This month’s Social Justice Challenge for bloggers is to write on the topic of genocide, and you certainly don’t have to look far to find the topic raised in discussions of Lewis & Clark. In 2004, American Indian protesters stopped the Discovery Expedition of St. Charles in South Dakota during a bicentennial reenactment of Lewis & Clark’s journey. Their rhetoric included calling the Lewis & Clark Expedition “part of the great American lie” and the “dawn of genocide.”
The protesters probably represented a minority view even among Native Americans, many of whom worked during the Lewis & Clark bicentennial to highlight both their history and their present-day cultural survival. But the controversy raises the interesting issue of how historical evaluation changes over time. Since completing two novels about Lewis & Clark, I’ve talked to a lot of people about the explorers and what their journey means in the context of American history. Many people I have talked to have not given Lewis and Clark much thought since grade school, and remember them only as being the men who accompanied Sacagawea to the Pacific Ocean. One person thought they conducted their expedition after the Civil War.
The most striking conversation I had was with a woman who told me she’d seen the IMAX movie, Lewis and Clark: Great Journey West. “I wanted to shout at the screen,” she told me, “and tell the Indians to kill them! Kill them now!” Both the organized protests and this casual remark pointed up to me two things: how political correctness and historical revisionism can poison people’s minds, and how little people really know about what Lewis and Clark did.
It’s true that Lewis and Clark were white guys, sent forth by Jefferson into Indian country. It’s true that they took with them a boatload of presents and a patronizing attitude. It’s also true that the encroachment of whites onto Indian lands in the nineteenth century led to war, ruin, and arguably, genocide against the Indian people.
What isn’t clear is that it was Lewis and Clark’s fault, or even that their journey was the first step in the downward slide of U.S.-Indian cultural conflict. Lewis and Clark had contact with Indians on almost a daily basis throughout the journey. For the most part, relations were cordial. One has only to read their journals for the evidence. The captains didn’t always like the people they met, but they took them as they found them. The Indians seemed to feel the same about the white men.
Jefferson’s purpose in having Lewis and Clark approach the native peoples was somewhat naïve: he wanted to create trade networks, exchanging manufactured goods for valuable furs. What he didn’t realize is that powerful trade networks already existed among the Native American peoples and Europeans, chiefly the British in Canada. Some of the trading partners, such as the Teton Sioux and the Blackfeet, were nonplussed at the Americans horning in on the action. Lewis and Clark were slow to pick up on this, and surprised at the conflict and resistance they encountered.
There is no hint that Lewis and Clark ever anticipated that just fifty years later, many of the native peoples they met and traded with would be on the ropes. Instead, cut off from contact with the United States and thousands of miles from home, they dealt with the Indians as partners, not subjects. Goods were freely exchanged between the expedition members and the Indians, as well as more intimate exchanges, (sex, medical treatment, ideas). All involved with the expedition assumed that the western part of the continent would be wilderness for many years to come. It was imperative to maintain good relations with the people who inhabited it. I’m quite sure genocide never entered their minds.
What happened in the succeeding decades was a debacle for the native peoples, and a blight on the history of our country. Some of the Indian people who met Lewis and Clark remembered their promise of friendship and felt betrayed. The friendship was genuine, but the promise was broken – and the native people paid the price.
Further reading: Were American Indians the Victims of Genocide?