Dubious Legacies

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Six Metaphors in Search of an Epic:


Assessing the Legacy of Lewis and Clark

By Clay S. Jenkinson

NOTE: What follows is a transcript of a lecture by the author, which he delivered in October of 2006 at a symposium on The Legacy of Lewis and Clark at Lewis and Clark College in Portland, Oregon. He had served as a scholar-in-residence at Lewis & Clark College for that institution's observance of the bicentennial, and was the principal scholar in the college's collaboration with Oregon Public Broadcasting that produced the 13-part radio documentary The Unfinished Journey. – Ed.

Topical summary: Defining legacy – A Mandan "winter count" – Knife River villages – Mandan farmers – A symbol of American lifestyle

Legacy is a very slippery sort of term. How do you define the legacy of any historical event? How do you measure it? It's easier to opinionate about legacy than to think about it, and the more you think about it the more difficult it becomes to pin down the legacy of a transient event like the 28-month Lewis and Clark Expedition. Lewis and Clark on average spent fewer than two days with each Indian culture that they met. There were some notable exceptions – the Mandan and Hidatsa in today's North Dakota, the Clatsop and the Chinook on the lower Columbia, the long camp with the Nez Perce on the return journey. But for the most part, Lewis and Clark would meet a tribe, have a day or two or three with it, and move on.

There's a paradox in the way that we think about Lewis and Clark because we examine it two hundred years after the fact when the Expedition has taken on monumental importance as an American saga, as a national origin story, as mythology, and as a part of the American narrative. We know how the story comes out, which is more than Meriwether Lewis or Thomas Jefferson knew at any given moment between May 14, 1804 and September 23, 1806. We know what followed, and we know that we live on lands that Lewis and Clark in some sense helped to open for Anglo-American settlement. That means that we detect a heavy burden of consequence that may not actually constitute historical legacy. Our awareness of consequence encourages us to overload Lewis and Clark with a moral burden that they may not deserve to bear.

Let me just give you one very fascinating example. When I was working on a book on Lewis and Clark in North Dakota, I saw a Mandan winter count. Now, Lewis and Clark spent more time with the Mandan and the Hidatsa than with any other people, and they had their most successful relations with Indians amongst the Mandan and the Hidatsa. According to James Ronda, their best ethnographic work was done in what's now North Dakota. There's a Mandan winter count on a buffalo skin. It's a calendar, it's an ideogrammatic chronology of the Mandan year when Lewis and Clark came through.

There are fifty or sixty icons on this robe: the grassfire, the big buffalo hunt, the skirmish with the Shoshone. And then there's this little tiny icon of bearded white men. That's not how we see it. We want that robe to exhibit a few little perimeter icons of traditional Mandan-Hidatsa activities and then a huge and dramatic depiction of the advent of Lewis and Clark in the center, with the caption, "We're here! And everything is going to change forever now. History has arrived at the Mandan villages." From a native point of view, Lewis and Clark were travelers who came through, spoke somewhat aggressively and pompously in a language that probably didn't get translated very well, and then moved on leaving some material behind – some beads, some sovereignty tokens, some genetic material. But, from a native point of view, in the short term Lewis and Clark were transitory figures – a surprising group of surprising large size that came through and took itself very seriously, and then left, and did not return in the years following the Expedition.

On the return journey Lewis and Clark didn't meet all of the same peoples that they had met on the outward-bound journey. So if you look at the expedition, say, from an Arikara point of view, they spent a couple of days with the Arikara in early October 1804, and then they moved on. And then on the return journey, in August 1806, they stopped for one day with the Arikara. Now the Arikara had good reason to remember Lewis and Clark because Lewis and Clark sent an Arikara chief off to Washington D.C. with the interpreter Joseph Gravelines as one of the delegations Jefferson had requested in his June 20, 1803, instructions. That Arikara chief, Arketarnarshar, or Eagle Feather, didn't come back – he died of natural causes in Washington D.C. So that got the attention of the Arikara in a way that Lewis and Clark wouldn't have under other circumstances. Just how much Eagle Feather's death in D.C. had to do with the hostility of the Arikara to white American visitors in the next generation is hard to assess. We know that as late as the expedition of Prince Maximilian in 18333, the Arikara were still regarded as unswervingly hostile toward Americans and, for that matter, most other white visitors. I'm just trying to ask you to do what James Ronda does so brilliantly, which is to reverse the lens for a moment and think about legacies from a native point of view and to try to dispossess ourselves of the heavy retrospective significance we attach to Lewis and Clark because we're here, and we're commemorating, and we know all that followed.

Figure 1

knife river villages

Lewis and Clark arrived in the Mandan-Hidatsa world on October 26, 1804 (Figure 1). They stayed until April 7, 1805. On November 2 they started to build what they would call Fort Mandan. At this point they were just making preliminary contact with the Mandan people. They hadn't yet really met the Hidatsa people. The whole population of these five villages was about 4,000 people. It was the largest urban center on the Northern Great Plains. It was a North American trade mart located near the geographic center of the continent.

Lewis and Clark were aware of the Mandan and Hidatsa villages from previous travelers' reports. They hadn't planned to winter with the Mandan. They were behind schedule. In fact, they had planned to get all the way to what Clark called the Rock Mountains, but they had fallen behind schedule for lots of interesting reasons. Now they stopped for really one reason only – the river froze. The highway was closed. If you travel on the interstate highways, say, in Wyoming today, you see those gates that go down in a blizzard, and that's it, they close the road. It didn't used to be that way. It used to be that you could go out and perish if you wanted to. But in early November, 1804, the Missouri river closed, the river froze, and one week later Lewis and Clark built Fort Mandan. When the river thawed, when ice broke up in the last days of March, 1805, Lewis and Clark left immediately. The highway was open again.

One of the "gifts" Lewis and Clark carried in their boats was a type of corn mill. President Jefferson was a great agrarian. You can imagine him before the expedition thinking about the symbolic possibility of bestowing corn mills on appropriate Indians. When you meet a promising Indian tribe – Indians who might come around to our way of seeing the world and our way of doing things – give them this corn mill because this is a symbol of sedentary agriculture. There's a little irony in this because of course the Mandan and the Hidatsa were agriculturalists long before Jefferson was born, long before the United States was born. They were North Dakota's first farmers. They had constructed North Dakota's first grain storage facilities underground, and they were so rich that tribes from all over North America came there to trade. Mandan and Hidatsa corn became the basis of their success as economic entrepreneurs on the Northern Great Plains. For Lewis and Clark to give the native world's premier farmers a corn mill is not perhaps the most geopolitically intelligent gesture that they might have made. And you'll see what happens – it's a very interesting story. Clark writes, "a Iron or Steel Corn Mill which we gave to the Mandins, was verry Thankfully recived." That's all we ever learn from Lewis and Clark about the corn mill.