A symbol of peace
Lewis and Clark usually distributed flags at more or less formal councils with the chiefs and headmen of the tribes they encountered—one flag for each tribe or independent band. The council would open with a speech from one of the captains, delivered with the aid of one or more interpreters who spoke the tribe's—or one another's—language, or by their "sign-talker" George Drouillard.1 Afterwards, the Indian leaders discussed among themselves what they understood the white men to have said, then stood one at a time to deliver their individual responses. The captains would wrap up the council with clarifications, reassurances and gifts.
Along with a gift flag to the apparent chief went an array of other presents that were more widely distributed among the headmen and major warriors — peace medals, commissions (paroles), clothing such as the "great Chief" dresses his war chiefs in, and sometimes including tin gorgets.2
The American flag, however, was the principal sign of the expedition's objectives. Indians as far up the Missouri as the Knife River villages clearly understood that. They had already learned the solemn significance of a flag from commercial representatives of the British and Spanish governments. Lewis and Clark's presentation speeches emphasized the American point of view. The purpose of the flag was to publicly announce the tribe's sole allegiance to the "great Chief of the Seventeen great nations of America," and to attest to the tribe's commitment to the doctrines of peaceful coexistence with other tribes as well as with white traders and settlers.
…to the Otos and Missouris.
The first Indian council that Lewis and Clark presided over was with the Otos and Missouris on August 3 and 19, 1804, at Council Bluff. The format and content of the first set a baseline for all future conferences.
More of the usual ancillary tokens were given to "inferior" Chiefs and to several chiefs "made" by the captains, but no more flags.
On the 19th the officers convened a second council and "delivered a Speech, explanitary of the One Sent to this Nation from the Council Bluff." This event was marred by a minor dustup with an Oto warrior named Stargeahunja. The captains gave him a Certificate (a commission, or parole)—a single sheet of paper containing a formal statement of what amounted to a personal contract or treaty with the individual to whom it was issued. It carried the signatures of the captains in behalf of the President, certifying the "sincere and unalterable attachment" of the bearer to his "great Father" as a friend and ally, and declared his amicable disposition to cultivate peace, harmony, and "good neighbourhood" not only with the U.S. but also with all Indian nations. Nicholas Biddle, in his paraphrase of the captains' journals, described the situation: The captains gave
Great Blue Eyes had expected a gift that he could somehow use, or that he could himself admire and proudly show to his family and friends, not a flimsy piece of mysterious, perhaps magical, "paper" covered with scribbles that might—who could tell?—convey evil destinies. Thanks to the tact and restraint on the part of the Grand Chief Little Thief, the forbearance of his warriors, and Great Blue Eyes' timely contrition, all in the face of the captains' stern diplomacy, a showdown was averted. It seem likely, however, that no minds were changed, and that thereafter Little Thief's flag remained just a piece of the white man's cloth covered with the white man's totems.
…to the Yankton Sioux.
The next council was with the Yankton Sioux on August 30-31 near the present site of Gavins Point Dam in South Dakota. On the morning of the 30th the captains finished touching up the speech they had delivered to the Otoes and Missouris,4 and at noon opened the proceedings "under an Oak tree near wher we had a flag flying on a high flag Staff." Although slightly shorter than the first speech, the revision covered substantially the same points, especially the emphasis on "your great Father's flag" as a symbol of intertribal peace and international unity, the assurance of future friendship, and protection from fear and want.
Early the next morning the chiefs Lewis and Clark had "made"—a grand chief named Shake Hand, one second chief, and three of the third rank—addressed their reactions to the captains in turn. The last to speak was Arcawecharchi, The Half Man, who was one of the third chiefs. "I am glad," he said, "my Grand father has…given us a flag large and handsom the Shade of which we can Sit under." What did Half Man's remark imply? Was the gift flag as big as the one waving in the wind above their heads? Or had the captains made a bower of it?5 Or was Arcawecharchi just joking?
…to the Brulé or Teton Sioux.
