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[photo] "Captain Lewis & Clark holding a council with the Indians," an etching in A Journal of the Voyages and Travels of a Corps of Discovery, Under the Command of Capt. Lewis and Capt. Clarke, by Patrick Gass
Courtesy of the Library of Congress, Rare Book and Special Collections Division, LC-USZ62-17372

The Lewis and Clark Expedition set out with several goals when it left the St. Louis area in 1804. One of these was to conduct diplomacy with and gather information about the various nations of American Indians they would encounter on their journey. During the course of the expedition, contact was made with at least 55 different native cultural groups. Other groups, such as the Crow (Absaroke), almost certainly saw the explorers without the explorers ever seeing them. Some groups were encountered only through individual members, while others were met with in formal councils. Still other American Indians participated in the expedition by literally saving expedition members from starving and losing their way as they crossed the continent. Some, like the Lakota and Blackfeet, had hostile encounters with the Corps, while others, like the Mandan, Hidatsa and Nez Perce, forged friendships and alliances whose written descriptions in the journals still resonate with good will after 200 years. Lastly, the expedition itself was staffed with at least six people who were all or part American Indian. George Droulliard, one of the most essential members of the Corps, was half Shawnee, while Pierre Cruzatte and Francois Labiche were half Omaha. Although little is known of Jean Baptiste Lepage, he was also almost certainly part American Indian, as were most of the French engages who helped pole and haul the boats up the Missouri in 1804. Lastly, Sacagawea and her baby boy Jean Baptiste, Lemhi Shoshone by birth and Hidatsa by adoption and clan, added important insights into American Indian cultures that the expedition members might never have understood otherwise.

At least 300 distinct languages existed in North America in pre-Columbian times. Sign language was highly developed among the Plains Indians as a method of communicating between different tribes. In addition to language differences, cultures varied in size, wealth and economic systems. The Great Plains Indians and the Northwest Indians are two diverse groups that Lewis and Clark encountered on their journey. (Milner 1994, 15)

A Nez Perce warrior--the Corps of Discovery established a good relationship with the Nez Perce during their journey. The Nez Perce are regarded as superior horse breeders credited with developing the Appaloosa breed
Photo from Northwestern University Library, Edward S. Curtis's 'The North American Indian': the Photographic Images, 2001. http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/award98/ienhtml/

The history of the Great Plains Indians can be traced back at least 13,000 years and possibly even millenia. During the last stages of the Ice Age, small bands of people migrated in search of megafauna, or game, such as mastodons and mammoths. As game became extinct, their cultural organization became more complex, shifting to bison hunting and living in earth-lodge dwellings. However, European contact brought much change. Prior to this contact, tribes of the plains lived by agriculture or gathering. The introduction of horses by the Spanish in the late 16th century provided Indians with a more efficient method of hunting buffalo. Many groups--the Kiowa, Cheyenne, Sioux, Comanche and others--shifted to a nomadic culture. Portable tipis, immense value placed on horses, and the accumulation of herds were common patterns among these groups. Others such as the Mandans, Arikara, Hidatsas, Pawnee, Wichita and Omaha remained horticultural societies, establishing permanent settlements in the river valleys of the plains.

[photo] Photograph of an 1841 engraving of the interior of a Chinook cedar plank lodge in Oregon. The Corps of Discovery interacted with these Northwest Coast Indians while at their winter encampment at Fort Clatsop
Image from Charles Wilkes' Narrative of the U. S. Exploring Expedition, 1845, vol. 4, p.341, courtesy of the University of Washington Libraries. Manuscripts, Special Collections, University Archives Division.

Little is known of the early history of the Northwest Coast Indians, though anthropologists believe these groups represent the most elaborate nonagricultural culture in the world. These Indian groups established permanent settlements with clearly defined territories. The economy was based almost entirely on salmon and other marine life and required large amounts of seasonal labor.

The cultural influences of American Indians on the United States and the world go very deep. The American Indians gave Europeans the cultivation of corn, the potato, the sweet potato, tobacco, pumpkins, the tomato and, philosophically, conceptions of democracy radically different from the ancient Greek city-states. The Six Nations, an alliance of the Mohawk, Seneca, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga and Tuscarora nations, practiced a participatory democracy from which Ben Franklin drew inspiration when uniting the English colonies during the Albany Conference. Within the present day United States, the Acoma and Hopi pueblos, settled around A.D. 600-1000 stand as possibly the oldest occupied communities in the continental United States, discovered and settled long before the Europeans came.

Front and reverse of a Jefferson Peace Medal replica
Courtesy of Oregon Historical Society, [neg. numbers 101540 and 101538]

In order to negotiate intelligently with the American Indian tribes and their leaders along the route, Lewis received a "crash course" in diplomacy and about the known Indian cultural groups from Dr. Benjamin Rush and others in Philadelphia. Lewis also knew that gift giving and trade were important parts of most known Indian cultures, and that he would have to have trade goods for diplomacy and for acquiring needed goods and food along the route. Lewis also brought along peace medals produced by the U.S. Government in silver for presentation to American Indian chiefs. Peace medals are a fascinating yet little-known aspect of American history. They were an integral part of the government's relations with American Indians in the 18th and 19th centuries. At the time, these medals represented a covenant between nations, and were valued equally by tribal people who had had contact with European-Americans and by the governments of Britain, Spain, France and the United States, each of which issued them. Lewis and Clark took along three large medals with an image of President Jefferson on them, 13 middle-sized Jefferson medals, 16 small Jefferson medals, and 55 of the "season medals" struck during the presidency of George Washington. All but one of these medals were given out during the expedition. The obverse (front) of the Jefferson medals had a formal bust of President Jefferson in low relief, along with his name and the date he entered office. The reverse showed clasped hands and bore the motto "Peace and Friendship." This design depicted Indian nations as coequals of the United States.

[photo] 1832 George Catlin painting of a Minitari chief identified in the journals of Lewis and Clarks: Eh-toh'k-pah-she-pée-shah, Black Moccasin, Aged Chief
From the George Catlin collection of Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Mrs. Joseph Harrison, Jr.

Although the men of the expedition did not know what to expect on their trek, they were prepared to meet the various Indian tribal groups and curious about what they would be like. Previously, almost nothing had been known of the American Indians westward from the Mandan villages, in present North Dakota, to the Upper Columbia River. Lewis and Clark and their men left behind various accounts of different tribal groups and their interactions with them. Although the information is often inaccurate, and not every tribe is handled equally or in some cases discussed at all, today these descriptions provide insight into what the expedition members experienced during their journey.

Whether Lewis and Clark knew it or not, they were the "spearpoints" of an invasion of American Indian homelands in the West. Whether or not their actions were deliberate, they touched off an invasion which displaced entire peoples and tribal groups with European descended settlers, backed by the U.S. Army and English land law. It is for this reason and others that many native peoples see no reason to be happy about the Lewis and Clark Bicentennial, and why this event should be looked upon by all as a "commemoration" rather than a "celebration."

For more information please see Native Peoples on the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial's Lewis and Clark Journey of Discovery website, portions of which were excerpted for this piece.

Milner, Clyde, Carol O'Connor and Martha Sandweiss. The Oxford History of the American West. New York: Oxford U Press, 1994.

Lamar, Howard R. The New Encyclopedia of the American West. New Haven: Yale U Press, 1998.

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