Jim Ronda Interview
What is it about Lewis and Clark that draws us to them?
The compelling power of the Lewis and Clark story seems at first very easy to explain, after all this is uh an exciting, dramatic, colorful story. One that we ought to find interesting and engaging. But if you begin to look at that story a bit more closely and a bit more carefully, in fact, its appeal to us is something of a puzzle. There are lots of stories in American history that are interesting and lively and engaging, but this is one that seems especially compelling. I think there are several reasons why, over the years, we've found this story to be so very important. First, it's a very accessible story. This is story that all of us can read, all of us can be part of, all of us can engage in the story. You know, one of the reasons why we find it hard to engage in the story of the astronauts, is that there is real distance between us and them. There's technological distance, there's a kind of emotional distance as well. But Lewis and Clark and the travelers with them seem very close to us. We can be part of them, we can go along on the journey and I think the idea of the journey is the second reason why it's attractive to us. Life is a journey. We all know that some of the most interesting American writing is about journeys. And here's the arch typical American journey, if the Civil War is our Iliad, then Lewis and Clark in some way is our Odyssey. So, this is an American journey. It's a journey that all of us can be on. We can all go along with the travelers as well. I think there are more reasons. Perhaps a third reason is that this is a journey that is an emblematic journey. It seems to symbolize in so many ways the whole of the American experience. The whole of what happens in the history of North America. Here are men, drawn from many different cultural and ethnic and racial backgrounds. Here's a woman, and a child. And so here in one moment is an American community on the way. And finally, there is something about the connection between Lewis and Clark and one of the most important figures in our past. And that figure is Thomas Jefferson. You know Americans like to believe that Thomas Jefferson is still alive. He's one of those characters who seems to reach out across the abyss of time to speak to us. We really do imagine that he is our contemporary. And Lewis and Clark were his product; they were his children. And so, in thinking about the journey, we're brought back to Thomas Jefferson and his concerns about his time and our time as well. So here is an accessible story, it's a journey, it sums up the American community, all the richness and the diversity of our past. And that it brings us back to one of the central figures in our past, Thomas Jefferson.
You talked about it circles back to Thomas Jefferson. Did he have a dream of the West.? What was his objectives for the exploration?
You know the great American folk poet, Woody Guthrie, has a line about that in his song, Roll on Columbia, Guthrie said, "Tom Jefferson's vision would not let him rest. An empire he saw in the Pacific Northwest sent Lewis and Clark and they did the rest. Roll on Columbia, roll on." That's a wonderfully simple way to talk about Jefferson's ideas for the American West. When in fact, those ideas were really very complex. The French foreign minister, Tallyrand, once said that America had an empire of circumstances, an empire of accidents. And so, on one hand, you could say that Jefferson was drawn to the West by a series of accidents, by a series of circumstances. After all, Thomas Jefferson was so much a man of the Atlantic. By character, by temperament and by education. He was a man who really looked to the East and not to the West. And yet in the 1780's and 1790's, things kept shoving the West in front of him. Second hand news about the Canadians in the West. Fear about French or Spanish incursions into the West. Those were the circumstances, the accidents, that Tallyrand was talking about that seemed to draw Jefferson's attention toward the West. So, on one hand, it sounds as though Tallyrand was right. Jefferson's interest in the West was really the result of some accidents, some circumstances. But, you know, Dayton, on on second thought, that isn't quite right either. Because there were some other things that were going on. And here we need to think about the ideas.
Tell me about Jefferson's ideas of the West
Thomas Jefferson's ideas about the West
Jefferson hoped that the West would be the place where the American Republic would be forever young. He called the West the garden of the world. And the West would be the place where the American nation would renew its vitality. Where it would be indeed forever young. It would be a place where there would be no cities, no factories. A place where the American nation would be forever free, forever independent, again the garden of the world.
Jefferson, whether by accident or not, he turned the nation West?
In so many ways, his own personal turning was a turning of the nation. As he turned his own attention to the West, he moved the nation West. This isn't just a moving about people, it's a moving about ideas, and Jefferson was drawn to the West because he believed that it was a place where the nation would be renewed. And so, his movement of ideas, also moves the nation. And because he's the president, he can move the nation as a political state. And so his intellectual movement is connected to him moving the United States as a westering nation. He's always the empire builder.
Lewis and Clark are his first physical instruments of that?
In many ways, Lewis and Clark are an extension of his own sensibility, an extension of his own desires, he sees them as his observers. They're going to look at a West that is a wondrous place to him. They're going to be his agents, they'll be his scientists. His observers, but they'll also carry the flag of American empire. Just as Sir Joseph Banks in the English royal society sent Captain James Cook to the Pacific, so too in the same way, Jefferson would send Lewis and Clark and later others as agents of science, as diplomats, and also agents of empire.
The first summer, is this a shakedown cruise that they're on?
If you think about the Lewis and Clark expedition as a community as a human community on the move, then this is a time when the community has to get to know itself. Has to learn the rules, learn the ropes, to understand its social relationships. After all, the men that went with Lewis and Clark were the rough and tumble, the ragtag, the hurly burly, the rough and tumble of so many of those frontier Army infantry companies. Lewis and Clark didn't get the best soldiers from each one of the infantry companies. Often they got the drunkards and the swearers and the rough and tough customers. And what the captains needed to do was to mold and shape those tough customers into a company that would travel together. Meriwether Lewis once called that the best of families and the question for that first couple of months on the road, up the river was how do you make these men into the best of families, that would take.
