Why Indians Aren't Celebrating the Lewis and Clark Expedition


Mr. Mould is Professor of Telecommunications and Associate Dean, College of Communication, at Ohio University. He has written and produced public television and radio documentaries on the history of settlement in Ohio and on Appalachian labor history and traditional culture, and is the author of Dividing Lines: Canals, Railroads and Urban Rivalry in Ohio's Hocking Valley, 1825-1875 (Wright State University Press, 1994). He traveled the Lewis and Clark trail (mostly in an SUV) in 2004.

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Allen Pinkham has been doing a lot of soul-searching about the 200th anniversary of the Lewis and Clark expedition.

“This is a heart-wrencher,” says Pinkham (Five Rays of Light), a tribal leader of the Nez Perce (Niimiipuu). “My people were slaughtered. But you don’t read about that. All I read about is Lewis and Clark, the heroes of the day 200 years ago. Well, whose heroes? They’re not my heroes.”

As nationwide events to mark the epic expedition of 1804-1806 enter their second year, Pinkham and other Native Americans are struggling to come to terms with history. In the half-century after the Lewis and Clark expedition helped open the West to white settlement, Native Americans were removed to reservations, ravaged by disease and poverty, and forced to abandon language, religion and culture.

Before white settlers reached their homeland in what today is western Idaho, the Nez Perce numbered over 30,000. Thousands died through disease and in a futile rebellion. Today, there are less than 4,000.

“To us, it was a holocaust—like what happened to the Jewish people,” says Cassandra Kipp, the tribe’s economic development director.

Yet Pinkham, Kipp and other Native American leaders are working actively with the national Lewis and Clark Bicentennial Commission. They see the bicentennial as a chance for Native Americans to tell their stories, and to benefit economically from the hundreds and thousands of tourists who will follow the trail from St. Louis to the Pacific coast. The Nez Perce will host one of 15 national Lewis and Clark signature events in Lewiston, Idaho, in June 2006.

At first tribal leaders were skeptical. Why should they recognize the very event that marked the beginning of the end? “When tribes like ours were asked to participate, at first it was like a slap in the face,” says Kipp.

Pinkham was one of only two Native Americans at a mid-1990s bicentennial planning meeting at Forth Leavenworth, Kansas.

“And the first thing they said was, ‘We’re going to celebrate this Lewis and Clark bicentennial.’ And we said no, if you want to have Indian involvement, don’t call it a celebration because there’s nothing that we have to celebrate.”

The meeting eventually settled on the word “commemoration.” “It didn’t mean a damn thing to anyone else, but to us it made a great difference,” says Pinkham who now serves on the bicentennial commission’s Circle of Tribal Advisers.

There is no single Native American perspective on the Lewis and Clark expedition. In their two and a half year journey from St. Louis to the Pacific Coast, the explorers encountered more than fifty tribal groups, and each experience was different.

Some, notes Amy Mossett, the commission’s tribal involvement coordinator, “had never before laid eyes on a white man, ever.” But some, like her own nation, the Mandan-Hidatsa, had been trading with the British and French for years.

The Mandan villages on the Knife River in North Dakota where the Corps of Discovery spent its first winter were at the center of an international trading network that stretched from Canada to the Gulf, and the arrival of the expedition caused little stir.

The explorers are not depicted on the painted buffalo hides on which the Mandan recorded the important events of the winter of 1804-05.

“There were other things that were more significant,” says Mossett. “Battles with the Sioux, when they came in and burned our villages. Or when smallpox came up the river. Even a meteor shower was more significant than Lewis and Clark.”

“People come through and they want to know what stories we have about Lewis and Clark,” says Mossett. “Well, the fact that we don’t have any left probably tells you how insignificant these men really were. Lewis and Clark are not our heroes today. And they weren’t our heroes 200 years ago either.”

However, stories about Lewis and Clark are common among the Nez Perce, who rescued the expedition as it straggled, exhausted and half-starved, out of the Bitterroot Mountains of Idaho in late September 1805. They gave them food, helped them build canoes and kept horses for the return trip.

“We showed them a lot of things,” says Kipp. “How to live off the land, eat foods native to the country, and navigate the rivers by canoe. Most of the stories have to do with sharing information with them.”

The bicentennial commission mandates Native American involvement in event planning and programming, and states have Native American representatives on their Lewis and Clark advisory councils or commissions.

Visitor centers and museums along the 3,700-mile trail feature Native American exhibits. At the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail Interpretive Center in Great Falls, Montana, visitors can take two routes—one following the Lewis and Clark trail and one documenting the experiences of the tribes they encountered.

However, with some exceptions such as the Tamastslikt Cultural Institute in eastern Oregon, most major exhibits on Native Americans are in visitor centers and museums run by federal and state agencies, not on reservations.

