Two Views of Warfare

Page 4 of 5

Well here's one more, and then I'll turn to those metaphors. This is on the return journey in 1806. They left Fort Mandan on April 7th, 1805; they've been gone now for more than a year. They returned on August 14th 1806. Lewis is not writing now because he has been recently shot in the buttocks, and he actually says in his journal "that's it for me—I'm not writing any more. I'm done now." So here's Clark:

"Set out at Sunrise and proceeded on. When we were opposite the Minitares Grand Village we Saw a number of the Nativs viewing [us]. We directed the Blunderbuses fired Several times, Soon after we Came too at a Croud of the nativs on the bank opposite the Village of the Shoe Indians . . . at which place I saw the principal Chief of the Little Village of the Menitarre & the principal Chief of the Mah-har-has. those people were extreamly pleased to See us.     the Chief of the little Village of the Menetarias cried most imoderately, I enquired the Cause and was informed it was for the loss of his Son who had been killed latterly by the Blackfoot Indians. after a delay of a fiew minits I proceeded on."

Well here's what's interesting about this. First of all, Clark perceives that the Hidatsa are delighted to see them—which may actually be true. Perhaps the Hidatsa were just surprised that the uncouth strangers had been able to survive the immense journey to the Pacific coast and back. But Clark goes on to say that this chief cried because his son had been killed. The back-story of this episode is that the Hidatsa leadership came to Lewis and Clark in the spring of 1805 at Fort Mandan and said, "every year we go out and raid the Blackfeet and the Shoshone—can we conduct our annual raid, according to your diplomatic instructions? Do you think it's alright?" And Lewis and Clark said, "No, you mustn't ever do that. You must live in peace from now on. No more raids. We're insisting, no more raids." At the time of this exchange, the captains claimed that the Hidatsa reluctantly agreed to abide by their prohibition. Well, as soon as Lewis and Clark left, the usual annual Hidatsa raid took off for western Montana. Lewis and Clark like to think that they're great, powerful, paternalistic representatives of the Great Father, whose every word will help to guide Indians into a more civilized and peaceful way of life. But the evidence suggests that the Indians they met tended to listen to them with a kind of Seinfeld irreverence: yadda, yadda, yadda. Or, to put it less cynically, what Lewis and Clark were actually saying was, "No more war. You must live in peace, and if you live in peace we'll guarantee the peace under the security umbrella of the United States government." But what the native peoples tended to actually hear was, "Whatever the immediate raid you were planning for, say, next Tuesday, don't do that." The Indians heard a kind of very localized prohibition. Apparently they thought, "Well, okay, we'll cancel the next raid." But they didn't think, "We'll cancel raids in perpetuity." And yet as soon as Lewis and Clark were gone they sort of say, "Well, should we really cancel the next raid? No. The next raid is on!" So, there's this wonderful kind of mismatch between Lewis and Clark's pompous certainty that they're reshuffling the West, and the native view that, "well, you don't want to be impolite to them. Maybe we comply a little, for right now . . . but why should we change our lifeway?"

There's a famous moment in North Dakota when a young Hidatsa comes to Lewis and Clark and says, "if we did what you say, how would we get women? Because women only want us if we distinguish ourselves in raids." So okay, if you remove the way that men impress women in this culture, now what? And then they say, "If we did what you demand, how would we get chiefs, because that's also how we determine who belongs to the leadership class." Essentially the Indians are saying, "You know, you're not just talking about war here, you're talking about deconstructing the very social dynamics of our culture. What do you have in mind as a substitute social structure and merit system if we follow your advice?" And Lewis and Clark are—we don't have to blame them—absolutely clueless about what that social revolution would actually mean.

Lewis and Clark see war as Napoleon did, and the native peoples they meet tend to see war as a very, very violent rugby match. For native peoples it's not fixed battle between big armies of massed troops, it's skirmishing of small clusters of people. You can never talk about war as a kind of recreation, but there's a certain element of Indian war on the Northern Plains of this period that the word "war" essentially distorts. Indian war is really something a little bit different. Lewis and Clark can't really understand that. And in fact, they make a famous mistake when there's a skirmish between the Sioux and the Mandan in the winter, and there's a horrible snowstorm, and the Mandan shout across the river that they have this important news, and tell Lewis and Clark that the dastardly Sioux have attacked them. As soon as he hears the news, Clark puts together a large contingent of soldiers and they cross the frozen river over to the Mandan village and say, "alright, let's go chastise those Sioux," and the Mandan say, "well, aren't you blowing this a little out of proportion? It's a snowstorm, and there's no bringing back the dead. We'll wait until spring, and we'll go down and kill a few of them in retaliation. If you want to come with us then you can help us kill a few of them, but we don't want to fight a war in a blizzard." Clark is kind of upset. He's upset because he's embarrassed. He's done this bold thing; he made the big show on behalf of the Great Father, and now the Mandan are rejecting the very security umbrella he has been touting for the last few weeks. So to save face he marches his men around for awhile, just to give them something to justify all of that huff and puff. But the snow is deep and the wind is raw and even Clark soon decides that retaliation can wait until better weather on the northern plains.