The living, breathing natives who made Lewis and Clark

  • William Clark

  • Blackfeet Indians on Horseback

    Karl Bodmer Paintings c. 1840, courtesy Yale Collection of Western Americana, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library
  • Mato-Tope, the Mandan Chief in his State dress

    Karl Bodmer Paintings c. 1840, courtesy Yale Collection of Western Americana, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library
  • Pashtuwa-Chta, an Arikkara Indian

    Karl Bodmer Paintings c. 1840, courtesy Yale Collection of Western Americana, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library
  • Journey of the Corps of Discovery

    Diane Sylvain
  • Meriwether Lewis

  • Timotsk, hereditary chief of the Klikitats, who as a boy saw the Lewis and Clark expedition as it glided down the Columbia River in 1805 (c. 1870-90)

    Western History/Genealogy Department, Denver Public Library
  • Dayton Duncan

    Daniel J. White

The most widely held and deeply ingrained popular image of Lewis and Clark also happens to be the most serious misconception of their expedition. In that image, they cross North America on their own at the start of the 19th century, somehow finding their way through an uninhabited wilderness and blazing a trail where no one had ever gone before. The truth is quite different. The West they crossed was hardly an uninhabited space. Indians were not only already inhabiting it, they had been living on it and traveling back and forth across it for hundreds of generations.

And the even harder truth is this: Without those Indians, Lewis and Clark would never have made it to the Pacific Ocean and back. That central but often forgotten fact is worth restating: If the West had been uninhabited, the Corps of Discovery simply would not have succeeded.

Make no mistake: To a man, the members of the expedition were uncommonly tough, amazingly resourceful, doggedly determined, and supremely courageous. William Clark was as good at intuiting and then mapping an unfamiliar landscape as any explorer this country has ever produced. And no one should ever doubt Meriwether Lewis’ single-minded devotion to his mission. Nonetheless, it was Indians who made the difference between success and failure.

The Mandans gave them buffalo meat and corn to survive the fierce North Dakota winter. The Hidatsas gave them information about the uncertain, unmapped route that awaited them along the Upper Missouri — describing mileposts they needed to watch for, down to the details of the sound of the Great Falls and a solitary eagle’s nest in a cottonwood tree that would assure the explorers they were on the right track. Without Shoshone and Salish horses, Lewis and Clark could not have crossed the Bitterroot Mountains. Without the salmon and camas roots offered freely by the Nez Perces, they would not have recovered from near-starvation after emerging from the mountains. The tribes of the arid Columbia Plateau provided them with much-needed food (dogs, mostly) on the expedition’s way out and back, when game was impossible to find and the men, despite their hunger, disdained the salmon teeming in the river. More food — and essential information — came from the Chinooks and the Clatsops along the Pacific Coast.

The two captains understood from the start how crucial Native Americans were to their success. Lewis spent $559.50 — nearly one-quarter of the expedition’s entire congressional appropriation — on presents for the Indians: eight brass kettles, 130 rolls of tobacco, 500 brooches, 12 dozen pocket mirrors, 4,600 sewing needles, 33 pounds of tiny colored beads, silk ribbons and yards of bright-colored cloth, tomahawks that doubled as pipes, and much more. This doesn’t even count the boxes of Jefferson peace medals provided at no charge by the United States Mint.

Clark certainly understood this point every time he sat down around a campfire with an Indian chief and an interpreter, and asked questions about the tributaries of the Missouri and Columbia — about the far-flung lands he would not get to see with his own eyes. Then, as the chief scratched lines in the dirt, with humps of clay to mark mountains, Clark would add that information to the new map of the West he was compiling for President Jefferson.

Sacagawea, the one full-blood Indian on the expedition, admittedly has become nearly as famous as the two captains, and although her role often tends to be over-romanticized, her contribution to the Corps of Discovery’s achievements is indisputable. She was a mere teenager (and pregnant) when the captains met her at Fort Mandan in the late fall of 1804, but their journals show they immediately sensed that she could be the key to getting Shoshone horses once they reached her homeland in the Western mountains.