Native American leaders such as Pinkham feel that tribes have been robbed of their history. “The anthropologists and historians and amateur pot-hunters took everything from us,” he says. “They said, ‘Oh, we’d better put this in a museum because these Indians are going to disappear, so we’d better help preserve their culture by putting their belongings on display.’ And I objected to that because we’ve got our own culture. We still make our own arts and crafts, and some tribes have their own museums.”

With the bicentennial, some tribes have obtained grants to build cultural centers and offer programs, but most cannot compete with the major trail sites, according to Mossett.

“Most of us don’t have interpretive centers or nice visitor centers on the reservations,” she says. “And the reason we don’t is because we have other priorities. When you travel through Indian country the priorities focus on education, and on medical, housing, unemployment issues. Any money that tribes do have they’re going to be spending on basic needs. Commemorating Lewis and Clark does not fit in that list of priorities.”

Pinkham says that the bicentennial can give tribes “a renewed sense of their history and culture” as long as they present it themselves. “The tribes have their own story to tell. And they can tell it for themselves. They don’t need an anthropologist to tell it for them.”

To do so, they need to overcome stereotypes, says Mossett. “You know, you must not be an Indian if you don’t have a dance outfit or dress up in feathers and beaded moccasins.”

“We’re not there for the pageantry, and we’re not there to entertain,” she says. “We’re not re-enactors—we’re real Indians.”

Mossett’s mission is to use Lewis and Clark events to increase understanding of the struggles of Native Americans. “One of our most powerful messages is that we are still here. Our languages and cultures have survived. And when you think about what we have been through in the last 200 years we do have something to celebrate. We can celebrate that we survived Lewis and Clark.”

Related Links

  • For current Native American perspectives on Lewis and Clark, see www.nathpo.org/Many_Nations/mn.html . The site is a joint effort of the Native American Journalists Association and the National Association of Tribal Historic Preservation Officers.

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More Comments:

Peter K. Clarke - 10/9/2007

"Ethnic cleansing" comes a lot closer to describing what happened to native Americans west (and east) of the Mississippi, but this occurred for all sorts of reasons having little or nothing to do with L&C (who were exploring by the way, not "assuming sovereignity", a concept that they would have had trouble understanding, let alone explaining to the natives). One might as well blame Columbus's mother for not teacher her son to be more mindful of the potential nasty results of questioning whether the earth might not be flat.

Peter K. Clarke - 10/9/2007

This piece suffers from confusion over cause and effect. Lewis and Clark appropriated no land and forced no native peoples onto reservations. The sort of sophmoric sloppiness presented could lead one to conclude that Columbus sent the Cherokees on the trail of tears, that Einstein was responsible for Hiroshima, or that history can be learned behind the wheel of an SUV.

Peter K. Clarke - 10/9/2007

Mr. Rigg's points consist of noodling around the edges of questions in order to justify a misleading anti Lewis&Clark argument that has nothing to do with real history, despite the dredging up of a few relevant authors' names.

The MAIN purpose of the L&C mission was to explore the territories newly acquired from France. The MAIN cause of the demographic catastrophe suffered by New World natives was the unintended side effect of diseases that co-immigrated with Europeans. The MAIN feature of genocide is the deliberate, systematic, and rapid extermination of an entire group of millions of people, or at least a massively successfully at such extermination, and such massive, widely spread, and systematic mass-murder was not technologically possible before 1900.

Celebrating Lewis and Clark is no substitute for understanding the fundamental historical process of what happened to the American West in the 19th century. Bashing Lewis and Clark with pseudo-history is an equally worthless substitute for such understanding

Peter K. Clarke - 10/9/2007

massively successFUL ATTEMPT at such extermination

in the 3rd to last line of the 2nd paragraph of my comment above

Peter K. Clarke - 10/9/2007

A good deal of "hard research" has already occured on a what is, however, a hard to research subject.

There is huge literature on the die-off of native-Americans following the entry of Europeans, basically utterly ignored by the article. While the numbers are mainly guesstimates and pretty much all over the map, there is a very strong consensus across many historians of varying general persuasions that (a) native populations were indeed decimated (e.g. declined by about 90% within a century or two following the arrival of Europeans) and the (b) most of the extra deaths were the unintended consequence of dangerous European diseases -against which native Americans had no immunity- not any sort of deliberate mass extermination. Genocide is a 20th century phenomenon, difficult to appropriately apply before 1900 by which time the native population of the Western Hemisphere.had already been reduced to fraction of its original size and was bottoming out. Start with Alfred Crosby's "Ecological Imperialism" and follow the footnotes for details. This is not to say that there weren't many atrocities perpetrated against native Americans (see Brown's classic "Bury My Heart..." for a good pop summary of the mid 19th century installment of that story) but it is unhistorical and disingenous to pretend that slaughters by the U.S. calvary etc, were demographically significant to the native population size, and plain silly to pretend in slightest, that Lewis and Clark were on some kind of quest to wipe out natives. Mr. Mould may have written a credible history book on another topic, but this article would not deserve more than a barely passing grade in a undergrad history course.