You do that by exercising authority, by showing leadership, but also by sharing hardships. Lewis and Clark understood that this was indeed a company and that they weren't separate from that company. They weren't going to be standoffish. They needed to share in the common hardships, the common dangers, the common struggles of going up the river. And so they did that. They turned an oar. They helped each day in so many ways. They were part of this community. You know, in military terms this is unit cohesion. And that's what's happening in this first period is the building of a community.
By the time they get to the Mandan Villages, are they a different group?
They've learned each other. They've learned their strengths and their weaknesses. They've learned the things that they can do together. They've sorted out their responsibilities. They know each other. They understand each other. They appreciate what one another can do. Some of the rough edges have been rubbed off. And it's interesting that once they get to Fort Mandan there aren't any more major infractions of discipline. They now know each other. They've had the hardest of times. And now, as Lewis says, they will become the best of families. And certainly in the following years, that best of families is going to be tested.
Everywhere they went, they would meet different Indian tribes and they'd set a pattern. What was it they did with the Indians that they met?
You could call their Indian diplomacy the great traveling medicine show because they really did have a pattern, a pattern that they had inherited from generations of Indian policy that began in the Northeast woodlands and then went out into the West. The traveling medicine show worked like this, first there was a parade in which European style technology was shown off. You wanted to show Indians uniforms and guns and the objects of the industrial revolution to impress them and then you wanted to show Indians trade goods and so the great country store was wheeled out. You wanted to show Indians all of those objects that they might gain if they became part of an industrial world that grew out of St Louis. And so, first the parade and then the country store and then came the serious negotiation because Lewis and Clark represented in the traveling medicine show not only military power, commercial power, but also diplomatic power. So the third part of the traveling medicine show was some serious negotiation. Some treaty talk, some council making. And then there was always a showing of the flag, the great American symbol of sovereignty and power.
They would hand out medals, what did the peace medal symbol?
Peace medals symbolized two very different things. And they represent two different things on two different sides of the cultural divide. For Euro-Americans, for Thomas Jefferson's captains, the peace medal represented a recognition of American sovereignty. If I give you a peace medal, it means that you are now one of mine. That you've accepted the sovereignty of the American president. On the other hand, for native people, accepting a peace medal might simply mean a recognition that we are equals. We are not fathers and sons, not fathers and children, but we're all one. And the peace medal also represented a source of power. Native people often believed that the power that the Europeans had were not in their own bodies, but in their objects. And so the peace medal is a wonderful symbol of difference. Europeans saw it as a sign of subjection. Of accepting European power. But native people who took those peace medals saw it in a very different way. Saw it as a gift. Saw it as recognizing that we are equals.
When they have these meetings, always reiterate children. Did the native people see themselves as children of a great father?
Native people rarely, if ever, saw themselves as children. Lewis and Clark were repeating those old language symbols, using words like children and they certainly saw native people as being less than equal. But native people certainly never saw themselves as being subservient. They saw themselves as being brothers, not as children. So I suspect that if native diplomats had written those speeches, they would have said instead of children, they would have said, brothers. Brothers were going to do this, brothers were going to do that. Language is power here and the Lewis and Clark speeches always say that we, the Americans, have power, and you, you're the children. You should listen to us. It's we talk, you listen.
Coming up the Missouri. It's not the first time that natives have met ...they've met other people
There's a long history on the Missouri River of of meeting folks who are not like us. European traders had been on the Missouri for a very long time. But there were things about Lewis and Clark that were different. Here's a much larger party. Here's a party that's much better armed. In large boats, and they don't want to trade. They want to talk. They want to make maps. They want to do things that are very puzzling. And so while the native peoples of the Missouri River had seen lots of Europeans, and that's true. They had never seen a party of strangers that did as many odd things, as many inexplicable things. As as this party did. Here's a party that doesn't want to trade. Instead it's a party that wants to gather plants and animals. It's a party that wants to make word lists. It's a party that wants to make maps. It's a group of men who squint into the sky with astronomical instruments. It's it's a group that wants to keep moving. It's a group that wants to to make treaties. To make relationships about war and peace. How puzzling. If you think about the peoples of the Missouri River, they had seen Europeans who wanted to do just a handful of things. They wanted to trade, they'd wanted to be engaged in war. But here now is a party that doesn't want to do any of those things. They don't want to trade. They they want to make maps. They want to gather plants and animals. They want to make word lists. They want to study native lives. How odd that is. How inexplicable that is. We we need to capture the story from the other side of the cultural divide. We need to be on the bank and get off the boat.
Who's exploring who here? When they have their meetings.
Well, I think that this is the story of mutual discovery. Of mutual encounter. Who's really exploring who? Lewis and Clark are exploring what seems to them an unknown territory. But native people are also exploring what seems to them a new world. We could give that new world a name. We could call it Lewis and Clark. It's a it's a new terrain. Lewis and Clark are using the the methods, the instruments of the enlightenment to explore. Native people are using other kinds of of techniques to explore. They're using visiting and observing and watching and trading. And they're using personal and sexual relationships as well as a way to explore. And so let's think about this entire journey as mutual encounter and mutual discovery. As as human communities struggle to learn about each other and to put human faces and human names to the other.
Another general question. In the broadest context, their relations with Indians are good, bad, indifferent?
Well in comparison to the experiences of other explorers, Lewis and Clark have the remarkably untroubled set of experiences with native people. There are only a handful of times when there is potential trouble. Even fewer times when there is real trouble and after all, only once when there is explosive trouble. And when that trouble leads to death. And so in many ways, this is a this is an untroubled experience, a time of rough equality when Lewis and Clark as one community meets native communities and there is much more cooperation and much more understanding than one would find later on.
Is that a result of something about Lewis and Clark or something about the particular tribes they met? What is it that in much of history theirs is a little bit different?