The third council was with the Teton Sioux, a tribe with enough military power and diplomatic prowess to control trade and traffic on the upper Missouri and its tributaries, and the one tribe above all others that Jefferson wanted Lewis and Clark to befriend, pacify, and enroll in the cause of free commerce. On September 25 the captains "raised a Flagg Staff and formed an orning & Shade on a Sand bar in the Mouth of Teton R to Council under." After lunch the council commenced with a shared smoking ritual, followed by Lewis's written speech, after which Clark offered "Some explinations &c." For three days the Americans and the Sioux alternately courted and cursed one another, and survived a few tense moments on the brink of armed conflict. The Indians' atitudes and conduct were especially mercurial. As far as we know, Lewis wasn't journalling those days, but had he been, he might well have written something along the line of his characterization of the Shoshones nearly a year later as imps of saturn. One moment the Sioux were evidently cheerful, and eager to hear the Americans' needs; the next moment they were insufferably rude.6
The following evening the Grand Chief, Black Buffalo, announced he would hold a council, to which the American travelers were cordially invited. Ten well dressed young men fetched the two captains to the "grand Councl house" on separate "elegant painted buffalo robes," and placed them on "White dressed robes" next to the Chief. About seventy men sat in a semicircle facing the chiefs and guests of honor. A pipe of peace rested on forked sticks above a scattering of swan's down. Nearby was a large fire over which provisions were being cooked. At center was a large quantity of "excellent Buffalo Beif" — about 400 pounds by Clark's estimate — which was the hosts' present to their white visitors.
Three flags were on display in front of the chief — the American flag that the captains had given him the previous day, and two Spanish flags. At first it may have been apparent to the President's envoys that for the Teton Sioux the American flag held no more importance than any other. However, at the conclusion of his solemn speech, Black Buffalo "took in one hand Some of the most Delicate parts of the Dog which as prepared for the feist & made a Sacrifise to the flag." Presumably, the chief was astute enough to direct the honor toward the American flag.
…to the Mandans, Hidatsa, and Arikaras
On October 10 they counciled with the Arikaras. "At 1 oclock the Cheifs all assembled under an orning near the Boat, and under the American Flag," and with Joseph Gravelines as interpreter, the captains "Delivered a Similar Speech to those delivered the Ottoes & Sioux." Immediately thereafter the captains "made three Chiefs, one for each Village and gave them Clothes & flags." On the 29th, with trader René Jusseaume interpreting, they repeated their stock propaganda speech to the largest council yet, consisting of Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara representatives. Nevertheless, as James Ronda has pointed out, "Mandan doubts about American promises were a discordant note in a tune that had played well so far."7
On the other hand, the North West Company trader Alexander Henry (the younger), who visited the Knife River villages in July of 1806, less than a month before Lewis and Clark passed through on their return journey, saw two flags flying, which he was told had been given to Black Cat and another Mandan in the fall of 1804. That the Mandans still held the American flag in high regard is indicated by Henry's report that while he and Charles Chaboillez, the North West Company Factor, were being ferried across the Missouri in a bull-boat, their Indian host "repeately made signs to us to salute the flag by firing our guns; but we did not think proper to comply with his wishes, and pretended we did not comprehend him."
Henry also learned that when Lewis and Clark presented the Big Bellies — Gros Ventres, properly called Hidatsas — with "Silver medals and Flags the same as the Mandanes," the intended recipients rejected them, claiming that
these ornaments had conveyed bad Medicine to them and their children, for it must be observed [wrote Henry] they are exceedingly superstitious, and therefore supposed they could not dispose of those articles better than by giving them to the other natives with whom they are frequently engaged in war, in hope that the ill-luck would be conveyed to them. They were all much disgusted at the high sounding language the American Captains bestowed upon themselves and their own nation, wishing to impress the Indians with an idea of their great power as warriors, and a powerful people that if once exasperated could instantly crush into atoms all the nations of the earth. This manner of proceeding did not agree with these haughty savages; they have too high an opinion of themselves to entertain the least idea of acknowledging any race of people in the universe to be their superior.8
Back among the Mandans on August 16, 1806, Clark recalled his effort to locate one of the headmen who had been absent in the fall of 05. The experience underscored the distrust of Americans that the Mandans had learned in their dealings with John Evans in 1796-97. "In the evening," he wrote,
…to the Assinniboines.
