Canku Ota - A Newsletter Celebrating Native America
August 26, 2000 - Issue 17

For Indians, Trip Began Conquest of Their Culture
by PETER HARRIMAN Argus Leader

artwork by George Catlin done while visiting the Mandans

As the Corps of Discovery bicentennial approaches, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark are being heralded as astronauts in buckskin who defined American character by exploring a continent.

But the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes of the Flathead Nation in western Montana are opting out of the celebration. They reflect a view of native peoples that is being heard across the Northern Plains, Rocky Mountains and Pacific Northwest. To them, the Corps of Discovery was the vanguard of a conquest that wrought fundamental change in a centuries-old way of life.

"What we have done is tried not to participate in the celebration except on an educational level," says Tony Incashola, chairman of the Salish-Pend d'Oreille Culture Committee.

The group has produced a monograph pointing out that, in a 24-hour timeline of tribal history, "Columbus would arrive at about 11 p.m., and Lewis and Clark would arrive around 11:37 p.m. ... The Salish and Pend d'Oreille were here, a sovereign nation, a fully and richly developed culture."

Lynda Earring, director of graduate education at Oglala Lakota College, says the contact with Lewis and Clark and subsequent domination by their culture have had eternal repercussions for Indians.

"I don't think people really, really realize what that meant, what it actually did," she says. "Every day we native people deal with that reality from the time we get up until the time we go to bed, in all aspects of our lives."

James Ronda, a historian at Tulsa University and author of "Lewis and Clark Among the Indians," describes the challenge the Corps of Discovery represented for the tribes whose land it passed through.

"Here is an aggressive, expansionist neighbor who doesn't just want to trade. They want the land.

"(President Thomas) Jefferson thinks of the West as a Garden of Eden. That means farmers, and that means these white guys will take the land away from the people already there," he says. "Lewis and Clark represent this coming wave of empire. That is the most significant thing about them, and it puts a pretty hard edge on them."

Dealing with tribes

Each tribe had different experiences with Lewis and Clark. The Corps' mission changed as it moved west. In the lands of the Louisiana Purchase between the Mississippi River and Rocky Mountains, the corps tried to estimate the Indian population and determine where people lived; the explorers noted whether tribes were trading with British fur traders in Canada or Americans in St. Louis.

Herb Hoover, a University of South Dakota historian, says they tried to identify tribal members amenable to diplomatic relations, then set them up as chiefs by adorning them with medallions, hats, coats and U.S. flags.

The first group greeted this way was the Yanktons, part of about 30,000 Dakota, Nakota and Lakota people living on the Northern Plains.

"The Yanktons have had the longest formal relationship with the U.S. government," Hoover points out.

Lewis and Clark also informed the tribes within the Louisiana Purchase they were now dependent nations, under the control of the United States.

Ronda says Lewis and Clark were carrying out Jefferson's vision. The explorers "were there to announce to the tribes, 'You have a new Great Father,' " Ronda says.

"Jefferson's notion in making treaties with native people is that they are junior partners in the American Empire," he says. "Jefferson always assumes he is not dealing with equals."

Beyond the Louisiana Purchase, in the Northwest, Lewis and Clark made no treaties. Instead, they struck practical alliances with the tribes for food, horses and information. Clark may have fathered a son with a Flathead woman in Montana, and the pair made extravagant promises to arm the Shoshones and Nez Perce "that it was not in their power to keep," Ronda says.

For tribes along the route, the Corps ranged from a tourist attraction to an unsettling, confusing new phenomenon. Ronda imagines Indians lining the banks of the Missouri watching "a whole bunch of guys come up the river in the biggest boat you've ever seen."

First impressions

Northern Plains tribes had dealt with white traders for about 20 years before the Corps of Discovery appeared, says Mary Jane Schneider, a professor of Indian Studies at the University of North Dakota, so in that respect Lewis and Clark were not strange.

"Indian people were not impressed with them," Schneider says of the Corps. "The only person they thought was worthwhile was the gunsmith, because he fixed things."

Much has been made of the fact that Lewis and Clark presented a corn grinder to the Mandan, Hidatsu and Arikara tribes with whom they wintered in North Dakota. Those tribes already were practicing agriculture. But Schneider dismisses any special significance. She points out the Indians "took apart the machine and turned it into other metal tools they needed more than a corn grinder."