It's sometimes hard to explain why Lewis and Clark have a relatively untroubled experience. Part of it, you know, is that they are the first ones through. Part of it is that funny word, demographics, about the numbers that they are. They don't poi, they don't pose a military threat. They're not there to seize the land. They're not there to occupy it. They're there as travelers. And there's also the question of expediency. Lewis and Clark need Indian support. They need food. They need horses. They need information. They need all of those things that native people have. Native people after all are the first ones on the land. They are the possessors of the land. They are the, they are the first explorers of the land. And the truth is that Lewis and Clark need native people. In a way that other expeditions, other travelers, other folks on journeys did not need native people. And after all, Thomas Jefferson had instructed his captains to have good and peaceful relations with native people and so I guess you could say that Jefferson's instructions were important. But I think that I'd emphasize more the expediency, the individual situations that led Lewis and Clark to understand that they needed native people, that their very survival depended on having good relations with those communities in which they found themselves.
Switch the point of view, if you're in the moccasins of the people that they met, why are they hospitable to these strangers?
Hospitality is always an important part of of traditional native American cultures. Here are strangers, here are folks from the outside. They are not us, but they do have things that m that we want, certainly, outsiders were viewed with alarm. Native languages often describe us as the real people and everybody else as not people. But Lewis and Clark bring valuable things. They bring objects. They bring guns. They bring things that native people desire. And so the fear of the other which is present in all of us is in some way or another lessened by the fact that native people are eager to have connections with these strange bearded, pale outsiders.
When Lewis and Clark meet Indians they've got several missions in mind. What are they?
Lewis and Clark pursued a number of of Indian missions. And the missions very much came out of Jefferson's instructions. The first mission was scientific, and that is the scientific study of native people and native lives and native cultures. That meant observation, that meant taking notes, collecting samples. And so there was science. Then Lewis and Clark represented a commercial empire as well. They're there to make trade deals. They're there to show the country store. And so the second mission was very much business, commerce. The extension of the industrial revolution. The third mission, certainly after the Louisiana purchase was to extend American sovereignty. Lewis and Clark were at heart, agents of American empire. As all American explorers would be in one way or another and so that third mission ended up in some ways being the most important, and that was the mission of empire, of American sovereignty.
You are now part of us.
You are now children. And that goes back to that business about being children. That sovereignty meant that native people would no longer be sovereign, no longer be independent. Then the view from Washington, native people were now subservient, they were children.
Who are the Tetons who were Lakota?
The Tetons were were recent arrivals on the Missouri River. They had recently gotten horses. They had recently found themselves on the river. Their real power depended on controlling traffic up and down the river. They were raiders and traders. They needed to maintain a strange kind of relationship with the with the farming peoples of the river. They got goods, and they got horses and they got agricultural products from those village people. And so the Tetons, on the river, were recent, and they really depended for their power on the control of traffic up and down the river. They were the brokers on the river. Thomas Jefferson said that he knew that they were Indians that needed to be paid attention to.
Lewis and Clark represent what to them? This big boat coming up the river.
To the Tetons, Lewis and Clark represent a real threat. A commercial threat. If goods could be brought up the Missouri River direct from St. Louis to the villages of the Arikaras the Mandans and Hidatsas. Then the Tetons would no longer be the inter intermediaries. They'd no longer be the brokers. Their real power, their real position would be eroded. Would be gone. And that would, that would undermine their very place on the river. And so Lewis and Clark represent real threats. Real danger, real concern. As had previous traders who'd come up the river. Previous traders up the river from St. Louis had always been stopped and always been held up for tolls or ransom. Lewis and Clark would be held up in the very same way. So threat. Danger. Real worry.
They come very close to bloodshed. If you are the chiefs on the Tetons. They have guns, you have bows and arrows, what's going through their minds?
The two principal headmen of the band of the Tetons that Lewis and Clark encounter are men who are called Black Buffalo and the Partisan. Those two men had been involved for a long time in a nasty political squabble. They had been wrangling with each other about leadership within the band. Lewis and Clark appear and these two Indian politicians use that moment, very self-consciously use that moment as a way to play out their own political aspirations. Their own aspirations for leadership within the band. And so Lewis and Clark stumble in to a political world that is much more complicated, much more intricate than they had ever imagined. And so, Lewis and Clark first are a threat to the position of the Tetons, but in a funny kind of way. They're also a Godsend to these two Indian politicians who are going to use the presence of the expedition for their own purposes. Notice that no one does fire. That in fact, lots of women and children remain fairly close to the bank and are not hurried away. If there was going to be real bloodshed, those women and children would have been hustled from the bank of the river very quickly. This is show, this is staged for the galleries. The Partisan and Black Buffalo are playing out a political drama, a political play. It's a dangerous one, but it's politics nonetheless.
Larger point on this. Indians in general. In every encounter there is a local issue, a local drama going on. Elaborate.
Lewis and Clark always stumble into local situations. They're forever encountering things they don't understand. They come to the Mandan and the Hidatsa villages and they think they're going to be welcomed. And indeed, they are welcomed. But during the winter at Fort Mandan they discover all sorts of tensions and stresses and strains between the various Mandan villages and then between the Mandans and Hidatsas. And so, one particular village may play Lewis and Clark off against another. And that happens repeatedly. For example during the winter, relatively few Hidatsas show up at Fort Mandan and Lewis and Clark are really puzzled about that. You know, why aren't these people coming? And the story comes out that some of the Mandans had been telling Hidatsas that if you show up at Fort Mandan, terrible things will happen to you . That was a real effort on the part of the Mandans, to um to corner, trade and connections to these bearded, pale strangers. So Lewis and Clark never come to an empty place, they always come to a human place. They always come to a home. And all of us know that home is filled with argument and complaint and with confusion and stresses and strains. Lewis and Clark don't understand that.