November 13, 1804, was the day the Corps moved into their winter palisade, and the day the Mandan chief Black Cat introduced the captains to an Assiniboin chief and "7 men of note," from Canada. Traditional enemies of the Knife River villagers, they had come with British goods to re-enact the annual "Serimoney of addoption," through which they became temporary "relatives" of the Mandans and could trade with them peacefully, offering British goods to trade. Considering their allegiance to British authority, it would have been inappropriate for Lewis and Clark to treat Chief Chechank and his entourage to a formal council, with the attendant gifts of medals, paroles, uniforms, or flags. But Lewis at least managed to dig up a twist of tobacco and a piece of gold braid to give the visiting Assiniboines as mementos.
…to one Hidatsa chief.
Later that winter, Charbonneau told Clark he had overheard the Hidatsa chief, One Eye, or Le Borgne — for whom the captains had left gifts the previous fall — taunt the Americans, "Saying if we would give our great flag to him he would Come to See us." Early in March, however, he did visit the Fort after all, complaining he had never gotten the gifts, and receiving from Captain Lewis a medal, a gorget, armbands, a shirt, some scarlet cloth, and a flag, "for which he was much pleased." To top off the meeting "2 guns were fired for this Great man." One suspects the captains had their tongues firmly stuffed in their cheeks.
…to the Shoshones.
On the first day that he spent among Sacagawea's people, August 13, 1805, Lewis gave her brother, Chief Cameahwait, a flag for his own band. It was to be understood, he emphasized, as "an emblem of peace among whitemen and now that it had been received by him it was to be respected as the bond of union between us." That bond was honored intermittently by independent traders between 1820 and 1860, but never at all by the U.S. Government. The captains showed exceptional patience and perseverance in conducting their councils with the Shoshones, but the proceedings became so laden with deceptions and empty promises on the American side as to discomfit even the normally self-assured Lewis. He and his small detachment camped and counciled beneath their large flag at the upper Shoshone village for three days toward the end of August. He set the tone for that visit by giving flags to two other Shoshones,9 which the recipients promptly hoisted "on the levil near their lodges." Clark had the last word two days later, just before the expedition left the Shoshones' valley and headed north, and capped off the insincerity and deception that had tainted all of their promises. "I spoke to the Indians on various Subjects," he reported, "endeavoring to impress on theire minds the advantage it would be to them for to Sell us horses and expedite…our journey…that we might return as Soon as possible and winter with them at Some place where there was plenty of buffalow." Clearly, the captains left little of either substance or spirit adhering to the cloth and color of the American flags they gave the Shoshones.
…to the Salish or Flatheads.
Descending the east slope of the Bitterroot Divide on September 4, 1805, the captains and their men were scarcely in presentable shape for an unexpected encounter with four hundred strangers — a part of the Salish nation, whom they mistakenly called Flatheads. The men of the Corps were cold, wet, exhausted and undoubtedly disheveled from their grueling cross-country trek from the Salmon (Lewis's) River valley. The next morning the captains "assembled the Chiefs & warriers and Spoke to them." Once more, they ceremoniously "made 4 Chiefs whome we gave meadels & a few Small articles with Tobacco," but no paroles nor flags. Presumably the captains' discourse was a simplified version of their basic council speech, although, considering the necessity for communicating through a chain of five languages, it is likely they would only have time to hit the high spots. Nevertheless, the results evidently were good, for the encounter with the Corps of Discovery left a positive impression with the Salish that lasted for several decades—until the Treaty of 1855. At that point the fortunes of the Confederated Tribes of the Flathead Nation descended through dishonor and disrespect to utter despair and degradation marked by Chief Charlo's response to taxation in 1876, and his people's permanent withdrawal from their ancestral lands along the Bitterroot River in 1891.
…to the Nez Perce.
On the Clearwater River at the foot of the west slope of the Rockies, Lewis and Clark convened all available leaders of the Nez Perce Indians—the Nimìipuu or Tsoopnitpeloo—on September 23, 1805. They "assembled the principal Men as well as the Chiefs and by Signs informed them where we came from where bound our wish to inculcate peace and good understanding between all the red people &c. which appeared to Satisfy them much." Along with medals and other symbolic gifts, they gave a flag to Twisted Hair and also left one for the "grand Chief," Apash Wyakaikt (also called Wearkkoomt or "flint necklace," whom the captains nicknamed "the bighorn Cheif"), who was away on a raid.
