Discussion centers on explorers' interactions with Indians

Tuesday, April 27, 2004

Moderator Jean Gaddy Wilson opened last week's Lewis and Clark discussion group session at the Marshall Public Library with a pop quiz. Participants were asked to name the 19 Indian tribes encountered by the famed explorers, how many tribes there currently are in the United States, what Thomas Jefferson thought of Indians and the first four adjectives that come to mind when they hear the word "indian."

No one in the audience came up with all 19 tribes the Corps of Discovery encountered, with the best being about a dozen. Another challenging query was the number of current tribes. The correct answer? Four hundred and twenty-three, approximately. Wilson said members of tribes prefer to be addressed by the tribe's name, rather than Native Americans or Indians and when working with them she would ask them how they want to be addressed.

The evening's discussion centered around one of the books in the local library's collection about Lewis and Clark, "Lewis and Clark Among the Indians," by James P. Ronda, and how preconceived ideas about Indians affected the explorers' interactions as well as modern interactions.

For a fifth and final quiz question, Gaddy asked participants to write down two positive traits of Indians and two negative traits. Among the positive traits were such things as resourceful, traditional, helpful, knowledgeable of the natural world, survival, spiritual and bravery. Under negatives, responses included words such as alcoholic, lazy, mean, dirty, savages, dishonest, raiders and murderers.

Wilson asked participants where they got their first view of Indians or Native Americans, with the common answer being television and/or movies. She also said many of the members of Lewis and Clark's corps had conflicts with Indian tribes in the East before setting off on their expedition.

Jefferson's view of the Indians of the Louisiana Purchase was different from that in many Westerns, Wilson pointed out. As someone highly influenced by thinking of the "Age of Enlightenment," the president who authorized and sent out the corps viewed the Indians as noble savages who could be converted to an agrarian lifestyle and who could also prove to be valuable commercial trading partners.

Lewis was also shaped by this "Enlightenment," with Ronda's book explaining he took pains to write interactions with the tribes phonetically. The tribes did not have written languages, and some record would be needed for those following the explorers westward for settling or trading.

The Louisiana Purchase and Lewis and Clark's exploration, she said, was very much about commerce -- including finding a water route to the Pacific Northwest that could be used for shipping goods.

While the Indians of what is now the Great Plains were a mystery to the president and the explorers, they did their best to have some idea of what the corps would encounter, with Ronda saying in his book that both Jefferson and Lewis sent out extensive questionnaires ahead of time. Information sought included eating, sleeping and bathing habits, pulse rates at different times of the day and information about Indian society such as marriage traditions, number of children, etc.

While the information gathered was the best available, it wasn't always on target. Wilson said some tribes had been hit hard by diseases and moved to new locations or merged into other tribes. Some tribes were also hundreds of miles away from the expected site.

While the expedition was full of contradictions -- being ordered to show the utmost respect for Indians, and also promising to sell them guns at some later date, presumably for use against tribes they had conflicts with -- Wilson pointed out their assistance was absolutely necessary for the group, which set off from St. Louis with provisions for only 40 days. The journey to the Oregon coast and back consumed more than two years.

Contact Mark Lile at


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