They have a plan for the plains and the Indians. What is it?
The plan they've got is an intricate, political, cultural, military strategy. The plan is to get all of the village peoples, the Arikaras, the Mandans and the Hidatsas to sign a commercial and a military alliance, to ally themselves with each other and then with the United States against the tribe that by now Lewis and Clark have begin to take the measure of. And that's the Teton-Sioux. So this is an alliance of village people against semi-nomadic people. Lewis and Clark really thought that that was going to happen. That they could rearrange Northern plains politics. That at their whim those things would happen. What they didn't understand that there was a very odd relationship between the Sioux and the village farmers. That it was a relationship partly of trading, partly of mutual benefit and also partly of raiding. Lewis and Clark have this enormous sense of pride and almost arrogance that they can rearrange tribal life at their own whim. There was hardly any chance at all that a plan like that could happen.
It was a cultural thing.
Lewis and Clark also thought that they could promote a kind of tribal peace. That by saying the word peace and by getting elders, headmen and young warriors to agree to peace that therefore peace could happen. But as one young man said to Lewis, if if we have peace and cannot raid, then the nation will collapse. But Lewis and Clark didn't understand was that plains warfare, that the warfare of raid and counter raid was an integral part of plains life. It was a way that you became an important man, it was a way that you could court, it was the way that you got status and prestige. And so, if you couldn't go on a raid against your enemies then you could not be a person of any real substance at all. So Lewis and Clark were asking, by asking for tribal peace, Lewis and Clark were really asking for a kind of cultural suicide. Something that was utterly impossible. Peace made sense to them, it made absolutely no sense to so many native people of the Northern plains. And there is something else that we need to keep in mind here, and that is that when Lewis and Clark talked about peace, they thought about it as being permanent. When native people talked about peace, they thought about it as being a truce, a temporary halt while we might trade. Because after all, those kinds of truces were an important part of tribal life for a long time. And so Lewis and Clark have this exaggerated sense of how important they are.
With the Mandans as the winter's about to end, Lewis and Clark sent some stuff back to Jefferson. Not catalogue but what it symbolizes.
In a sense, what what they send back is the gleaning of the first year. The harvest of the first year, plants, and animals and some cartographic records. In a sense it is the harvest of the first year. It says we've gone thus far. This is what we found. This is what we've revealed. This is what we've discovered. Now we're ready for the next leap. Here are the plants. Here are the animals. Here are here are the cartographic records that we've made. Now we're ready to make the next great leap.
We're on the Northern Plains, there's sex going on between the men and the Indian women from the different tribes that they meet. What does that represent from the Indian point of view?
Sex is always involved in cultural meanings. Sex is never just something by itself. And for the Native peoples of the Northern Plains, sex is one more way to acquire power. In, in traditional cultures the buffalo calling ceremony was a way to get the power of experienced buffalo hunters and then transmit that power to younger men who are less experienced. And so the wives of those younger men would have sex with the experienced buffalo hunters and then have sex with their husbands. Sex was like a pipeline, it was a way to transmit power. Now the strangers appear, these bearded pale or African-American strangers. How can we gain their power, how can we gain what they have? How can we gain their mystery? Well, if if sex is a pipeline to transmit power, then having sex with those outsiders is one more way to acquire power. It is in a sense a kind of patriotic duty. Here we are, wanting power, hungry for power, how can we get it? Well we can have sex with those strangers and then we've acquired some of their mystery. Some of some of their power, some of their influence. So, in the Northern Plains, think about sex as a pipeline. Think about it as a way to acquire the great mystery of the other, whoever that other might be.
They're coming up into the mountains, the expeditionists now, they've traveled all across Montana and they finally are going to encounter a tribe, the Shoshonis. Who are they?
Of all the Indians that Lewis & Clark met, the Lemhi Shoshonis were the folks that were the most in trouble. Who lived the most precarious lives. Who'd been pushed around more by their neighbors than anyone else. Lemhi Shoshonis were among those peoples who had come up out of the great basin. They spent part of their lives each year fishing on the Western side of the Great Divide. And part of their lives crossing the Divide and hunting for buffalo around the three forks. But they were unarmed. The Lemhi Shoshonis in fact had no more than one or two guns in their band. They had been raided by the Blackfeet, raided by the Atsinas, many of their people had been captured by the Hidatsa, including Sacagawea and so these were folks that really lived precarious lives, hungry lives, lean and hungry lives. Lewis & Clark meet a people who really are in deep trouble. Hungry, pressed by enemies, unarmed, surrounded by folks who are much better armed and better equipped than they are. No wonder then that Cameahwait and his band will be eager for the gifts that Lewis & Clark offer.
Who is Cameahwait, what does his name mean and what does this represent to him when the expedition reaches his people.
Cameahwait was the headman of the Lemhi Shoshoni band that Lewis and Clark met. His other name is Black Gun. He's the only one in that band who has a serviceable weapon. And hence his name suggests something about his military leadership but it also suggests something about how poorly armed this band is. It's also a band that had been raided very recently by powerful enemies. Cameahwait, an older man, a man who is struggling to hold his band together. Cameahwait, saw Lewis and Clark in in one way as a kind of salvation. Making an alliance with the Americans would provide arms and ammunition. You know, there's a wonderful scene around the the campfire in firelight and shadow when Cameahwait, with lank jaws talks about what guns can mean. That it will mean protection, it'll mean salvation, it'll mean security. Having guns and a connection with the Americans will mean that we'll never again have to run into the hills and hide like animals. And so, Lewis and Clark really mean salvation, survival for Cameahwait, and his people.