The Corps of Discovery's return to the Nimiipuus' precincts in May of 1806 was a sort of homecoming. On the tenth, Clark met Tunnachemootoolt (Broken Arm) for the first time, under that flag, which was flying near the chief's lodge. A few days earlier, Lewis had "exchanged horses with Chief Wearkkoomt ("Flint Necklace") and gave him a small flag with which he was much gratifyed." The good feelings were mutual.
With the Corps' departure dependent on the progress of snowmelt in the Bitterroot Mountains, there was leisure for both parties to slow their deliberations to a pace that allowed the Nimipu to make decisions in the customary way, and that allowed the Americans to sort out their proposals and responses more effectively. The hit-and-run tactics that Lewis and Clark had used on the Otos, Missouris, and Yankton Sioux, which forced the Indians to rush their judgments, were absent. On the night of May eleventh virtually every square foot of the captains' lodge was occupied by sleeping Indians. The next morning the captains
On the morning of the twelfth, while Captain Clark administered eye wash to a long queue of sufferers from eye problems, Meriwether Lewis stood by while "the Indians held a council among themselves…with rispect to the subjects on which we had spoken to them yesterday. the result we learnt was favourable. they placed confidence in the information they had received and resolved to pusue our advise." After that, reported Lewis, Broken Arm
made a harangue the purport of which was making known the deliberations of their council and impressing the necessity of unanimity among them and a strict attention to the resolutions which had been agreed on in councill; he concluded by inviting all such men as had resolved to abide by the decrees of the council to come and eat and requested such as would not be so bound to shew themselves by not partaking of the feast. I was told by one our men who was present, that there was not a dissenting voice on this great national question, but all swallowed their objections if any they had, very cheerfully with their mush.
after this cerimony was over the Cheifs and considerate men came in a body to where we were seated at a little distance from our tent, and two young men at the instance of the nation, presented us each with a fine horse. we caused the cheifs to be seated and gave them each a flag a pound of powder and fifty balls.
It may have appeared to Lewis and Clark that they had succeeded in fixing the American flag in Nimìipuu minds as a symbol of their allegiance to a new, peaceful way of life, guaranteed by the power and influence of a new nation. Quickly, however, the chiefs announced that they "wished to give an answer" to what the captains had said to them the day before. So, while doctor Clark, "their favorite phisician," ministered to more sick Indians, Lewis observed the chiefs' responses.
The "orrator on this occasion" was the father of Hohots Ilppilp, chief of one of the Nimìipuu bands. The old man's recitation began with the assurance that his people had heard and believed in the whitemen's wish for their peaceful coexistence with their neighbors. During the previous summer they had sent three of their bravest men to the Shoshones to make peace overtures, but the treacherous Shoshones had promptly murdered the friendly mediators. Promptly the Nimìipuu had "satisfyed the blood of their disceased friends" in the fall by killing forty-two of the Shoshones. (Only three months later the captains would learn that the Mandans and Arikaras, despite their promises, had similarly traded measure for measure.) The elder Nimìipuu then declared that his people "valued the lives of their young men too much to wish them to be engaged in war," and that they would thenceforth be friends with the Shoshones, and he acknowledged the captains' invitation to send an emmisary to visit the "great father."
When the old man was through, Lewis "again spoke to them at some length with which they appeared highly gratifyed." Clark soon rejoined him and together the two officers made a gesture that must have had a more positive influence on the Indians' attitudes toward whitemen than flags, or peace medals, or all of their diplomatic words. They "gave a phiol [vial] of eyewater to the Broken Arm, and requested that he would wash the eyes of such as might apply for that purpose, and that when it was exhausted we would replenish the phiol." Understandably, "he was much pleased with this present."
…to the Wanapams, Yakamas, Walulas.
The captains may have preached their doctrine of peace and friendship and bestowed tokens of honor upon a few more of the tribal headmen they met after leaving the Nez Perce, but they gave out only three flags, and those without the usual formalities.