As the Corps moved west into the Rockies and beyond, it met tribes who had not seen white men. The Salish-Pend d'Oreille Culture Committee monograph points out the confusion that reigned in these meetings.

"Many non-Indian historians and filmmakers have depicted the encounter between Indian people and the Lewis and Clark expedition as a story of respectful cultural exchange and mutual understanding," it states.

In fact, the Salish thought York, Clark's African-American servant, might have painted himself black for war. They thought the expedition members might have been in mourning because their hair was cut short. The Indians could not determine if the expedition was a war party or pitiful wanderers.

"The non-Indian accounts, and especially the later histories of the expedition, downplay this misunderstanding or even deny it," the monograph says. "The romantic glow of Lewis and Clark rests in part on the myth that Indian people welcomed the expedition in the full knowledge of their intentions."


One enduring image that springs from the Corps of Discovery is Sacajawea, the wife of corps interpreter Toussaint Charbonneau, who joined the expedition in North Dakota.

She was a Shoshone, born in eastern Idaho, but she was kidnapped at about age 10 by Hidatsu raiders and brought back to North Dakota, where she was sold to Charbonneau at about age 16.

Clark noted her knowledge of the mountains saved weeks of travel for the expedition, and she was a valuable translator when the expedition moved into her native country.

Sacajawea has become a symbol of warm cooperation between the corps and native people. Biographer Harold Howard notes she has more school buildings and monuments named for her than any other American woman.

Her later life is wrapped in mystery. One account has her dying in St. Louis at about age 25 of "a putrid fever." Shoshone oral history has her living into her 90s and being buried at Fort Washakie in Wyoming. Clark did raise her son, Jean Baptiste, whom she left in his care in St. Louis when she came there with Charbonneau.

Early impact

For all the contemporary interest in the expedition, historians suggest it had little immediate impact. Lewis died in 1809. The war of 1812 closed the frontier for several years after Lewis and Clark returned, and parts of their journals were first published, in an edition of only 2,000 copies, in 1814. Ronda says the most important thing in that edition was Clark's map of the West, which served as a guide for expanding fur trade to the Rockies.

Beyond that, "what is published is not the science or the ethnography, but a glorified adventure story," Ronda says. "It has less impact than we think."

From the perspective of the 21st century, the expedition also was a staggering missed opportunity to enlighten the nation, especially Jefferson, about a way of life practiced by indigenous peoples on the frontier. Jefferson's notion that the West must be subjugated held sway, with consequences that have persisted nearly 200 years.

While Clark, particularly, had some empathy for native American cultures, neither he nor Lewis could convey to Jefferson the richness of those cultures. Nor did they try, Ronda says.

"That was a notion that was utterly foreign to Lewis and Clark," he says. "The very idea of cultures being different but equal was beyond what they could think."

Cultural struggle

The upshot for Indians, after they were overwhelmed by war and the waves of settlement that followed Lewis and Clark, was first an attempt to eradicate their cultures, and more recently, a need to accommodate those cultures to the dominant, European-based way of life in the United States.

"We have been taught to think linearly, and our people didn't think that way," Earring, of Oglala Lakota College, says. "We still don't. We look at the whole picture."

But nearly 200 years after Lewis and Clark heralded the profound changes coming to the West, Earring says places such as Oglala Lakota College are coming to terms with the impact of those changes in ways favorable to Indians. They are making European models of education and government adapt to native American ways of thinking.

"It has taken a number of years to figure this out," she says. "But we've got it going now. We're good to go, and we will change the face of education."

Lewis and Clark

Reprinted under the Fair Use doctrine of international copyright law.
Tsonkwadiyonrat (We are ONE Spirit)

Native News:



Canku Ota is a free Newsletter celebrating Native America, its traditions and accomplishments . We do not provide subscriber or visitor names to anyone. Some articles presented in Canku Ota may contain copyright material. We have received appropriate permissions for republishing any articles. Material appearing here is distributed without profit or monetary gain to those who have expressed an interest. This is in accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. section 107.

Canku Ota is a copyright of Vicki Lockard and Paul Barry.

The "Canku Ota - A Newsletter Celebrating Native America" web site and its design is the Copyright © 1999 of Paul C. Barry. All Rights Reserved.