At first, when Lewis and the small group meet in........ they've got to be a little bit suspicious, here's a tribe that's been pushed around quite a bit and they're being asked to come back to meet a larger group, Cameahwait's got to take a little bit of a risk, doesn't he?
Cameahwait took a substantial risk and after all, first remember what Lewis was shouting, that strange word, Tababone, Tababone, what does that word really mean? Well that word, Lewis thought, meant someone from the outside who might be a friend, who might in fact bring peace. That word was probably interpreted as stranger or foreigner, and so the very moment of shouting, Tababone, Tababone was certainly going to put Cameahwait, and his people on edge. But remember too that they had been very recently raided by outsiders and so there was a genuine fear and also, they needed to be about their business, they needed to be moving into the buffalo hunting grounds. And now, Lewis and Clark were asking them to slow down, to change the rhythm of their seasonal cycle and to ally themselves with these strange characters. And so there was real hesitation and for very good reason, who are these odd characters, and what do they mean, do they mean good or ill. And I think there was real confusion and real struggle among the Lemhi Shoshonis about this.
They lived in this precarious position you described and their risks. It helps to have the chief's sister along.
It certainly helps to have Sacagawea present and she's very excited to see her relatives. And her physical presence is important, the presence of the child is important as well. She's the intermediary, she's the go-between, she's the translator and so that is an important moment, a kind of wonderful, magical moment when it turns out that the Indians that they encounter are not just the Lemhi Shoshonis but that they are also her brother's band. But we shouldn't put too much on that and after all, she's very excited to see them but they seem to be not very excited at all to see her. She dances and sucks her fingers and shows great delight and the captains reveal in their journals that Cameahwait was in fact not very excited to see her. So it's a very odd moment. Her presence is certainly very important, but she's not welcomed home in the way you might think that a prodigal child might be welcomed home.
Spend a couple seconds with the Flatheads, I'd be interested to know, Lewis & Clark called them Flatheads, but their heads aren't flat are they? What's going on with the naming of tribes?
Lewis and Clark always had a very hard time with naming tribes. They often heard names that were village names or names of rivers or creeks. When they got to the Interior Salish, those folks that we call now the Flatheads, they were trying to understand who they were by signs and by translations of words that were sometimes three or four or five times removed. And so in the confusion of language, Lewis and Clark named these people the Flatheads although they are in fact the Interior Salish. There are other kinds of confusions as well. Lewis and Clark also think for a moment that these might be the Welsh Indians. Remember that Sergeant John Ordway in his journal says that he thinks that he's heard in the Salish language the echoes of what might be Welsh. And so what we've got here in thinking about meeting the Flatheads is an example again of confusion, of misunderstanding, of not knowing who these people really are.
When they're with the Shoshonis, Flatheads, and coming into the Nez Perce, you're really into the heart of the unknown. These are tribes that've never seen white people
Right, and I think there is real confusion for Lewis and Clark. Who are these people? What do they mean? How can we communicate with them? What will they do to us and with us and for us? But it's not just the confusion about Indians that's difficult for Lewis and Clark. It's also, this was a very hard time. Think of the weather, think of the closing in of the winter. Think about the struggles to find the right trail. Of being lost along the Lolo trail. So this is a very difficult time, it is in fact the heart of the unknown. It's a time when William Clark says he'd never been colder and wetter and more miserable in his life. When Sergeant Patrick Gass says that these are the deserts of America. That this is a place that we we can't get out of fast enough. So I think that this is deep confusion. This is deep trouble. But for a native people, "Who are these strangers. What do they want? What do they mean?" Suddenly they appear off of mountainsides, are they a war party? Do they mean good or ill? How shall we respond to them? How can we understand their language. Certainly here the presence of Sacagawea and her child are important.
They've pushed off from the Nez Perce. They have the current behind them but they enter a totally different world. A new landscape but new Indians too, different types of Indians.
On the Columbia River plain, Lewis and Clark encountered the most other kind of physical world and cultural world than they'd ever seen. You know, Lewis and Clark came out of a green world. And out of an Indian world of of buffalo hunters and horse Indians. And now in what is today eastern Oregon and eastern Washington, they see a a severe, rocky, brown world. And they also see a world of Native people that live in small fishing camps, smaller populations and in their eyes, these Indians who live by harvesting the river, these fishing Indians are somehow lesser peoples, less important, less significant and in some ways, more culturally upsetting, they don't really fit the stereotypes that Lewis and Clark have about real Indians. And so that world of the great Columbia Plain is is frightening and disorienting, and in many ways, deeply troubling to Lewis and Clark. They don't quite know what to make of that world. All brown and rocky and harsh and in the midst of it this great river. And then Indians who live by harvesting the river.
They get to the Dells and suddenly there're lots of Indians.
At the Dells, there's this great commercial empire, the great commercial mart, the emporium. The Dells are a place where many peoples from the East and the West come together to trade. And Lewis and Clark encounter a place where any Yankee could be out-Yankeed. A place that's more intensely commercial, more intensely business than any place they'd seen since perhaps Fort Mandan. And that really confuses them too. Here here is a place where there are lots of Indians, who are busy trading and fishing and making merry and telling stories and jokes; it's a great rendezvous. Lewis and Clark see that and they just don't know what to make of it. In fact, they're frightened by it. They're confused by it.
