Detail: Friendly Discourse

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Chance Meeting, Friendly Discourse

Meeting with Nez Perce warriorsDetail from "Lewis and Clark's Camp at Traveler's Rest,
Lolo Creek 1805"
by Edgar S. Paxson

The Corps' Shoshone guide, Old Toby, "could not speake the language of these people, but soon engaged them in conversation by signs or jesticulation, the common language of all the Aborigines of North America." Lewis continued, "it is one understood by all of them and appears to be sufficiently copious to convey with a degree of certainty the outlines of what they wish to communicate."

In Paxson's mural, George Drouillard has witnessed the Nez Perces' explanations and is explaining to the captains that the three warriors are in pursuit of two Shoshones who have stolen 23 Nez Perce horses. The handsomely dressed Indian nearest to Drouillard has laid his bow and shield on the ground before him in a gesture of peaceful intent. His two wary companions, their riding-skins – in lieu of saddles – hanging from their waists, stand by with their quivers and bow-cases over their shoulders and their bows at the ready. Nearby, an armed soldier, perhaps John Colter, strikes a pose of relaxed watchfulness.

Nez Perce Appearances

The facts are not known, but it seems more than likely that Paxson owned a copy of Nicholas Biddle's edition of the Lewis and Clark journals, or more likely a reprint of it, for the History of the Expedition under the Command of Lewis and Clark was still a basic handbook for any serious traveler through the Northwest in the 1870s when Paxson set out for Montana. Of course, Reuben Thwaites's edition of the complete journals, verbatim, had come out in 1904-5, and Paxson might have had access to that seven-volume collection also, but Biddle's two-volume summary would have provided sufficient background for all the scenes he created.

October 10, 1805, Clark (Biddle's paraphrase)

The Chopunnish or Pierced-nose nation...are in person stout, portly, well-looking men; . . . though the complexion of both sexes is darker than that of the Tushepaws [Salish]. In dress they resemble that nation, being fond of displaying their ornaments. The buffalo or elk-skin robe decorated with beads; sea-shells, chiefly mother-of-pearl, attached to an otter-skin collar and hung in the hair, which falls in front in two cues; feathers, paints of different kinds, principally white, green, and light blue, all of which they find in their own country; these are the chief ornaments they use. In the winter they wear a short shirt of dressed skins, long painted leggings and moccasins, and a plait of twisted grass round the neck.1

May 17, 1806, Lewis (Biddle's paraphrase)

The Chopunnish themselves are in general stout, well formed, and active; they have high, and many of them aquiline, noses; the general appearance of the face is cheerful and agreeable, though without any indication of gayety and mirth. Like most Indians, they extract their beards; . . . The dress . . . consists of a long shirt reaching to the thigh, leggins as high as the waist, moccasins, and robes--all of which are formed of skins.

Their ornaments are beads, shells, and pieces of brass attached to different parts of the dress, or tied around the arms, neck, wrists, and over the shoulders; to these are added pearls and beads suspended from the ears, and a single shell of wampum2 through the nose. The head-dress of the men is a bandeau of fox or otter-skin, either with or without the fir, and sometimes an ornament tied to a plait of hair, falling from the crown of the head; . . . while the hair...falls in two rows down the front of the body. Collars of bears' claws are also common. But the personal ornament most esteemed is a sort of breastplate, formed of a strip of otter-skin six inches wide, cut out of the whole length of the back of the animal, including the head; this being dressed with the hair on, a hole is made at the upper end, through which the head of the wearer is placed, and the skin hangs in front with the tail reaching below the knee, ornamented with pieces of pearl, red cloth, and wampum or, in short, any other fanciful decoration.3

On the whole, Paxson's portrayals of the three Nez Perce men indicate that he had done his historical homework, at least to a limited extent. Among the obvious digressions from visual truth is that whereas Clark actually wrote that the Nez Perce were "Stout likely men," Biddle transcribed Clark's phrase as "stout, portly, well-looking men." Indeed, the word "stout" is most often taken to mean "bulky in figure; thickset or corpulent," but in Clark's day its primary definition was "strong, valiant, brave, resolute."4 Thus Paxson's lean and lithe figures might still have been stout men. More than likely he used some of his Indian friends, who might have included some Nez Perce, as models. Paxson did not show any of the Nez Perce men with pierced noses, even though Lewis observed that the practice was stylish in 1805 and 1806.

Paxson's use of red in the trim of their clothing may add important highlights to the painting from a purely artistic viewpoint, but the color, it is said, would not be used decoratively by Nez Perce people, since red is symbolic of death – the faces of dead people are painted red before burial. Indeed, these men being in pursuit of Shoshone horse thieves, the one at far left has painted a large red spot on his forehead to show that he is prepared both to inflict and accept death.

Lewis emphasized (May 13, 1806) that "the article of dress on which they appear to bstow most pains and ornaments is a kind of collar or brestplate" made of the skin of an otter hung with "whatever they conceive most valuable or ornamental," including pieces of red cloth. That may be the article partly hidden behind the man at left. Each of the Indians is wearing a collar made not of bear claws but wampum – in this case, evidently dentalium shells – as a talisman.

The deep scallops on the extreme edges of the leather coats and shirts were caused by pegging the raw hides to the ground during scraping to remove the hair, and for brain-tanning to make the leather soft. They were sometimes left on in order to wick rainwater from the body of the garment. It has been suggested that the Indians' shirts would have been neater in that detail than Paxson has shown.

The knee-high leggings on the principal Indian figure would have been suitable for an Indian of one of the midwestern woodland tribes, but not for a Nez Perce, who would have worn waist-high leggings. Finally, the designs in the decorative features of each of these men strongly hint at the use of small "seed-beads" such as are now associated with traditional Indian dress. However, seed-beads were not common among the Nez Perce until the 1850s.

It may be that Paxson's divergences from Lewis's accounts regarding Nez Perce appearance were based on an intimate knowledge of contemporary Indian culture and tradition, indicating that some fashions may have changed by the end of the 19th century. On the other hand, the oppressive treatment of Indian people, including the suppression of time-honored traditions, may have caused his informants to have lost much of their cultural recollections. Or, Paxson may have deliberately created a stylized "Indian" imagery to meet the expectations of his customers and viewers.

With assistance from Rob Collier, Native American Program Coordinator, Travelers Rest State Park.


1. Elliott Coues, ed., History of the Expedition under the Command of Lewis and Clark. . . . 1893 (Reprint, 3 vols., New York: Dover, 1965), 623.

2. Sometimes the journalists' use of wampum, a Northeast Indian loanword, denotes strings of beads used as a status symbol, for ceremonial exchange, or as currency. In this instance the "single shell of the wampum" probably refers to the small (1" to 1.25") "tusk shell" belonging to the order of molluscs called Scaphopods (scaff-o-pods, "shovel foot"). The American tuskshell, Dentalium spp., is a genus which once was plentiful along the Pacific Coast and was similarly valued as standard currency. Those "round bones which look like the joints of a fishes back" (Lewis, August 21, 1805), were also made into collars to be worn around the neck. See "Introduction to the Scaphopoda," http://www.ucmp.berkeley.edu/mollusca/scaphs/scaphopoda.html (accessed February 5, 2005).

3. Coues, op. cit, 3:1016-17. In the original journals this description is found on May 13.

4. American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed., 2000). Noah Webster, A Compendious Dictionary of the English Language (1806).

Funded in part by a grant from the Montana Cultural Trust.