Throughout the 375-mile run from the Clearwater to the Pacific Ocean they had only two relatively positive encounters with Indian tribes. Their extended conversations with the Walulas — the first on October 19, 1805, another on the following April 28-29 — were especially cordial. As Lewis explained it,
Apparently, guarantees of peace and friendship were neither promised nor exacted. The captains gave two minor chiefs some small peace medals, to which the Indians responded with two gift horses. The captains in turn gave them "sundry articles" plus one of Lewis's large pistols. But no flags.
…to the Clatsops and other Chinookians.
The absence of formal councils with any of the tribes they met west of the Rockies other than the Nez Perce may be explained by the fact that the expedition had entered a region where official American political and commercial interests were as yet unclear. The succession of language barriers they encountered was also problematic. Old Toby and his son left them on October 8 when two Nez Perce chiefs, Tetoharsky and Twisted Hair, took his place with the Corps as interpreter-guides. However, they too turned back on October 26 because the open midsummer trade-fair at the Dalles was past, and it was the wrong season to enter Chinookan territory. On the whole, the cause of the captains' indifference and antagonism toward the native nations between the mouth of the Snake River to the mouth of the Columbia may have been the unrelieved immersion in cultural milieus unlike any they had learned to cope with on the Missouri. Symptomatically, Lewis lost the sense of humor that he had previously relied on in bad days, when he had detached himself from crises by summoning his "chapter of accidents," or dismissed the natives as "imps of satan."10
On November 20, 1805, Clark returned from his exploration up the coast from Cape Disappointment, to find Chiefs Comcomly and Chillarlawil with Lewis at Station Camp. They gave each a medal, and to one of them a flag, apparently without inflicting their usual diplomatic exhortation upon the two Chinooks. Of more importance was their first purchase of a robe of sea otter skins, which would serve as tangible proof that they had really reached the Pacific Ocean. Ironically, they paid for their prize, as Clark reported, with "a belt of blue beeds which the Squar — wife of our interpreter Shabono wore around her waste."
In the long run, not one of the flags the explorers gave away — awarded — as tokens of intertribal and international benevolence, with or without full formalities, turned out to serve all of the intended purposes. As they learned on their return trip, even their most likely efforts had already lost momentum. The Nez Perces' purportedly sincere pledges had dissolved into warfare with the Shoshones, in which the Nez Perce were the victors in terms of body counts, 42 to 2. The Mandans similarly had triumphed in a skirmish with the Arikaras. There had been trouble with the Sioux on the middle Missouri, with more strife considered likely. Good intentions and the universal human appeal of peace aside, warfare was still basic to the Indians' way of life. How else could a man prove his worthiness for chieftanship but with battle honors. Superficial political alliances based on promises were relatively pointless, since workable trading policies and economics had been in place all along the Missouri, the Columbia, and in between for countless generations. At best, those red, white and blue banners the Americans left behind were mementos of the white soldiers' mostly fleeting and occasionally intriguing visits. At worst, they augured new and unwelcome conflicts sooner or later to come.
For the men of the Corps of Discovery, their large flag was a symbol of their own heartfelt patriotism, inspired by their fathers' and grandfathers' service in the War of Independence, and invigorated by the solemn, optimistic portent of the exploration they were themselves engaged in. During their boot camp on the River Dubois in the winter of 1803-04, the volunteers who made up the Corps must have begun to understand that they had committed their lives to this momentous enterprise. The few who could not wholeheartedly dedicate themselves to the duty would eventually separate from it by desertion (Moses Reed) or by mutiny (John Newman). The rest soon became a band of brothers in the Shakespearean sense, a prototypical Delta Force in the service of their country. At Fort Mandan on Christmas Day, 1804, Captain Clark "permited 3 Cannon fired, at raising Our flag." Their own patriotic pride must have been the feeling they all wished their flag could arouse and sustain among the Native Nations.
Indian cultures are rich in totemic icons such as the sun, the eagle, the wolf, the bear, and the turtle, which have displayed on or in their dwellings, on their shields and horses, even their own bodies. Their chiefs or shamans keep "medicine bundles" containing objects freighted with superhuman powers. There are sacred pipes, arrows, hats, poles. All of these elements communicate beliefs, identities and territorial claims as strongly as any white man's flag. But the idea of putting them on banners of any sort and holding them up as signs of tribes or nations had no place in their spiritual beliefs nor political systems.