The Indians looked different, their houses are different
They lived in, Indians at the Dells lived in plank lodges, in great houses that could hold many families. The languages were different. The patterns of behavior were different. Lewis and Clark looked at those Indians of the Columbia and said, they squat like frogs and their language is like the clucking of hens and they make war by going in canoes. And they live on fish. Well, Lewis and Clark came out of a world that said that real men eat meat. And real men, hunt buffalo. Real Indians hunt buffalo. Here are Indians who live in strange houses, they behave in odd ways, they make war in strange ways. But maybe most important, look at what they eat. We are, after all, not only what we say, but we are what we eat. And what confused Lewis and Clark were fishing Indians, Indians who lived by salmon. What a what a strange world that must have been to them. How how disc how how discombobulating to them.
They finally get down to the mouth of the Columbia River. There's the Chinooks and the Clatsops, for these people, seeing some white people, nothing new in that except maybe the direction they came from?
I think it would be good for us to think about how someone like Coboway one of the headmen of the Clatsop villages viewed Lewis and Clark. He often went to Fort Clatsop to visit. And he must have puzzled about what they meant. Here were a a a group of men with a woman and a child and a Black person who came at the wrong time of the year and from the wrong direction and they want to build a big lodge, a big house, on shore and then they don't want to trade. Now think about it through Coboway's eyes, see it through Coboway's eyes. He'd seen lots of Europeans, Europeans had been present on the Columbia for a long time as Maritime traders. They came once or twice each year, they stayed on the river, they didn't go on shore, and they traded. They did business. Now here comes some folks at the wrong time of the year, they build a big house, and they don't want to trade. How puzzling that must have been. Coboway came over and over again to Fort Clatsop and eventually did make a kind of trading arrangement with Lewis and Clark, but he must have been deeply puzzled by these strangers. Again, the wrong time of the year, the wrong direction, they stay, they build a house and they don't want to trade. How very odd that must have been.
The winter with Fort Clatsop, it's different from Fort Mandan in so many different ways.
Sometimes I think about the winter at Fort Clatsop as the Winter of our Discontent, when everything went wrong, the weather closed in, weather that was cold and wet and chill. When mildew crept in everywhere. It was also a time of bad food. It was a time of cultural isolation. When Lewis and Clark didn't want their neighbors to come and visit them. Well, they actually had made a set of rules that said that native people could not stay in the fort overnight. And so there was a sense of isolation, of being afraid, of being lonely, and of things just coming apart. Think about it once. What should you do if you want to divert your men? Well, what you should do is have them make lots of moccasins. And during the winter at Fort Clatsop the men of the expedition made hundreds of pairs of moccasins, not just because they would need them on the return, but it was the fear about idle fingers doing the Devil's work. And so the winter at Fort Clatsop was was a time of the world closing in, of of discontent, of fear of the outside, of not being able to reach out to neighbors. It was the segregated heart, the divided neighborhood. Lewis and Clark took a a piece of ground, put a wall around it, named it after their neighbors and then kept their neighbors out. At Fort Mandan, it was a very different story. At Fort Mandan, there was an openness an eagerness to have visitors come. And on almost every day with the exception of Christmas, Lewis and Clark warmly welcomed their neighbors to come to Fort Mandan. They were eager for that common touch, the eagerness for neighborliness. But at Fort Clatsop, there was a kind of closing of the mind. A kind of closing of the heart.
I think they were frightened about the presence of Indians who were difficult to communicate with. There were real language barriers. The evidence is that that none of the members of the expedition ever learned the Chinook trade jargon. They couldn't communicate easily. But they also looked at the coastal Indians and said, "These aren't important people." Um, they aren't buffalo hunters, they eat fish. They speak and act in odd ways. They don't look like real Indians. And also, we really don't need to treat with these people because we are in a place now that is not officially a part of the United States. We're outside of the boundaries of the Louisiana purchase. And while someday, the United States might well be here, we're not here now in an official capacity. We're just waiting to go home. We don't need to treat with these people. We don't need to be neighborly, and they weren't. They divided the neighborhood.
Sexual relations, they're different here with the coastal Indians.
Coastal people had a long set of relationships with Maritime fur traders. Those relationships were built on equality, on bargains. Oftentimes the bargains were sealed with sexual relationships. On the river, the trading canoes were often owned by women. And women were some of the most important traders. Native women made agreements, commercial bargains with those men in the Maritime fur trade who came in the great ships.
Native American women on the coast owned their own ships.
The women of the lower Columbia were traders themselves. They owned their own trading canoes. And oftentimes they entered into trading agreements with those European traders who came in the Maritime fur business. The way to seal that agreement, the way to sign that commercial business relationship was through sex. And so women, Native women often entered into sexual relations with European traders as a way to sign and seal those business agreements. Sex was a business. It was one more form of commerce. And after all, outside of Fort Clatsop, Delashawilt and his wife who was known in the journals as the old bawd, they established a kind of brothel that would do business, sexual business, with the men of the expedition. And at first, they, as traders, asked for trade goods, edged tools, in return for sexual favors. At one point, Lewis and Clark were forced to line up their men and say, "Now, we'll have to lock the toolbox. And we'll have to give something else in return for sexual favors."
They steal a canoe from the Clatsops or the Chinooks. Tell me about it. What does that mean?
The stealing of that canoe is an extraordinary moment. After all, the winter at Fort Clatsop was the winter of discontent, the winter of frustration and anxiety and eventually anger. They need to find a way home. They know that part of going home means having canoes. They weren't able to buy as many canoes. They'd tried trading and they discovered that the that the lower Chinook and the Clatsop people were in fact better traders than Lewis and Clark were. That they'd been out-tradered. And now they decide that they're going to steal a canoe and for the first time, the expedition really violates its own moral code. Violates Jefferson's instructions. Again, its own moral code. And the explorers steal one of Coboways' canoes. It is an extraordinary moment. They were frustrated and angry and fearful and eager to escape a place that that Meriwether Lewis saw as a prison. He said at one point that he was counting the hours 'til his escape from that damp mildewed prison. And stealing a canoe seemed a small price to pay to escape from the prison. It was an extraordinary moment. And I think it was also an emblematic moment. Here were the outsiders breaking their own rules. And then, going home. An emblematic moment because it pointed to the future. That there would be more thefts, thefts that could be easily justified as other strangers coming from the East would steal things. Land, resources, water, and lives. And then justify that by saying that these people were not real people after all. That we could take from them whatever we needed for our own purposes. And so this canoe theft was in so many ways, not just an extraordinary moment, but it was also, I think, a moment that pointed to the future.