James j Lawyer - 8/30/2005

day 13 - no response from my posts to the Lewis Clark websites!!!!

James j Lawyer - 8/29/2005

day 12 - no response from my posts to the Lewis Clark websites!!!!

James j Lawyer - 8/28/2005

day 11 - no response from my posts to the Lewis Clark websites!!!!

James j Lawyer - 8/26/2005

day 10 - no response from my posts to the Lewis Clark websites!!!!

James j Lawyer - 8/24/2005

When I first came on this message forum I did a google of Lewis and Clark. The websites that I did click onto all had public interaction features. I presented some info to these public interaction systems but none have responded to my inputs. Now that it is in the heart of the Lewis and Clark celebration these website should be at full staff to respond to public interaction. They are not. What is most revealing is that the one that three years ago had an extremely ambitious promotion program. I have just come from that website and the public interaction feature that I presented info to just a few days ago has disappeared.

Oscar Chamberlain - 8/21/2005

Peter, although the planning for the expedition began before the Purchase, once the purchase was made, the Corps' purpose became to see what we had bought. We knew we could not control the area, but from Lewis and Clark all the way up to Jefferson, we knew we had bought it.

Believing that we "owned" something--despite having had no negotiations with the inhabitants--and then acting accordingly by exploring it really was an early step in extending sovereignty. This does not make L&C resopnsible for every act done later as a result of that assertion of sovereignty, but they are assuredly on early part of the story of the conquest.

Christopher Riggs - 8/21/2005

I am struck by Mr. Clarke’s rush to denigrate my citation of other authors. Referring to some of Jefferson’s writings about American Indians and his vision for the expedition is appropriate to a discussion about Lewis and Clark. Referring to the writings of Alvin Josephy and James Axtell is appropriate to a discussion of the history of Indian-White relations.

Also, Mr. Clarke’s position on my use of sources is particularly amusing given that he referred other authors in his earlier posting. Does his reference to Crosby, for example, constitute “dredging”?

I certainly have no objection to citing Crosby. What is objectionable is that Mr. Clarke grossly oversimplifies what Crosby has argued. Crosby sees the expansion of Europe as a product of a complex set of factors. Yes, disease spread by European migrants is an important one. But it cannot be separated from other factors, including (1) the spread of “Old World” plants and animals - which helped to create conditions more amenable to Europeans and undercut Native life ways; and (2) the spread of “New World” crops to Eurasia and Africa – which helped fuel a growth in European population and concomitant growth in out-migration Europeans to the Americans and elsewhere and which further served to displace and disrupt Native populations. Crosby’s argument is thoughtful, nuanced, and complex; I probably am not doing it justice here. But Mr. Clarke’s reduction of it to “disease killed everyone, period” does real violence to Crosby’s analysis and is an example of the “pseudo-history” Mr. Clarke claims to oppose.

As for the goals of the Lewis and Clark expedition … If Mr. Clarke doesn’t think that diplomacy was an important aspect of the expedition, I’d invite him to read James Ronda’s book on Lewis and Clark’s relations with American Indians. If he thinks Ronda is wrong, then tell us why using evidence. Simply writing “MAIN” in capital letters doesn’t constitute an argument.

Mr. Clarke’s position that genocide only refers to cases where “millions” are killed and where killing is “rapid” is not consistent with the definitions offered by Raphael Lemkin (the Polish jurist generally credited with 1st coining the term “genocide”) and the UN Convention on Genocide. Again, writing “MAIN” in all capital letters does not constitute an argument for accepting Mr. Clarke’s definition over that of Lemkin or the UN.

I agree that mindlessly “bashing” (or celebrating) Lewis and Clark probably is not the ideal way to understand the history of the 19th century American West. The fact is that neither the original article nor any of the comments posted here bash Lewis and Clark. Pointing out, as the original article does, that there has been a debate among tribal peoples over how best to acknowledge the bicentennial is not bashing. My earlier comment simply points to evidence that Mr. Clarke’s interpretations of Lewis and Clark and related matters are problematic in some respects. That does not constitute “bashing” Lewis and Clark or anyone or anything else.

Mr. Clarke, however, responds by labeling my comment as “anti-Lewis and Clark,” as “pseudo-history,” and as unrelated to “real history” (whatever that means). I suppose such labeling allows Mr. Clarke to dismiss the evidence I present without dealing with it in a substantive fashion. But it seems to me that if he is so concerned about “bashing,” then he should stop engaging in it.

And by the way, my name is Riggs, not Rigg.

