Sheheke - Big White

Sheheke – "Big White" (1807)1
by Charles Balthazar Julien Febret de Saint Memin.
Chalk and charcoal on pink paper on canvas,
22-3/8 by 17 inches. #1860.95

Sheheke ("Coyote"), the principal chief of the lower Mandan village, Matutonka (or Matootonha), was nicknamed "Big White" by an unknown white man, evidently because of his size and relatively fair complexion.

On October 20, 1804, two Mandan leaders, each considering himself the principal chief of Matutonka, came to visit the captains. Having missed the previous day's meeting, they asked the Americans to repeat their speeches. "They were gratified," Clark reported, "and we put the medal on the neck of the Big White to whome we had Sent Clothes yesterday & a flag." The captains meant well, but as usual they acted hastily, and only worsened an enmity they would have to deal with later. Furthermore, they had sealed a relationship with Sheheke that would bear bitter fruit. Upon their return in late August of 1806, Sheheke reaffirmed his friendship, and promised that his people would "Shake off all intimicy with the Seioux and unite themselves in a strong allience and attend to what we had told them &c." Amid good feelings all around, they smoked, and took a walk together. "The Mandan Chief," Clark observed, "was Saluted by Several Chiefs and brave men on his way with me to the river."

The captains, still eager to fulfill Jefferson's wish to show Indian leaders the advantages of American culture and civilization, invited Sheheke to return to the East with them, but their gesture only ignited old rivalries among the leading men of the tribe, and they had to rely on the able diplomacy of the trader and interpreter René Jusseaume to sort it all out for them. Sheheke finally agreed to go if he could take his wife and son with him, and if Jusseaume could take his family along, too.

Because of aggressive interference from Sioux and Arikara warriors, his return home required two attempts in two years, involving a collective force of more than 600 soldiers, cost a total of $20,000 plus four American lives and one limb (of George Shannon), and brought down the careers of at least two great leaders – himself, and Meriwether Lewis. The trip cost him his once respectable reputation among his people, perhaps because of his long absence, but also because his people didn't believe his tales of the wonders he had seen.

If it is true that Sheheke really wanted to spend the rest of his life among white people, then Jefferson's policy, as carried out by Lewis and Clark, was vindicated. The irony of his story, however, is that he was killed in his own village by Sioux raiders in 1832.2

1. Lewis commissioned a portrait of Sheheke and one of his wife Yellow Corn for his projected edition of the journals, but he did not write the book after all, and the portraits were not included in the 1814 condensation of the captains' journals, edited by Nicholas Biddle. Roy E. Appleman, Lewis & Clark: Historic Places Associated with Their Transcontinental Exploration (1804–06) (Washington, D.C.: United States Department of the Interior, National Park Service, 1975), 377n. The artist himself erroneously labeled Sheheke's portrait, at the left edge, Indien des Iowas du Missoury – "Indian of the Iowas of the Missouri." Ellen G. Miles, Saint-Memin and the Neoclassical Profile Portrait in America (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1994), 435–36.

2. Frederick Webb Hodge, Handbook of American Indians North of Mexico, Smithsonian Institution, Bureau of American Ethnology, Bulletin No. 30. 2 vols, (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1912), 2:518-19. Tracy Potter, Sheheke, Mandan Indian Diplomat: The Story of White Coyote, Thomas Jefferson, and Lewis and Clark (Helena, Montana: Farcountry Press, 2003).