The Blackfeet. Who are they and what do they represent?
When Lewis and Clark came to the Northern plains and the Northern Rockies real power was measured with horses and guns and connections to traders in Canada. Nobody had more of those things, more horses, more guns, more connections to traders in Canada, than those, than did those bands who were connected to what we call the Blackfeet. They're the ones that have the real power. They're the ones who were the terror of their enemies. They're the ones who are raiding. They're the ones who are beating up on the Shoshonis and others. So, if we're thinking about real power, real influence, guns, horses, trader connections, think about the Blackfeet. They're the ones with the real power.
Most to lose by what Lewis tells them is in the future.
Think about what Meriwether Lewis says to those young Blackfeet up at the Two Medicine. He tells them that he represents a new connection. A new set of alliances. He says that he and his government are going to arm the enemies of the Blackfeet. So it's not just his physical presence, it's the message that he carries. That he and his government, this new distant Republic is going to arm their enemies. This is this is a thunderous message. This is lightening in the sky. This is the world shaking because up until this point, the Blackfeet had virtually a monopoly on those things that bring great power. And now Lewis says the world is changing, I'm going to bring your enemies wealth and power and I'm going to break your monopoly on wealth and power especially as it relates to guns. What more astounding message could there be than to say, "Your days are numbered. I represent the new order."
Is Lewis just being naive, or forgetful? Why does he say those things?
I think this is another example of Lewis simply not being aware of the complexity of Northern plains and Northern Rockies' diplomacy, tribal relationships and of the intricacies of native life. He certainly knew that Canadian traders were present among the Blackfeet. He would probably see that as an opportunity. Let's break the power of the Canadians. But he certainly didn't understand that announcing an alliance of Northern Plains people would have such enormous consequences and would frighten the Blackfeet. And for g and for good reason.
So what they do is try to stop him.
What those young warriors try to do is first to play an old game, the game of raid. The game of steal your guns and steal your horses. We shouldn't think that that Two Medicine fight was all about great power, diplomacy at that moment. For those young men this was just an opportunity. An opportunity to steal horses. An opportunity to steal guns. We shouldn't make them into great power diplomats. But for Lewis, it was a different story. He seemed to sense in some way or another that that explosion of violence that would cost the life of two young Piegans that that explosion of violence was really more than just about the loss of horses and guns. Because as he looked at the two dead bodies of Side Hill Calf and this other unnamed Piegan warrior. As he looked at those two young men now dead. He didn't just look at those bodies, he took their amulets, he took their sacred objects from their shields and then, in an incredible moment, he hung peace medals around their necks. It was a calling card. Those peace medals were calling cards of empire. They said, "The world is changing. We represent a new order on the Northern Plains. We represent the wave of the future." And so, in a strange and frightening way, those peace medals are signs and symbols of things to come. Hanging peace medals around the necks of two dead young men. It's an extraordinary moment.
They signify something different now than when they were going west.
The peace medals at one point represent alliances, connections, friendship. They represent a transmission of of power. But now, they're calling cards, signs of submission and subjugation. They're signs that we're in charge. Think of it again, peace medals, around the necks of dead young men.
Talk about the expedition as a whole. Try to tell me about the incredible diversity of Indian peoples from the time they left St Louis to the time they returned. When they're coming back they have a store of different types of people. Can you give me a mix of what that diversity is.?
Think about what they bring back as a kind of encyclopedia of a large part of Native North America. They see the buffalo-hunting Indians. They see the village farmers, they see the people of the plateau who hunted sometimes and fished other times. And then they saw the Native peoples of the Columbia and of the Pacific edge who made their living by harvesting the sea. It was as if Lewis and Clark did a great cross section, a great slice of Native North America and gave us a series of snapshots of that Native world on the edge of profound change from buffalo hunters to village farmers to fishers and harvesters of the sea. It was as if in a moment, the snapshots of the life of Native North America. Turn the pages of the family album. All of those snapshots, all of that incredible difference and diversity. In a way that must have beggared the imagination of Lewis, Clark, and certainly astounded Jefferson who never could imagine such an extraordinary complexity.
Tell me about William Clark, what kind of man was he?
On his grave in St. Louis, there is a classic line. It says something to the effect that you could read the life of the nation in the life of William Clark. 1770 - 1838. William Clark lived a long time. He lives through many American frontiers. He came to manhood fighting in the Ohio Indian wars. And then he makes the great American journey, our odyssey. And then he spent the rest of his life as a businessman, a politician, and an Indian agent in St. Louis. His life in many ways rings the changes on a westering nation. He was, after all, the the child of the American revolution and a soldier of empire.
William Clark and Indians.
Indians sometimes called William Clark the red-haired chief. It was a sign of affection and a sign of respect. I think that William Clark genuinely liked Indians. He appreciated them. He enjoyed talking with them. He enjoyed entertaining them. It was a kind of common touch about him. After all, he came from an aristocratic background, but but he was a man who enjoyed meeting and talking with other people and he certainly enjoyed the presence of Native people. Now, whether he saw them as equals or not is something else. He probably saw them as his children, as children he had responsibility for. But he did genuinely like Native people and enjoyed entertaining them and being in their presence.
