A corps of visitors, not discoverers

 

In Lewis and Clark Through Indian Eyes, the late historian and journalist Alvin Josephy assembles nine weakly linked essays by 10 Indian writers. A few essays are solid; some are tough to get through. But together they should enable the Anglo reader to pass through the looking glass, as Alice did in Lewis Carroll’s classic, and see the West’s history from a very different perspective.

As we know, the victors in any war write the history, and we have had 200 years of such writing. From the victor’s side of the looking glass, Lewis and Clark guided their soldiers through a trackless wilderness filled with ferocious grizzly bears and hostile Indians. They were sent West in 1804 by the nation’s visionary president, Thomas Jefferson, who had just spent $15 million to buy the 827,000-square-mile Louisiana Territory. Lewis and Clark’s job was to see what Jefferson had bought and to nail down the United States’ possession of that land.

As with all creation myths, the story turns out beautifully. Lewis and Clark push their way past an aggressive Sioux band, survive a harsh winter with the Mandans, find their way through the mountains to the Pacific, and return home 19 months later, having lost but a single man, most likely to appendicitis.

The losers’ narrative differs, not in the facts but in the interpretation. To appreciate this, it helps to read the Indian writers’ essays with a traditional history at your side, such as Bernard DeVoto’s Course of Empire or Stephen Ambrose’s Undaunted Courage.

From the DeVoto-Ambrose side of the mirror, the voyage was one long and heroic act, one close call, one brilliant decision after another.

But here’s how the late Indian historian Vine DeLoria Jr. describes the same events in the opening essay of Lewis and Clark Through Indian Eyes: "The expedition actually seems to have been a tedious march from one place to another (with the route) made known to them by Indians and French traders …"

According to DeLoria, the voyagers were the latest in a long string of white visitors. The expedition encountered a population of "half-breeds of French-Indian heritage, some people representing second and even third generations out on the plains …"

From the Indian perspective, Lewis and Clark made a fairly routine march through a land occupied by hundreds of sovereign Indian nations. Those nations interacted with each other through trade, war and treaty, much as European nations did thousand of miles to the east. The Corps of Discovery, in the Indians’ view, was actually a Corps of Visitors to a settled landscape. Finally, the Corps wasn’t mapping land the United States owned. According to essayist Roberta Conner, director of the Tamástslikt Cultural Institute, Jefferson had bought only what might be called hunting rights from the French, which allowed the U.S. to attempt to colonize the Louisiana Territory by convincing the Indian nations, through force or purchase or salesmanship, to give over their lands.

But the Indian essays are rarely recriminatory or bitter. The writings are family remembrances, discussions of how unimportant the expedition was to the Indians at that time, and attempts to imagine what their ancestors could have done to avoid the disasters that came in the wake of the explorers.

Even though the expedition took place two centuries ago, many of the essayists write as if it were almost a contemporary event. Moreover, despite the immensity of the changes the expedition presaged, some of the authors see the last 200 years as just a blip in their collective lives. With the possible exception of former Montana state Sen. Bill Yellowtail’s essay on individuality versus tribal identity, their struggle is to hang on to who they are, recover what land they can, and wait for these bad times to pass.

The story of Lewis and Clark is now over two centuries old. And yet in its drive to expand and commercialize the United States, in the greed of the expedition’s leader, and in the hypocrisy of the nation’s leader, it is a very modern tale.

 

The author is the former publisher of High Country News.


Lewis and Clark Through Indian Eyes

Edited by Alvin M. Josephy Jr. with Marc Jaffe

196 pages, hardcover: $24.

Alfred A. Knopf, 2006.