leader in downtown revitalization. Born and raised in Winnipeg’s inner city, he has extensive experience in community economic development, policy development, urban and regional planning and project management.

Harry overcame initial adversities in Winnipeg’s inner city with his steadfast educational development, culminating in a Masters of City planning from the University of Manitoba. Harry used his knowledge to unlock the potential in the Winnipeg downtown core area for the enrichment of all its residents.

Harry’s continued legacy of community development can be seen in the oil capital of Edmonton, America’s most livable city Pittsburg PA, and even the Republic of Botswana. In the early 90’s he was instrumental in developing the Downtown Winnipeg Business Improvement Zone which we now know as the Downtown Winnipeg Biz. During his tenure as Director of the City of Winnipeg, Planning, Property and Development Department he played a pivotal role in the development of downtown’s new residential neighbourhood “Waterfront Drive”.

Harry is currently channelling his drive and experience into his own highly successful consulting firm, providing community enrichment where it’s needed most. Being a donor to The Manitoba Museum since 2004 and a Museum Tribute supporter, Harry also officially adopted the first artefact from the Museum’s Adopt an Artefact program.

Harry is continuing in the altruism that has governed his professional life by sharing a very unique and personal artefact and Heirloom from the famous Sitting Bull. This unique treasure was presented to Harry’s Grandmother Ellen Inkster as a gift by Sitting Bull himself in thanks for her kindness to him.

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