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.
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
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
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,
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.