Except for a few isolated instances, Indian tribes did not begin to create flags until the 1950s.11 In 1970 only six Indian nations were known to have flags or seals of their own.12 However, with the passage of the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act of 1975, and the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act in 1988, many tribes had reason to create symbolic representations of their cultural identity and political integrity. By 2003, at least 186 tribes had flags.13 Interestingly, twenty of them employ images of eagles, but in every case the species pictured is clearly the American bald eagle, Haliaeetus leuocephalus, rather than the golden or calumet eagle, Aquila chrysaetos, which in Lewis and Clark's day had from time immemorial been a powerful totem among the Indians of the High Plains.
—Joseph Mussulman, 4/09
1. In August of 1805, as he commenced negotiations with the Shoshone Indians, Lewis expressed his confidence in "Drewyer who understood perfectly the common language of jesticlation or signs which seems to be universally understood by all the Nations we have yet seen. it is true that this language is imperfect and liable to error but is much less so than would be expected. the strong parts of the ideas are seldom mistaken."
2. A gorget was a crescent-shaped badge or necklace often worn by an officer on duty. Lewis and Clark gave gorgets to chiefs to signify equal status between themselves and tribal war-chiefs. In the 15th century, the word gorget denoted a piece of armor protecting the throat. Smyth, Sailor's Word-Book, s.v. "gorget."
3. Noah Webster, in his Compendious Dictionary of the English Language, of 1806, defined the noun "traffick" as "trade, commerce, commodities, wares." Not until about 1825 did the word acquire the common modern sense of "the passage of people or vehicles along routes of transportation."
4. The speech to the Otos and Missouris is in Jackson, Letters, 1:203-08. The newly rediscovered original copy of the speech to the Yankton Sioux, an eleven-page document in Clark's handwriting, came to light in March of 2003 in a donation to the Oklahoma Historical Society from descendants of Chief Big Ax, who was one of the Otos at the council of August 19, 1804 at Calumet Bluff. Under the title, "Captain Meriwether Lewis's speech to the Yankton Sioux, August 30, 1804," it is accessible as a pdf at www.nps.gov/mnrr/planyourvisit/upload/L.pdf
5. "In general, American Indians often believed that a warrior transferred some of his own power into the war symbols he carried. Thus, the physical flag itself could be seen as a source of power." Scot M. Guentner, The American Flag: 1777-1924; Cultural Shifts from Creation to Codification (Madison, New Jersey: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1990), 30.
6. For a detailed analysis of this crucial encounter see James P. Ronda, Lewis and Clark Among the Indians, Bison Books Edition (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2002), 34-38.
7. Ibid., p. 90.
8. Elliott Coues, The Manuscript Journals of Alexander Henry, in New Light on the Early History of the Greater Northwest, 3 vols. (New York: F. P. Harper, 1897), 1:332, 349-50.
9. Only Whitehouse reported these gifts. He also said that Lewis gave a flag to Cameahwait on this date, but that had already occurred on the 13th.
10. The captains may have been suffering from a malaise that early field anthropologists often experienced but seldom acknowledged up through the middle of the 20th century. See Elenore Smith Bowen, Return to Laughter (New York: Harper, 1954).
11. Early in the Civil War, the Confederate government created special flags for use by any of the "Five Civilized Tribes" who agreed to fight for the Confederacy. These were the Cherokees, Chickasaws, Choctaws, Creeks, and Seminoles, the tribes that President Andrew Jackson's government had driven from their eastern lands down the "Trail of Tears" to Oklahoma Territory.
12. Crow, Miccosukee, Navajo, Northern Cheyenne, Oglala Sioux, and Seminole. Whitney Smith, The Flag Book of the United States (New York: William Morrow, 1970), 254-63.
13. Donald T. Healy and Peter J. Orenski, Native American Flags (Norman, Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press, 2003).
Other Sources:Boleslaw Mastai and Marie-Louise D'Otrange, The Stars and the Stripes. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1973.
Milo M.Quaife, Melvin J. Weig, and Roy E. Appleman, The History of the United States Flag. New York: Harper, 1961.
Bob Saindon, "The Flags of the Lewis and Clark Expedition," We Proceeded On, Vol. 7, No. 4, (August, 1981).
Funded in part by a grant from the National Park Service's Challenge Cost Share Program.