Even after she helped obtain Shoshone horses, Sacagawea performed another vital role. "The sight of This Indian woman," Clark wrote as they met tribe after tribe on the Columbia, "confirmed those people of our friendly intentions, as no woman ever accompanies a war party of Indians in this quarter."

The attention given to Sacagawea has tended to overshadow the fact that the explorers met — and relied just as heavily upon — many other Indians along the way. In the captains’ journals, those other Indians appear again and again — and not as abstractions but as real, living, breathing people.

A chief named Shake Hand of the Yankton Sioux politely accepted his Jefferson peace medal from the captains, noting — and who knows if he meant this ironically, or even if they would have understood irony if they’d heard it — that he intended to put it with the peace medals he had already been given by the Spanish and British on behalf of the other "Great Fathers," who, during the last quarter century, had been sending representatives up the lower Missouri like so many Fuller Brush salesmen.

Arcawecharchi, another Yankton chief, struck a similar tone when the captains presented him with a 15-star flag. "I am a man and a chief of some note," he told them with dignity on a hot summer day, after listening to their lengthy and occasionally condescending speech, each paragraph of which began with the word Children. "I am glad my grandfather has sent you to the people on this river," he added, "and that he has given us a flag large and handsome, the shade of which we can sit under."

The equally proud Black Buffalo of the Teton Sioux, or Lakota, demonstrated remarkable diplomacy when he prevented a bloody battle that most likely would have resulted in the deaths of many of his tribe, as well as in the effective destruction of the expedition. Farther upriver, chiefs named Kakawissassa, Piahito, and Pocasse of the Arikaras patiently explained that they did not want any alcohol because it turned people into fools. During the flogging of the mutinous John Newman, they told the captains that they considered it uncivilized to whip a man in public.

Just before the onset of the murderously harsh winter in North Dakota, the generous Sheheke of the Mandans told Lewis and Clark, "If we eat, you shall eat; if we starve, you must starve also." Cameahwait of the Shoshones, whose people were starving, decided nevertheless to delay his tribe’s annual buffalo hunt in order to help the first white men his people had ever encountered.

And on the far side of the Bitterroots, the expedition was fortunate to encounter Twisted Hair of the Nez Perces, whom Clark described as "a cheerful, sincere man," and an old woman named Watkuweis. The explorers’ journals barely mention her, but according to tribal history, she is the one who persuaded her people to befriend rather than kill the weak and starving strangers from the East. Watkuweis told the Nez Perces, "Do them no hurt."

There is always some risk of overpainting this into a soft pastel portrait of one big happy family. But Lewis and Clark had rough edges. So did every Indian they met. They were all human, after all, bringing to every encounter their own biases, their own self-interest, and the weight of their own cultures.

In Lewis and Clark’s (and Jefferson’s) vocabulary, all Indians were "savages." This applied to tribes the captains considered hostile, such as the Teton Sioux ("the vilest miscreants of the savage race," according to Clark), as well as those they considered helpful, such as the Mandans ("the most friendly and well disposed savages that we have yet met with," according to Lewis). They were "savages" by definition, because to the captains and the president who sent them west, Native Americans simply were not as culturally advanced as those brought up in the "civilized world." (Part of Jefferson’s dream was to use the Louisiana Territory as a safe haven for Indians — including those he proposed to remove from the East — where they could live separately from whites until, with help and the advance of several generations, the two races were ready to intermingle seamlessly.)

From that point of view, addressing each tribe the expedition met as "children" did not seem unusual, nor did the paternal and occasionally scolding tone of the captains’ message. "The great chief of the Seventeen great nations of America, has become your only father," the captains would announce, in a long-winded speech Lewis wrote for their first Indian parley in August 1804. "He is the only friend to whom you can now look for protection, or from whom you can ask favours ... he will serve you, & not deceive you." Then they would enjoin the "children" to do business only with American traders, who, the captains promised, would soon be providing "a regular and plentiful supply of goods" and "on much better terms than you have ever received" from the French or the Spanish or the British. Further, the Indians were instructed to live in peace with all white men and, equally important, to stop their incessant intertribal warfare (which was considered bad for the fur trade).