James j Lawyer - 8/21/2005

1.) Last summer and the summer before there was a major event for our region. This major event was to showcase the regions "blackpowder" guys and the local Nez Perce were ignored. This summer this major event was not held!!!! Those "blackpowder" guys must be sitting at home wondering what has happened now that it is in the heart of the Lewis Clark celebration.

2.) Four summers ago two caravans numbering 200 rvs each came through the valley. The news report was that these were the harbinger of the coming Lewis Clark celebration. Now that it is in the heart of the Lewis Clark Celebration there has not been any caravans in the last three summers!!!

3.) The report mentioned above of the $500,000 loss for the Great Falls area must also be a great loss of expectation. Several years ago I read a Forest Service flyer about the construction of the visitor center. At this time everyone was trying to get Congress to fund the building of local visitor centers for the Lewis Clark Celebration. But, the one at Great Falls was built. The flyer reveal that it was able to construct the visitor center by seting aside for the seveal years previous Forest money that was to come to that area. Now, people will be thinking that the money should have been spent on other things as better outcomes could have been obtained.

Christopher Riggs - 8/20/2005

Nicely done. My compliments.

Christopher Riggs - 8/20/2005

Some observations about the issues raised in the comments …

1. Thomas Jefferson’s January 1803 message to Congress regarding the Lewis and Clark expedition and his June 1803 instructions to Lewis make it clear that exploration wasn’t the only goal of Lewis and Clark. Encouraging commerce and establishing diplomatic relations with tribes, for example, were also an important part of Lewis and Clark’s mission. Given that Jefferson told William Henry Harrison in February 1803 that he viewed trade with Indians as a vehicle to foster indebtedness that would compel Indians to sell their lands and to give up hunting and gathering in favor of Euro-American farming techniques, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to conclude that Lewis and Clark were part of a larger arc of U.S. policy designed to exercise increasing power over Native peoples. (These documents are reprinted in part or in full in Gunther Barth’s primary source book on Lewis and Clark and Francis Paul Prucha’s primary source book on Indian policy.)

2. The causes demographic catastrophe that befell American Indians is more complex than simply the “unintended consequences” of diseases. Disease killed untold numbers but should not be seen as unconnected with other developments. For example, government policies such as removal and concentration on reservations directly resulted in the deaths of a substantial number Indians from disease. Disease-induced deaths may not have been the intent of those who developed and implemented such policies, but such deaths were clearly the result of such policies. Additionally, Russell Thornton provides evidence that at least some non-Indians reveled in the effects of deadly diseases upon Native Americans, and certainly many non-Indians took advantage of the mass death rates to acquire Indian lands and resources.

3. As for the assertion that genocide is strictly 20th century phenomena, it should be noted that at least some Europeans and Euro-Americans advocated exterminating Indians (evidence for this is provided by, among others, James Axtell and Alvin Josephy). And some non-Indians – such as a number of participants in the mid-19th century California Gold Rush - tried to implement such views. Attempts at mass killing did not succeed in wiping out all Indians, did not enjoy unanimous support within the United States, and did not kill as many people as disease. But such attempts were made and had their share of supporters well before the 20th century.

4. In addition, definitions of genocide (such as offered by Raphael Lemkin) include efforts to destroy a people’s identity - culture, language, religion, and so forth. By such a standard, why shouldn’t U.S. policies designed to de-tribalize Indians - such as through the use of boarding schools, bans on tribal religious practices, and the like - qualify as genocidal?

Oscar Chamberlain - 8/18/2005

Peter, Frederic, I think you both missed the main point of the article, which was (1)the complex reaction of many of the tribes along the Lewis and Clark Trail and (2) the desire of natives for the tribal versions of their own history to have its proper place in American public history.

AS for Lewis and Clark travelling peacefully; yes they did. But they were the first step in the US assuming soveriegnty over this region, and that makes them part of the conquest.

Finally, if you don't like "genocide" as a term for American actions, try "ethnic cleansing," something the United States did on a grand scale.

James j Lawyer - 8/16/2005

Link to loss: http://www.kblg.com/modules.php?name=News&;file=article&sid=2281

Laurel E Stone - 8/15/2005

"Stop Lewis and Clark Movement" online
American Indians protest Lewis and Clark Expedition:

Frederick Thomas - 8/15/2005

Indeed. You sum it up well. There is little so useless as an article on history which is poorly researched or loose in its logic.

Unscientific estimates of population decline, migration, and causes of mortailty, given the lack of any records or even writing, hurt the credibility of articles such as this.

I would like to know how they came up with the figure of 30,000 tribal members in 1806. Surely L&C did not conduct a census while passing through. The holocaust comparison was, i suppose, inevitable.

It is a pity. Some hard research would be wonderful on this subject.

James j Lawyer - 8/15/2005

My contribution link: http://www.geocities.com/nezperceart/orchard.jpg

James Lawyer