William Clark genuinely liked Indians. Is that different from Lewis?
I think Lewis was put off by difference. He was challenged by it. You know, Lewis was a very tense, nervous, edgy young man who was over concerned about boundaries. These are my boundaries, don't step over those boundaries. Indians challenged those boundaries. And Lewis was always distant and remote in his relationships with Native people, always adversarial. William Clark saw himself as the conciliator, as the broker. And we should think about Clark as the interface as the broker, trying to help folks on both sides of the cultural divide explain themselves to each other.
It's called the Corps of Discovery. What did they discover?
I think that they discovered a number of things. I think that first they revealed the shape of a large part of the American terrain. And if we think about their missions, their scientific mission, they revealed a world that was new to European science. They also revealed the shape of the American empire. They said that this is an empire that will eventually go from ocean to ocean, from Atlantic to Pacific waters, and so part of the discovery was the discovery of the shape of the future. That it would be an imperial future. And maybe they discovered some things about themselves as well. Things that may in the long run be troubling. Things about the potential for violence. But also, and I think that this is important to say. They also discovered the potential for cooperation, for doing things together. Since that two and a half years of journey, of travel that involved so many Native lives, was also a time of cooperation and of some measure of working together and of understanding. So, what is discovered is not just a story of struggle and of potential for violence, and of the future of an empire, but it's also the potential for cooperation and for understanding.
York - he leaves on the journey a slave, he goes out, becomes Big Medicine Boats on the western ocean. And as he's coming down the Missouri River in August - September of 1806. Bring me now what's going to be happening to him.
Think about this as an African-American man reentering the world of races and enslavery. Having seen life on the other side of the mountains, in a real sense, as a man who's crossed the river Jordan. Who's seen life as a free man, who's acted in free ways. He has crossed the river Jordan. And now, back to St. Louis. Back to a world that represents, at least for a moment in his life, slavery and bondage and doing the will and the bidding of others. William Clark was a slave holder. York was not his servant, he was his slave. And we should understand that. How Clark will eventually arrange for York to be free and this is a man who will be at least in quotes, "free". But think about being an African-American free man in a world surrounded by race and slavery. And by racial attitudes that say freedom may only be what is written on a piece of paper. At heart, you are always the other. You are always on the edges of respectability. On the edges of freedom. I want to say it again, York crossed the river, he crossed the mountains, he saw what freedom meant. And then reentered a world of slavery where slavery was everywhere.
And Sacagawea, she's been in many different worlds. How is that played out in the post expedition?
Sacagawea came back to St. Louis a citizen of the West and someone who had citizenship no place. Where does she belong? Where is her home? Does she belong at a Hidatsa village? Does she belong with her Shoshoni relatives? Does she belong back at Fort Clatsop? Can she ever belong in St. Louis? If ever there was a person in the expedition's history who was displaced, who was person out of time, person out of the world, person who belonged nowhere, it's Sacagawea. Where's where is her home? One of the last glimpses that we have of her is in 1811 when a traveler described her as a woman wearing the cast off clothing of white women, drifting through life in St. Louis, seemingly alone, having given up her children to the care of William Clark. Where does she belong? An orphan in a world made by the expedition. A woman alone, a woman wearing the cast off clothing of others.
The larger scope of American history. What does the expedition mean in historical significance or symbolical significance?
Sometimes we talk about the expedition as the great American odyssey. If the Civil War is our Iliad, then this is our odyssey. You know, one of the ways to to understand American history is to think about our history as a series of journeys. We're forever going somewhere. All the coyote stories begin, Coyote was going there. So Coyote is going there. Kiowa people are going somewhere, we're always going somewhere. We've attached great meaning to the Lewis and Clark story because it's an emblem of us being on the road. We're a people on the road, we're a people caught in a in a tension between wanting to be at home and yet being always on the road. It's a tension that is pervasive in our culture. It's hard sometimes to to understand why the Lewis and Clark story is so important. After all, Lewis and Clark didn't start the western fur trade. They don't pioneer a route that other overland immigrants will use. Those routes are pioneered by others. Lewis and Clark don't provide the legal framework for an American claim to the Pacific Northwest, that came from other travelers. I think that we've seized on them because they remind us about the journey. Life is a journey. They were on the road. We're on the road too. We see that in our literature, in our writing. From Pilgrim's Progress and Canterbury Tales to John Wayne in Stagecoach. We think about life as a journey. The Lewis and Clark journey is so accessible. We can all get on board. We can be members of the Corps of Discovery. We can slip our own lives into their lives and then we can make the journey with them. A journey of wonder and excitement. But also, a frightening journey, a journey of danger, we can be with them. We can also stand on shore and watch them as they come to us. This is one of the central American stories. It has, like few other stories, a place for all of us. All of us want to find a place in story. And this is one of those stories that reaches out and says, there is a place in this story for you.
They're moving up the Columbia, and they're cranky.
Lewis and Clark left for Clatsop a little too early. But not only that, they left with a certain set of attitudes about the Indians of the Columbia River gorge. And so, on the way home, they're hurrying. They're struggling and every Indian they meet now is a barrier. Every village they meet now is a village that is a block on their way home. And so cranky isn't the right word. They're angry. And they're willing to imagine that every Indian is a potential enemy. Anything that happens now will be interpreted as something that's a hostile action. And out will come great torrents of angry language and threatening gestures. And so Lewis and Clark, even more than than ever before will see the Indians of the Columbia River as as barriers to get on home. Cranky isn't the word, it's angry, it's frustrated, it's in a hurry.
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