Over on the Indian side of the council fire, where chiefs had been listening to orations about distant "great fathers" for upward of a century in some cases, such speeches were merely a routine ritual that preceded the real business: getting the white man’s trade goods that made their people’s lives easier (manufactured awls and fish hooks), more pleasurable (tobacco, beads, mirrors), and, in their view, safer (guns to use against enemy tribes).

But why should they worry that this "new father," who lived "where the land ends and the Sun rises from the face of the great waters," would present any greater threat to their sovereignty and survival than the "old fathers," who, Lewis and Clark said, had now returned to their homes across the sea? The real threats seemed to be more familiar and long-standing: enemy tribes — attested to most graphically by the Omaha scalps proudly displayed by the Lakotas, the Mandan buffalo robe painted with gruesome battle scenes, and all the other war trophies and tales of valor every tribe made sure to show and tell to the captains upon their arrival.

These new white men may have had a bigger boat and a larger contingent of soldiers than the Indians had seen before, but none of the tribes seemed to feel intimidated by the expedition’s immediate presence, or to be particularly worried about the "seventeen great nations of America" on the far side of the Mississippi. Quite the contrary: It was more often the Corps of Discovery that felt outnumbered and in need of being on military alert. One-Eye of the Hidatsas (also known as Le Borgne) scoffed that, if he wished, his warriors would have no more trouble handling Lewis and Clark’s soldiers than "so many wolves."

From the vantage point of today, it seems easy enough to see where this was heading: a 19th century that would be the most chaotic and traumatic in the history of the Indian people of the West. But Lewis and Clark, and the Indians they met, didn’t have the luxury of foreknowledge: They were simply trying to manage as well as they could, according to their own best judgments.

A Lakota chief named the Partisan tried to prevent the expedition from proceeding upriver, not because he foresaw American westward expansion as the beginning of the end for his people, but because he wanted the Lakotas to control the American trade on the middle Missouri — and he hoped for a rise in his own status, if he succeeded in forcing concessions from the strangers in the big boat. The Shoshones were happy to provide the expedition with horses, not simply out of generosity or gratitude that Sacagawea had been returned to her homeland, but because they were desperate to open a trade network with whites that would provide them with guns — deadly weapons they lacked, which was why the Hidatsas and Blackfeet and Atsinas (who had plenty of guns) had been able to so easily dispossess them on the Plains.

Lewis and Clark endeavored to obey Jefferson’s instruction that "in all your intercourse with the natives, treat them in the most friendly and conciliatory manner which their own conduct will admit." Even so, they stole a canoe from the amiable Clatsop chief Coboway when it served their purpose. When Lewis’s dog Seaman was abducted, Lewis was prepared to burn a village on the Lower Columbia to the ground if its inhabitants didn’t immediately release him. After a Walula man made fun of Lewis for having roasted dog for dinner, Lewis said he "struck (the Indian) in the breast and face, seized my tomahawk and shewed him by signs if he repeated his insolence I would tommahawk him." And on the Two Medicine River in northwestern Montana, two young Blackfeet were killed as they attempted to steal horses from Lewis and a small scouting party. In the heat of the moment, Lewis even left a Jefferson peace medal on one of the corpses so that the Blackfeet "might be informed who we were."

During a journey of two and a half years, the expedition’s relations with Indians had its full share of suspicions, disagreements, tensions, and misunderstandings on both sides. There’s nothing remarkable about that. What is remarkable — particularly considering the blood-soaked annals of white exploration in the New World — is that the fight with the Blackfeet turned out to be the only incident of deadly violence between the Corps of Discovery and the thousands of Indians they met.

What stands out is how multidimensional and richly human the encounters were, how earnestly both sides often strove to understand one another even in the midst of the most trying circumstances, and finally, just how many friendships were actually forged across the great cultural divide.

On June 29, 1806, when the Corps of Discovery emerged from the Idaho mountains for the last time, guided by five Nez Perce teenagers whose help the captains credited with the successful crossing, they arrived at the Lolo hot springs in time to make camp. "Both the men and indians amused themselves with the use of a bath this evening," Lewis tells us. "I observed," he adds, "that the indians after remaining in the hot bath as long as they could bear it ran and plunged themselves into the creek, the water of which is now as cold as ice can make it."

