“Lewis and Clark Through Indian Eyes,” edited by Alvin Josephy, 2006
The military ‘Corps of Discovery’ led by Meriwether Lewis and William Clark in 1804-1806 is one of those legendary U.S. frontier tales that most impresses. The courage shown by the expedition, the scientific results, the meetings with Native American tribes, the low number of casualties, the sheer audacity of crossing and mapping the continent without knowing quite how to do it – it always amazes. The expedition was immortalized in a book by Stephen Ambrose, a standard patriotic U.S. historian, “Undaunted Courage.” However, the view of Native Americans to this strange band of white men lost and hungry in their lands is a bit different.
|Blackfeet women watch the Missouri|
Nine prominent Native Americans, mostly academics or former Native government officials, respond to the expedition in their own ways. They are from the tribes the expedition met along the way – Standing Rock Sioux, Salish-Kootenai, Shoshone-Bannock, Crow, Umatilla, Mandan-Hidatsa, Nez Perce, Puyallup/Couer D’Alene, Clatsop Nehalem and Kiowa.
I will give you the highlights and a few low-lights:
1. Vine Deloria points out that the French had a completely different method of interacting with native peoples than the British and Americans. They intermarried to do trading, trapping, hunting or homesteading, while the British Americans sought to conquer. The French had lived in these lands for years before Jefferson’s expedition arrived. This is why Charbonneau and other Frenchmen were able to help Lewis & Clark.
2. Without Sacajawea the expedition would have been lost. She was the only one Lewis & Clark knew who remembered how to cross the various mountain ranges, including the Continental Divide and who could also talk to the Shoshone, a key tribe along the way.
3. In their diaries Lewis and Clark continually refer to native Americans as "the Great White Father’s red children.” They were not. According to Deloria, their journals showed little respect for native people. Although they did remark on the kindness of the some of the tribes they encountered.
4. The tribes had seen numerous white men, so the Expedition was 'no big whoop.’ They treated the travelers with courtesy. 30 trading vessels had already landed in Oregon; North Dakota had seen plenty of French and British trappers and traders. The real eye-opener for native Americans was seeing York, the sole dark brown man in the Corps of ‘Discovery.’ York was Clark's slave, so something more than dark skin entered the northern plains and the northwest on that expedition.
5. The horses sold to Lewis & Clark by the Nez Perce were the worst of the bunch. The natives were good bargainers.
6. 50 years after Lewis & Clark, many of the western tribes lost their land at the 1851 Tansy Point Treaty, the Walla Walla Treaty of 1855 and the 1872 Hellgate Treaty. The expedition was the ‘tip of the spear of Manifest Destiny,’ not a disinterested scientific effort. After 75 years, all of the tribes had lost their land.
7. It was noted that the sunburned men smelled. They did not bathe in sweat lodges or in the rivers and lakes like native people.
8. Lewis & Clark’s expedition crossed a region with a long history, complex trading routes, political alliances, rich sources of food, many talents, multi-linqual, consisting of many human beings. There were more people living in the Mandan-Hidatsa villages than in St. Louis. The valley of the Columbia was heavily populated by various bands and tribes. Nothing was empty or ‘undiscovered.’
9. Smallpox wiped out thousands of native Americans in this area – including some whole clans or tribes. 50,000 by one estimate.
10. The book includes personal, family and tribal oral stories of the visits of Lewis & Clark, Sacajawea, Charbonneau and York that were handed down. It also has excerpts from the Expedition diaries. Gerard Baker describes Sacajawea’s origins as a Hidatsa once captured by the Shoshone; and also how she died. This is based on an outstanding oral history by one of her relatives.
|The view from Lemhi Pass and the Continental Divide|
11. Bill Yellowtail insists that native Americans must start businesses and become entrepreneurs. He bases this on the trading facility and skills of native peoples illustrated over the course of the Expedition. However, these skills were not based on individuals alone working as ‘businessmen,’ but whole tribes working together. It is not like Lewis & Clark stopped at a shop along the trail called “Get It Here!’ run by an ambitious young Crow entrepreneur, who also sold items to others in his tribe. Trading skills and 'individual entrepreneurship' are two different things. Not that this idea won’t be an improvement in a capitalist United States. But the logic based on the expedition is false.
12. The point of the Corps of 'Discovery,' according to Jefferson, was to gain knowledge that would help with commerce.
13. Reports of a a tribe's poverty in the journals sometimes rang false. The Agaidika Shoshone owned 400 ‘fine’ horses and good clothing, yet were called 'extremely poor.'
14. Native religion was ignored for Christianity, in spite of the separation of church and state in the Bill of Rights. In the same sense, native direct democracy was superior to 'representative' democracy as mandated by the U.S. government.
15. The legal ‘Doctrine of Discovery,’ first used by the Spanish, decreed that European Christians were legally dominant in any dealings with indigenous peoples. The U.S. followed this logic.
All in all an illuminating book. As a benefit, it takes you on a geographical and native journey across the northern U.S. Up the Missouri across 4 states, wintering in Mandan, North Dakota. Then around the 'Great' falls of the Missouri, up the Jefferson River where horses were purchased, then over Lemhi Pass where the Expedition crossed the Divide. They proceeded along the Bitterroot Mountains north, turned west over the treacherous Lolo Pass, then down the Clearwater and the Snake, until they hit the Columbia River and ultimately the Pacific at Fort Clatsup. All along this route are reservations, former tribal lands, forests, mountain ranges, meadows, basins, villages and rivers that live in history and in the present.
Ref: The author drove near part of this route last fall. Go!
Other reviews on this subject, in the archive below. Use blog search box, upper left: “Indian Country Noir,” “An Indigenous People’s History of the United States,” “The Heart of Everything That Is,” “”Empire of the Summer Moon,” “Postcards From the End of America,” “Loaded,” “Are White People White?”
And I bought it at Normal Books, Athens, Georgia
March 29, 2019