In compiling an exhibition for the Newberry Library, Fred Hoxie was reminded that the journey of Lewis and Clark is ongoing.
The raw wilderness that Lewis and Clark encountered on their 8,000-mile, overland "Voyage of Discovery" from 1804 to 1806 has forever vanished. The free-flowing rivers of salmon and steelhead have been reduced by dams to slackwater and hatchery fish. The "immence herds of Buffaloe, Elk, & Antelopes" that repeatedly gave the explorers pause have vanished beneath the relentless wheel of development. What has survived are pockets of Native American culture. President Thomas Jefferson noted in his instructions to Lewis and Clark: "In all your intercourse with the natives treat them in the most friendly and conciliatory manner which their own conduct will admit…"
Still, the 8,000-mile expedition from the mouth of the Missouri River to the outlet of the Columbia River—a combination of Manifest Destiny and scientific exploration—occurred during a time of immense change for the tens of thousands of Native Americans. Indian Country was forever altered.
Frederick Hoxie, Swanlund Professor of History and co-acting director of the Native American Center (along with LAS anthropology professor Brenda Farnell) says the nationwide Lewis and Clark bicentennial celebration that begins this year is a bittersweet anniversary for Native Americans.
"When you ask, ‘What is the Native American view of the Lewis and Clark expedition?,' I have learned that they view this expedition as an opening wedge of the United States into their country. This was, after all, a military expedition. It was intended to assert and to claim American sovereignty in an area. Native Americans continue to feel that this region, in fact in some ways all of the United States, represents in some fashion an Indian Country."
Hoxie, a founding trustee of the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of the American Indian and the author of several books on American policies toward Indians, a study of Montana's Crow Indians, and other works, will curate a new Newberry Library exhibition that will open in the fall of 2005. Titled "Lewis & Clark and the Indian Country," the exhibition will begin a nationwide tour the next year in five Native American communities that had contact with the Corps of Discovery. While collaborating with Native American scholars, Hoxie found he had to broaden the scope of his presentation to reflect the lasting legacy of the expedition.
"They had one central recommendation and that was that the commemoration of Lewis and Clark should not focus only on the expedition's three years. They said the exhibition should focus on those three years and their aftermath, and should connect the experiences of 1804, 5, and 6 to the experiences of the rest of the 19th Century and even the 20th Century."
The expedition had numerous meetings with Native Americans along the way—some of them, Hoxie says, were violent, some friendly, some collaborative, and some destructive—but it was two contrasting encounters that Hoxie points to as key moments in future U.S.-Indian relations. The first winter, when the expedition spent those beginning months with the Mandans and Hidatsas near Bismarck, North Dakota, was one of mutual admiration between the two groups. Lewis and Clark participated in ritual dance and song, while hunting and eating together.
"There really is a very human, very charming kind of human interaction taking place at that point," Hoxie notes. "These are not multicultural 21st Century people. You can't expect them to have the same attitudes we have today. But, looking at what they were doing, it was sort of a remarkable moment to see this kind of cooperation taking place."
But on the return leg of the 28-month journey, Lewis and Clark's attitude toward and treatment of Native Americans soured considerably. Lewis' journal entries are filled with complaints about prices Native Americans charged for goods and the idea that they cannot be trusted. Perhaps the explorers were simply worn out and irritable or maybe they reflected the prejudice of the day that assumed a white superiority. The bad feeling climaxes in July 1806, with the shooting of two Montana Blackfeet, who were caught stealing a rifle. Not only are the deaths ugly but also Hoxie says, Lewis takes one of the Jefferson Peace Medals used for trade and hangs it around the neck of one of the dead Blackfeet. This was clearly a message. Lewis writes on July 27, 1806, "I…left the medal around the neck of the dead man that they might be informed who we were."
Hoxie says once the expedition returned to Washington, Lewis and Clark became the nation's Indian experts. Their revised stance toward Native Americans, what Hoxie labels "ambivalent-negative," became the prevailing feeling as the young nation turned its attention toward expansion.
"Lewis and Clark's views became the touchstone for American attitudes toward the West. And that view assumed that American expansion is possible, that American expansion is good, that collaboration with native people is OK if you need to, but not essential."
Two hundred years later, tribes throughout Indian Country continue to preserve tribal culture and history despite ongoing prejudice and poverty. "The Lewis and Clark encounter is not simply confined to the past but is an ongoing, up-to-the-present interaction between Native American traditions and the institutions of the United States. And that is played out in the areas of language preservation, in the areas of hunting and fishing rights—something as concrete as what the water level in the Columbia River should be—it's played out in environmental restrictions on wildlife habitat in the national forests, and it's played out in educational programs."
Hoxie notes the Montana Blackfeet are revitalizing language through immersion programs at their Piegan Institute; the Mandan-Hidatsa teach history at their tribal college in North Dakota; the Umatillas negotiate salmon restoration in the Northwest; the Nez Perce have successfully reintroduced wolves to Idaho and are key environmental stewards in managing that state's forests and rivers.
"What the Indian story says is that people are not subsumed by the United States," Hoxie says. "People don't disappear into the United States. The United States is at its best when it supports and promotes the rights and freedoms of all communities. And the United States is diminished when the rights and freedoms of these communities are ignored, and when these peoples' voices are ignored. Again, I think that's why when you think about it—we didn't plan it this way—the Lewis and Clark experience ends up being quite a contemporary message."
By Stephen J. Lyons, July 2004