Lewis himself stayed put in the hot springs for 19 minutes, he says, though "it was with difficulty I could remain thus long and it caused a profuse sweat." The Indian guides, Lewis concluded, were "a race of hardy strong athletic young men," from a tribe he called "the most hospitable, honest and sincere people that we have met with on our voyage."

It’s tempting to end the story here, with the image of white explorers and Indian guides peacefully enjoying each other’s company, and an American officer and hero gratefully acknowledging his expedition’s debt to the Native Americans who helped make his mission a success. But to end the story here would be to totally ignore what happened to those same Native peoples after they befriended Lewis and Clark. And ignoring the Indians after Lewis and Clark’s journey would be as dishonest as ignoring their role during the journey. It would also, I think, do an injustice to Lewis and Clark’s memory and honor.

My friend, the writer William Least Heat-Moon, has said that "the sorrow behind the Corps of Discovery is that what they did so well, later people were not able to do half so well." In dealing with Native peoples, he said, our nation "didn’t learn what they taught themselves. Lewis and Clark went as students; they came back as teachers, and we failed to learn the lessons that they had learned."

How quickly those lessons were forgotten — and how totally — can also be seen near Montana’s Lolo Trail. In 1876, during the centennial celebration of the nation’s founding declaration of freedom and equality, the Salish were forced to move from their homelands in the Bitterroot Valley. Only 70 years earlier, Lewis and Clark had been the first white men the Salish had ever seen. And yet, as Private Whitehouse had recorded, "they received us as friends" and provided the expedition with fresh horses to cross the mountains. But by 1876 — within the living memory of the Corps of Discovery — all of that had been forgotten (or conveniently ignored) as Salish lands were being taken. The Salish, however, had not forgotten, and their chief, Charlot, put what had become a bitter memory into words:

Since our forefathers first beheld (Lewis and Clark), more than seven times ten winters have snowed and melted ... We were happy when (the white men) first came. We first thought he came from the light, but he comes like the dusk of the evening now, not like the dawn of the morning. He comes like a day that has passed, and night enters our future with him ...

In his poverty we fed, we cherished him — yes, befriended him and showed him the fords and defiles of our lands.

(But) he has filled graves with our bones ... His course is destruction; he spoils what the spirit who gave us this country made beautiful and clean. ...

His laws never gave us a blade, nor a tree, nor a duck, nor a grouse, nor a trout. ...

How often does he come? You know he comes as long as he lives, and takes more and more, and dirties what he leaves.

In a nutshell, what happened to the Salish also happened to all the other Western tribes that Lewis and Clark had met, shaken hands with, given peace medals to, and then relied upon to complete their epic journey. In the wake of the Corps of Discovery, each tribe had to take its own perilous journey through the new terrain of the West created by the new nation that claimed it.

The Clatsops’ village was destroyed by a coastal bombardment after a misunderstanding with fur traders. The Mandans and Hidatsas were ravaged by smallpox, removed from their homes to a reservation farther up the Missouri, then removed again when a federally built dam inundated their fertile cornfields and small villages. The Lakotas fought the United States, lost, and were consigned to what is now one of the poorest counties in the nation. The Nez Perces signed treaties that were continually broken, finally resisted, and ultimately embarked on a quest to find sanctuary in Canada that ended in tragedy. And so on.

Uniting all the individual stories is a theme of betrayal and loss, an overarching bitter sadness that it didn’t work out differently. And, if we look closely and honestly enough, it’s a saga of Indian survival against all odds that is far more heroic than the story of the Corps of Discovery.

We need to remember all of these stories, because without them, the saga of Lewis and Clark is incomplete. And until we learn what Lewis and Clark can still teach us about the first people to occupy this land, our nation’s journey will be incomplete as well.

Dayton Duncan is a documentary filmmaker and the author of eight books. A version of this essay appears in a new collection of Duncan’s writings, Scenes of Visionary Enchantment: Reflections on Lewis and Clark, published by the University of Nebraska Press.

The following sidebar articles accompany this feature story:

- Lewis and Clark: Just another cog in the wheel of history

- Bicentennial bash is more than a party for tribes

- We are the story, this time

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