A couple of weeks ago, in the post Did They Pray?, we pointed out that Lewis and Clark weren’t particularly religious men. This led to a great comment by Milt Reynolds (check out his On the Move blog), who wondered “how deeply Lewis and Clark pondered the religion of the Native Americans they encountered”:
People who genuinely seek God are attracted and interested in others who also seek God. If Lewis and Clark only lightly wrote of their own expedition’s religious concerns, I would think that this same shallow interest would be seen in their writings of the Native American societies they visited.
This was such an interesting discussion that it led me to do a lot of reading about how Lewis and Clark encountered, understood, and wrote about the Indians, especially those tribes they lived with for an extended period of time. (For those interested in more detail, the best book is Lewis & Clark Among the Indians, by James Ronda.) The first of these tribes was the Mandans, with whom the Corps of Discovery shared the North Dakota winter in 1804-05.
Today the study of human cultures is an entire field of research called ethnography, pioneered in the 1920s with the work of anthropologists such as Margaret Mead. But long before hordes of graduate research assistants descended on the unsuspecting native peoples of the world, the ever far-seeing Thomas Jefferson sent Lewis and Clark into the West with ethnography as part of their portfolio.
And no professor could have been more demanding than Thomas Jefferson was in his “Instructions” that he issued to Lewis in June 1803. Religion was just one aspect of Jefferson’s interest. In fact, his questionnaire was almost laughably comprehensive, covering every aspect of Indian life from easily observed details such as food, clothing, and technology; to customs that could be discovered in friendly interviews, such as vocabulary, trade relations, and diseases; to complex abstract concepts such as religion, morals, and law. Reading over his marching orders, it’s hard to resist adding, “While you’re at it, bring in the moon.”
Given the vast gulf that existed between Planet Earth and Planet Jefferson, it perhaps shouldn’t be surprising that the captains gave short shrift to religion and spiritual customs. They arrived at the wrong time of year to experience the Okipa, the Mandans’ most important holy day, but they did record a number of religious ceremonies, particularly that of offering a ceremonial feeding to the head or skull of a buffalo. They found the custom quaint without understanding its larger meaning. Similarly, Clark wrote a remarkably frank and non-judgmental account of “buffalo calling,” a spiritual-sexual rite:
a Buffalow Dance (or Medison) for 3 nights passed in the 1st Village, a curious Custom the old men arrange themselves in a circle & after Smoke a pipe, which is handed them by a young man, Dress up for the purpose, the young men who have their wives back of the circle go to one of the old men with a whining tone and the old man to take his wife (who presents necked except a robe) and—(or Sleep with him)
the Girl then takes the Old man (who verry often can Scercely walk) and leades him to a Convenient place for the business, after which they return to the lodge, if the Old man (or a white man) returns to the lodge without gratifying the man & his wife, he offers her again and again; it is often the Case that after the 2d time without Kissing the Husband throws a nice robe over the old man & and begs him not to dispise him, & his wife
(we Sent a man to this Medisan last night, they gave him 4 Girls)
all this is to cause the buffalow to Come near So that They may kill thim
But while Clark grasped (and perhaps participated in?) the wild bacchanalia of the rite, he did not understand the complex transfer of spiritual power that was the point of all the mate-swapping.
On the other hand, Clark excelled at recording the details of native politics. A future politician and diplomat, Clark wrote extensively of how political and military power was gained and transferred in the Mandan society. He found out who were the head men, how they got to the top, and how power was exercised and passed on through the generations.
As the Expedition’s mapmaker, Clark also successfully deposed his new friends for geographic details of the country that lay ahead.
Meriwether Lewis proved to be an ethnographer of extraordinary talent. Leaving political analysis to Clark, Lewis took detailed vocabularies (most of which have been lost) and wrote amazing descriptions of Mandan material culture from war hatchets to teepees to glass beadmaking, the latter worth reading just as an illustration of Lewis’s incredible (and arguably obsessive) flair for detail:
the Prosess is as follows,— Take glass of as many different colours as you think proper, then pound it as fine as possible puting each colour in a seperate vessel. wash the pounded glass in several waters throwing off the water at each washing. continue this opperation as long as the pounded glass stains or colours the water which is poured off and the residium is then prepared for uce.
You then provide an earthen pot of convenient size say of three gallons which will stand the fire; a platter also of the same materials sufficiently small to be admitted in the mouth of the pot or jar. the pot has a nitch in it’s edge through which to watch the beads when in blast. You then provide some well seasoned clay with a propertion of sand sufficient to prevent it’s becoming very hard when exposed to the heat. this clay must be tempered with water untill it is about the consistency of common doe.
of this clay you then prepare, a sufficient number of little sticks of the size you wish the hole through the bead, which you do by roling the clay on the palm of the hand with your finger. this done put those sticks of clay on the platter and espose them to a red heat for a few minutes when you take them off and suffer them to cool. the pot is also heated to cles it perfectly of any filth it may contain. small balls of clay are also mad of about an ounce weight which serve each as a pedestal for a bead.
these while soft ar distributed over the face of the platter at su[c]h distance from each other as to prevent the beads from touching. some little wooden paddles are now provided from three to four inches in length sharpened or brought to a point at the extremity of the handle. with this paddle you place in the palm of the hand as much of the wet pounded glass as is necessary to make the bead of the size you wish it. it is then arranged with the paddle in an oblong form, laying one of those little stick of clay crosswise over it; the pounded glass by means of the paddle is then roped in cilindrical form arround the stick of clay and gently roled by motion of the hand backwards an forwards until you get it as regular and smooth as you conveniently can.
if you wish to introduce any other colour you now purforate the surface of the bead with the pointed end of your little paddle and fill up the cavity with other pounded glass of the colour you wish forming the whole as regular as you can. a hole is now made in the center of the little pedestals of clay with the handle of your shovel sufficiently large to admit the end of the stick of clay arround which the bead is formed. the beads are then arranged perpindicularly on their pedestals and little distance above them supported by the little sticks of clay to which they are attatched in the manner before mentioned.
Thus arranged the platter is deposited on burning coals or hot embers and the pot reversed with the apparture in it’s edge turned towards coverd the whole. dry wood pretty much doated is then plased arron the pot in sush manner as compleatly to cover it is then set on fire and the opperator must shortly after begin to watch his beads through the apparture of the pot le[s]t they should be distroyed by being over heated. he suffers the beads to acquire a deep red heat from which when it passes in a small degree to a pailer or whitish red, or he discovers that the beads begin to become pointed at their upper extremities he (throws) removes the fire from about the pot and suffers the whole to cool gradually. the pot is then removed and the beads taken out. the clay which fills the hollow of the beads is picked out with an awl or nedle, the bead is then fit for uce. The Indians are extreemly fond of the large beads formed by this process. they use them as pendants to their years, or hair and sometimes wear them about their necks.—
Like Clark, Lewis was not equipped to analyze the deeper meaning of some of the objects he encountered. Undoubtedly he would have loved to draw and describe the sacred medicine bundles and turtle drums of the Mandans, but was not privy to them as a stranger. Both captains kept focused on their larger mission — which was to gather information for the government they served, information of benefit to science, government, and commerce.
Before they left Fort Mandan, Lewis and Clark compiled their observations into a masterfully detailed document called “Estimate of the Eastern Indians,” which they sent back to Jefferson along with dozens of specimens, artifacts, and even live animals that they had collected in the first year of their voyage of discovery. When the shipment arrived in August 1805, surely even the unslakeably curious president must have been delighted.
Next in this series: Lewis & Clark among the Shoshones