Passing Through

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Part 1: Passing Through


I like to think of the time . . . We're looking at 1805 and Lewis and Clark . . . to look at the people as they were at that time. What were the stories the tribe had as far as contact. There are a few stories. Very few. I think the only actual reference that we get in stories from the tribal side is years later, in the 1870s, when Charlo, who was speaking for his people, who were the Bitterroot Salish.

Charlo was the son of Victor, who was the son of the chief who had met Lewis and Clark. Charlo had related what his people had told him, his parents, and that was that they looked at Lewis and Clark as being a light from the east. In other words, they looked at them as something good because that's where the sacred place is to the Salish—to the east, with the sun, because they were sun worshippers in their very old societies. So they looked at [them] as being a light, a good thing. They didn't understand what Lewis and Clark were all about. The exploration—I think they understood that. They understood the passage. To the tribes that was acceptable because these were people that were passing through. They're not going to stay here. They're not going to take up that one commodity that's been a constant fight between the Indian and the non-Indian—land. So they weren't a threat, in that sense. Other stories that I hear . . . One of the things that the Salish always come up with is that when the chief saw these people that were approaching, there were a couple of things that he marked. One—In a sense they looked like warriors, and that had to with York, being black. Oftentimes a warrior coming from or going to a battle paints himself with black. And the reason there even varies within the tribes. Black is a sign of death, or moving into that side, and red's a sign of life. So if he paints himself black or red, then he's looking at two ways of going into this battle, and one way, hopefully, of coming out. But he's accepting what the battle can bring—life or death.

So they saw that, and that added some confusion. But then they had the woman with them, and warrior groups didn't travel with women. And that made a big difference also, because although it was confusion, what the chief used at that time was just common sense: let's wait and see. See what their actions are.

Well, their actions were not the aggressive actions. First of all, a war party's going to try to conceal themselves. They're not going to be out in the open, or on the flat, where you can see them moving freely. And so, he took all those things into consideration—at least this is what you get from the stories—and just determined that these people were not a threat. And of course, there weren't that many of them to begin with.

I'm sure, at that time, even though it's not noted anyplace, there are indications that the Salish had already seen the white man as such, or what they would call a white man—men of other races. They probably have seen them, and they're incorporated in different ways into their history—their oral history. Even to the point of Shining Shirt, who was supposedly a tribal person, but who was wearing that breastplate of the Conquistadors—and therefore picked the name of Shining Shirt —but he was a prophet. But they never really make clear whether he was tribal or not tribal. One assumes he was tribal, but he had this shirt. Well, that shirt came from someplace, and probably out of the Southwest—probably with the Conquistadors.

But in any event, they weren't overly shocked or overly taken by Lewis and Clark because Lewis and Clark did not pose a threat. They were simply passing through, and that was acceptable. So the tribes would treat them as visitors, as friends. In fact, that's the normal tribal concept of treating people back then. It was probably a mistake, a bad habit to keep up, because later when people were coming in, they still looked at them the same way.

"Oh, you're going to visit us?"

"Well, we're going to be here for a short while."

Until the fences appeared, and a shotgun on each fencepost. Then you have a whole different concept of what people are doing to you. But initially, the contact seemed to have been good. Lewis and Clark were wise in the fact that they did things that mark a good man: they were generous, they shared what they had. And the Salish in turn shared food, and whatever they had.

And, of course, Lewis and Clark were interested in those horses, because that was their key to moving on. So the trade goods, and all that stuff that was sort of like an appetizer.