Lewis and Clark: An Indigenous Perspective

Lewis and Clark Exhibit at the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial
The Need for an Indigenous Perspective

Written by Megan Tipton


The National Park Service narrative about the Lewis and Clark expedition can be found on their webpage, Jefferson National Expansion Memorial Missouri: The Journey. The purpose of the article is to summarize details of the Lewis and Clark journey.  The article introduces us to the members of the Corps of Discovery, to the key power players at the turn of the 19th century, the challenges of the expedition, as well as interactions with Mandan, Hidatsa, Shoshoni, Blackfeet, and Nez Perce Tribes.  The narrative understandably includes the white European perspective, but largely misses the indigenous perspective. 

First, there is no recognition that there were still indigenous peoples in Missouri at the time of the Lewis and Clark expedition.  Only the United States, the Spanish, and the French are listed as key players.  For example, the narrative reads, “Technically, when Lewis rowed across the river from Illinois to Missouri, he was leaving the United States and entering Spanish territory” (para. 2).  There is no mention that this was the territory of the Illini at the time, which was prior to forced removal in 1830.  In fact, the article gives no mention to any tribes being present in Missouri during the time of the expedition.  Readers without other information may be under the impression that there were no indigenous peoples in Missouri during the 19th century, although there were seven tribes whose homeland covered parts of what is now Missouri: Illini, Ioway, Quapaw, Osage, Missouria, Otoe, and Chickasaw Nations.

Although the narrative does include information about the relationship that the Corps of Discovery had with tribes they met along their journey, the interpretation is also void of indigenous perspective.  For example, the article details that “The men of the expedition nearly had a violent encounter with the Teton (Lakota) Sioux in South Dakota,” but ends the discussion with the statement, “Despite this incident, relations with Native Americans were generally good, and councils were held with many tribes, each of whom were presented with gifts and peace medals, and told about the change in government from the Spanish to the United States." The impression that readers receive from this summary is that relations with the Lakota were positive, and would remain so, when in reality this encounter was a prelude to future “violent encounters” that ended in deaths for both whites and Lakota.  The battle of the Little Big Horn in 1876 and the Massacre at Wounded Knee in 1890 are two pronounced examples of the conflicts between the United States and the Lakota Sioux during the 19th century. 

The narrative also includes accounts of peaceful relations with the Nez Perce Tribe, who were one of many tribes to help the Corps of Discovery:

The Nez Perce, who had never seen white men before, could easily have killed the starved and weakened explorers and taken their guns and trade goods. These things would have made the Nez Perce rich and powerful. Instead, they treated the explorers with kindness, feeding and helping them, pointing the way to the Pacific. Lewis and Clark left their horses for safekeeping with the honest Nez Perce, and finished making dugout canoes. (para. 14)

However, this kindness is not accounted for in the concluding paragraphs of the narrative.  The text describes the return of the Corps of Discovery to Missouri, and lists the Native American Tribes as merely another item in a list of blights that could have killed the members of the Corps.   It reads, "If wild animals, hunger, harsh weather or Indians hadn't killed them, perhaps they had gotten lost, they [European settlers] thought" (para. 23).  Indigenous tribes did work of peaceful cooperation, offering support through food, shelter, detailed directions, and guidance.  In addition, all the tribes mentioned in the narrative had to make the difficult decision to spare the lives of a small band of explorers who were obviously making steps to bring settlers to their homeland. However, Lewis and Clark are the only ones credited: "Lewis and Clark also achieved an impressive record of peaceful cooperation with the Indians" (para. 24).    A small dose of indigenous perspective is offered in the understatement, "It can be said that Lewis and Clark's trek set off a century of rapid settlement which peopled the West with Euro-Americans and unfortunately disrupted or ruined the cultures and lifestyles of countless Native Americans" (para. 24).  The author is right here.  It can be said that the lives of Native Americans were changed forever.  Indeed, lives were transported, altered, and many lives literally ended.  Lewis and Clark were exploring the homelands of Indigenous Tribes and the lack of this perspective being told in the “Lewis and Clark” narrative found in museums around the state of Missouri call for an indigenous perspective to tell their stories, not only about Lewis and Clark, but about  their contemporary perspectives and current lives.  

Lewis and Clark: An Indigenous Perspective